They’re Watching You: How Your Relationship Impacts Your Children

I am a gardener so I sometimes experience the world in terms of flowers. Children are the flowers we ‘plant’ and nurture. How we do that has a considerable effect on how they grow and flourish. The relationship we have with our partner/spouse has a considerable effect on how children learn to deal with others. As you read this, you may recall your own parent’s relationship and its impact on you.

From a very young age, our offspring experience and observe us. We are the most important people to them. They count of us for survival, guidance, teaching and fun.

It is a given that they learn more from what we do than what we preach. Infants are more keenly aware of their surroundings, especially people, than we realized many years ago. When babies are exposed to parental tension, they experience bodily responses, just as young infants often respond to other crying infants by crying too. Parental figures provide their sense of security and can threaten feelings of safety when they are engaged in verbal battle.

As a therapist, taking an initial history, it is important to understand the family “soil” in which a person grew and developed. There are many connections related to the interactions of parents which serves as a blueprint for their children’s future intimate relationships. Just as we see children playing house, feeding or soothing a doll, they are absorbing and reenacting their parent’s ways of behaving with each other. They may shave like daddy, cook like mommy and hug their little ‘spouse’ or yell at them. They may learn to boss or control their playmate or ask what they think or would like to do.

So, no matter what we tell our children about behavior, we influence their belief system by our own behavior.   Do we negotiate respectfully, giving our partner/spouse the time to explain his/her feelings and perspective? Are our children learning to trust, respect and still feel secure even though they disagree with others? Do they see us arrive at compromise with which we can both be comfortable? What are we demonstrating [ie, teaching] about friendship, caring and affection?

As parents, we need to prepare, work and enrich the soil of relationship in which our children can grow and blossom. Just as the above is true for marriages, it is equally, if not more so, for parents who are divorcing. We can demonstrate that even though the love may be gone, to maintain a viable marriage, we can differ, negotiate and compromise to offer a continuation of respectful and civil co-parenting.

Remember, they are watching you.

Kids and Divorce…They Are Never Too Old to Protect

For most couples seeking a divorce or a dissolution of their relationship, children are the primary concern and rightly so. We fall in love, partner or marry, expand the family and then, all too often, problems develop and the end of a partnership or divorce follows. It is the choice of parents and the responsibility of parents to ‘protect’ all children from the fallout of the dissolution of a relationship or divorce and subsequent changes in their lives. As parents, you agonize over custody and parenting time, vacation and holiday schedules, camp, activities etc. Discussions and papers abound, in media, on how to plan for younger children and divorce but often fail to address the impact of divorce on older teen-agers, young adults and, even adult children. It’s so important for parents to be mindful of the needs, concerns and feelings of that population too. As long as we have parents, we are still children, no matter our age in years.

Teen-agers, especially those over sixteen, are often ambivalent about home. They have one foot out the door, preferring to be with their peers, thinking about being more independent, their own romances, learning to drive, contemplating or preparing for college or work and being away from home with no parent to tell them when to sleep, study or set curfews. At the same time, home is also that safe place they have known for all of their years. Parents often complain about their teens’ thinking they know it all while still exhibiting childish behaviors. There can be a lot of testing limits.

Learning about parents separating and/or divorcing can shake teens’ emotional foundation [what they’ve always known or thought] and lead to feelings of loss of control. They have more opinions than younger children and may take to blaming both or one parent, especially if they think, or are told, that just one parent caused the break-up.   They may feel that they have to be in charge, particularly with the parent they feel has been hurt and is not managing well.

It’s important to allow teens to express their feelings, including disappointment and anger. You need to keep the communication door wide open so teens don’t resort to acting out their feelings, with alcohol, drugs, sex, dropping school work and other self-destructive behaviors. Listening to their anger, etc. doesn’t mean that you don’t maintain many of your boundaries and restrictions.  Don’t drop your boundaries because you feel guilty or bad for them, They need to see that life goes on. Teens are especially vulnerable. Being able to do or get away with anything can be just as unsettling to a teen as having too many limits. This is why cooperative co-parenting is so crucial.

 

Many parents believe that their emancipated offspring are completely launched, often with families of their own and, therefore, not affected by their parents’ marital dissolution. Wrong! Once children leave the nest, they are still affected by the breakup of their family unit. As a therapist, I have heard: “I’ve never seen a normal relationship,” “I’ll probably make the same mistake,” “I’ll need to take care of myself because I don’t trust anyone now” and “Why are they doing this to us now.”   Older children worry about their parents, how they will each manage, financially, emotionally, etc., especially the parent who says they did not want the divorce, feeling they need to be protective of that parent and angry with the other…another good reason for parents to be vague about such details.

 

Divorcing parents need to protect all their children from ‘adult information’, even when those children are parents themselves. They need not be placed in the middle and need not be a confidant to either parent. That’s what friends are for! Adult children who become parental confidants are at risk of becoming less secure about the future of their own relationship or marriage. Also, they may need to deal with their children’s feelings and reactions to their grandparents coming apart, particularly if they are close to them and… their own children worrying if that will happen to their parents.

 

Adult children have to alter their ways to remain connected with both parents, more so if parents no longer live near each other. How, if possible, to split or alternate holidays and other visits? Some families are still able to share holidays, grandchildren’s birthdays, graduations, etc. together. Concerns can arise, with older parents. who are divorcing at increasing rates, about how to take care of them, as they age and are living alone. Older adult children may also have reactions to a parent’s new love interest, especially if that is presented during or soon after a divorce.

 

When divorcing, be aware that your coupled or married children are still vulnerable. Here are some guidelines:

 

  • Agree with your partner/spouse to keep certain personal information confidential.
  • Tell your child[ren] calmly and peacefully, together; it sets the tone for “We

are coming apart but are not enemies”.

  • Never ask, or hint, that they need to take sides.
  • Never speak negatively about their other parent or his/her new partner.
  • Have a good support system [friends, family] and let your child[ren] know that.

Take your care of yourself !

  • Be accepting and flexible with their having to divide visits and holidays.
  • Reach out, when possible, to include the other parent in family celebrations, to demonstrate civility and respect and not have to have your children celebrate twice or miss one parent on special occasions.

 

It’s about ‘how you ‘do divorce that determines much of how your children, young, teen-age or adult children will fare. The work is not easy but the rewards are so well worth it!

Divorce: The Leaver and the “Left”

       For the majority of couples who come apart or divorce, to say it is a ‘trying time’ is to put it mildly. There is a loss of the hopes and dreams that most of us have when we embark on such unions, compounded by the reality that has evolved.

When one partner/spouse is convinced that their relationship is no longer viable and needs to be out of it, the partner/spouse doesn’t have a choice. What’s important, for both, is to realize that they are not in sync with their thoughts and feelings. Each person needs to understand the other in order to be able to part in a respectful manner, particularly when there are children involved.

The ‘leaver’ has made the decision that it is necessary to come apart, most often after experiencing sadness, anger, hopelessness, etc. about their situation. Most people don’t elect to take such steps lightly or quickly. They mentally slog through the disagreements, disappointments, and considerable differences between them. Both adults go through the five stages akin to having and accepting a terminal illness:

  1. denial…feeling this can’t be happening to us, it’s unreal.
  2. depression…any changes in eating, sleeping, energy level.
  3. anger…impatience and resentment of their partner and why can’t they change?
  4. negotiation…acknowledging the need for change and how to achieve it.
  5. acceptance…we will be coming apart.

The leaver needs to realize is that their partner, who may not feel the same way about their relationship [or may, but not conclude that coming apart is the best or only solution] has time to adjust and will need to go through the same stages. The stages are generally experienced in the order listed above although people often shift back and forward, particularly in the beginning phases. It helps when the leaver understands his/her partner/’s/spouse’s need for going through that process and presents his/her wishes gently, clearly stating the reasons for the decision and then being patient for his/her partner to catch up or, at least, be accepting to come apart.  Doing this can facilitate a somewhat less emotional and more civil dissolution of the relationship or marriage, which is important to the couple and how they each move on but even so much more essential when there are children.

The person who doesn’t want to end the relationship, for a multitude of possible reasons, is thrust into the first phase listed above. “This can’t be happening! ” “I knew we had problems but…not this!” “How can you do this to me [and the children] ? ”  That partner/spouse usually experiences deep sadness once the reality settles in. Everyone’s coping mechanisms vary in how this and all of the phases present. Once anger is boils up in the ‘left’ partner/spouse s/he frequently resents that their partner/spouse is doing so well and this is “easy for them”, not realizing that the leaver has, most often, suffered through the same feelings before and is just ahead of them. If that can be sincerely explained it can ameliorate a negative reaction. When there isn’t counter blaming or accusations, there can be an less traumatic coming to terms with the situation and negotiating. Then, acceptance can progress.

When in a relationship, it is always beneficial to mentally step into the other person’s shoes to imagine how they think and feel rather than getting stuck in our own perspective of things. When a relationship not working or the relationship is ending, it’s even more vital.

Children and Stress

children and stressChildren and Stress

Children, like adults, are  familiar  with the discomfort of anxiety, even though they don’t need to worry about earning a living, paying bills, dealing with health issues, etc.  They, too, are confronted with the uncomfortable feelings of tension.

There are three categories of  stressful events which affect children:

*   Environmental or developmental events, such as toilet training, beginning school, learning and becoming more responsible for oneself.
*   Disturbing events include illness, accidents or death of a relative or new events such as the birth of a sibling, moving to a new house, a new school or a first camp experience.
*   Major stressful  events are hospitalization for a chronic illness or surgery, a disabling accident, separation and divorce, family violence or the death of a parent or sibling.

children suffering from stress anxiety

Although many think of stress as a negative, it’s important to remember that it can help a child develop good coping mechanisms for future emotional discomfort, therefore strengthening character.  Children’s reactions to stress vary, depending on the reasons for the stress, the child’s personality and a variety of social, psychological cultural and developmental factors. Temporary behavioral problems may arise when a child can’t cope with a child behavior problemssituation at hand.  For young children, temper tantrums, excessive clinging or fears. nightmares, bedwetting or a new reluctance to attend school may occur.  How adults react to these symptoms may dictate whether the distress is temporary or becomes chronic. We parents constitute the alter ego of our young ones.  We can help them to understand an experience and separate reality from the fantasies (young children often engage in ‘ magical thinking’ ) which can diminish anxiety.

Here are some ways to help your young child cope:

*   Become aware of how children think, feel and react at different stages of growth and development.  You’ll know what kinds of experiences can  be traumatic and be better equipped to assist.
*   Be honest and open, as possible,  when discussing a traumatic event to help your child build a sense of trust and strengthen your relationship.
*   Develop your children’s coping skills by offering information and talking with them in [age appropriate] advance.
*   If your child is struggling, talk about the problem in small doses to make it more manageable.  Provide facts and observe reactions.
*   If considerable anxiety or behavioral changes persist, consider consulting a mental health professional.

Children are wonderfully resilient but caring, understanding parental support is a crucial asset for learning how to manage life.

Keeping Peace During The Holidays

Keeping Peace During The Holidays

depressed childDoes anticipation of the coming holidays have you stressed – gifts to buy, people to invite, meals to make, in addition to your already busy daily schedule?  First, enjoy a slow, long, deep breath and then, keep reading.
The frenzy of festivities for adults inevitably trickles down to children.  They sense tension (if not the reason for it) and react.  Children are creatures of habit and find comfort in the security of routine….knowing what comes next.  It gives them some sense of control, which is something they don’t yet have, in general.  As holiday preparations interfere with parents’ usual routines and their stress level increases, and patience decreases, children may show signs of distress,  becoming more clingy, needy, cranky or combative.  They may present problems with activities that they normally do with relative ease.  Bedtime, waking up, going to school or their play may be affected.
If you observe any of the above, or other changes, in your child’s behavior lately, you might want to consider a quick self-check.   Are you feeling overwhelmed by adult responsibilities?  Do you have less time to play or talk with your children?  Do you feel less patient when they are not being angels?  Relax.
Your first step is to help yourself.  [Think of what they tell us on airplanes.  Put your own oxygen mask on first!]  You need to summon your support system – spouse, parents, family, friends – to lighten your load.  See if you can organize your time better, eliminating the frills for a while.  Only do what is most important;  some tasks and chores can wait until after the holidays.  A babysitter, even a young one who can occupy the children while you are at home, can offer some breathing space.  Keeping as many of the routines that your children are attached to helps keep them grounded.
Children are often the most problematic when you really need to get something done.  Spending ten or fifteen minutes with them (a story, game or simple project that they can continue with themselves) should allow you to return to your chore more peacefully.  If what you are doing is something they can participate in (making cookies, etc.), even at a very simple level, they feel important and may actually be helpful.  Even clean-up can be done together if it’s presented as fun (“see if you can beat the clock”, etc.).  It’s easier to do if there’s a promise of  something special to follow. [“If we can finish this chore quicker, we’ll have more time to read a book together”]
Young children can feel overwhelmed by the level of activity  –  crowds of people, having to sit on Santa’s lap, worrying about Santa and all those reindeer on the roof, having to kiss  or be adorable for scores of relatives and friends.  What we take for granted or fun can be stressful to a child, depending on their personality and age.  Taking a few moments to listen or observe your child, especially if they are not yet verbal (or inclined) to express their feelings, can save a lot of time and energy.
The spirit of the season will be remembered, in the long run, not necessarily the number of presents or events attended.  Feeling safe and secure in a loving family ignites the spark of the warm glow we feel when we think of the holidays.   Enjoy !

Single Parents in Stepfamilies

While members of blended families are concerned with dancing to different tunes and not stepping on each other’s toes, there is another member of the stepfamily, who may appear, to some, as the wallflower (male or female) – the single parent who doesn’t have a Significant Other.  In fact, many single parents don’t even think of themselves as part of a stepfamily but they are.
The single parent may be hotly debated as an object of envy or derision by the stepparent and/or the former spouse.  On the other hand, s/he could also be considered a relief pitcher who can take the kids when things seem too unwieldy or an emergent problem arises.  That same single parent can be a wonderful source of information.  S/he may provide new historical perspectives to a stepparent about the children’s development and past experiences that the former spouse may have forgotten,  not noticed or not deemed important.  In good post-divorce situations, single parents can provide reinforcement for specialized study plans, behavioral guidelines, etc.  Lastly, but crucial, never doubt  that the single parent also has the love and allegiance of his/her offspring.   Both parents are role models.  Children should be able to feel good about both parents in order to develop and mature more fully and feel positive about themselves.
Single parents have their own perspectives about their position in the stepfamily.  Some feel woefully out of the loop, somewhat of a “lonely only”, especially when their children are at the other home.  Isolation or a sense of loss may occur when one’s former spouse has children with a new partner.  If your self-esteem is shaky, it may seem as if the other household has more to offer, teeming with life.  As a discouraged, newly single mother reflected, “There’s more joy around the holiday table in numbers.  Our  meal is so quiet.”  It doesn’t have to be that way. You could  invite friends and relatives but also keep in mind  that a smaller grouping can allow for more intimacy and sharing.
The single parent, not residing with family, has to do it all alone. There is no one else to share the household chores and parenting responsibilities at home. There may be no no one to fall back on at home, when s/he is not feeling well, has to bring work home from the office or is going to be late.  Be sure to develop reliable backups. When family is not close by, some people connect with others in the same situation and form a coop for such exigencies.   On the other hand, when you are the only parent at home, there is no compromise needed when making certain parental decisions.
Discomfort may arise from a number of sources for a single parent.  Some feel that s/he has less bearing in the community because that household is not a complete family with two adults. If a single parent is dating, s/he may be viewed by others as being less able to  provide a stable household.  There are the vagaries of reentering the world of dating, with children;  sometimes married friends drift away and/or maintain social contact with one’s former spouse (this occurs more frequently when former spouses are still battling and their friends don’t want to be in the middle).  Single mothers, in particular, find themselves dropped from couple-oriented social get-togethers and feel relegated to seeing their married friends, usually, the wives, at lunch.  Older, single mothers commiserate about being older, single women in a youth-oriented society.  Feelings about this social sitation may be intensified by having had a former spouse who left for or married a younger woman.  Remember. in today’s world, one is never too old.
Single parents  may have to deal with a “two against one” mentality when trying to settle parenting disagreements with a former spouse and their new partner. They  might feel that someone else, who is not even their child’s parent, can now ‘outvote’ them.  This predicament occurs more frequently when the children are in agreement, on some issues,  with the other household’s parents.  One can imagine when this sort of standoff might arise…”Daddy and Anne say I can stay out all night for the prom,”etc.  Maintaining a good, working co-parenting relationship with your former spouse cuts down on children’s manipulations, which is a natural phenomenon.
Being single and going alone can be uncomfortable at public events when both sides of the family are likely to attend.  Situations arise at school functions, such as  sports events, parent conferences, graduations and recitals. Family gatherings may be even more awkward because they are usually smaller and more intimate. Religious rites of passge, birthday parties, weddings, having grandchildren and celebrating other special moments can be a challenge to one’s resilience, maturity and dedication to one’s children.  Working things through with a former spouse is a relief to everyone, on these occasions, and a special gift to your children.  You, too, will likely feel more at ease.  Maintaining your own support system is invaluable.
After a second divorce, different issues may arise for divorced parents who are both single again. Each parent may have renewed feelings about the romantic life of the other, although this situation can also occur with two remarried spouses as well.  It is useful to understand the source of such feelings to get past them.  Sometimes it may seem more permissible to intervene in what goes on at a former spouse’s house when there is not a new partner. Sometimes the war continues to be waged on two battlefields….not a good situation.Having two single parents again, as a result of a second divorce, presents other problems.  It is especially difficult for only children and those whose parents go through multiple divorces. With no full-time partner to distract and absorb them, some parents seek emotional gratification from their children, instead of other adults.  ALL parents, married or divorced, need to adapt to a new level of ‘separation’ as children mature.
It’s important for single parents in stepfamilies to prepare for a new lifestyle.  Much of the fortitude needed comes from within; a healthy self-esteem goes a long way.  The more you value yourself and feel competent, the more you feel entitled to happiness.  Developing a good self-image which goes beyond one’s role in the family (such as friends, work, hobbies,)  can fill in some of the gaps left by a former spouse. In most healthy marriages, each spouse still enjoys a separate identity.  When we feel reasonably good within ourselves, we are in a better position to utilize outside supports wisely.  If this is not your profile, a therapist can often useful, particularly one who is experienced in working with stepfamilies. Family, friends and work can all be part of the healing process involved in feeling alone in a seemingly coupled world. Knowing or meeting others in a similar situation adds immeasurably to remembering that you are not alone. Support groups and workshops are an excellent solution to meeting others who”know what you are talking about”. There are many avenues to be single, but not alone.  It’s worth taking a stroll !

Two Homes, One Family

Two Homes, One Family The holidays are over and somehow you got through them because you didn’t want to spoil it for the whole family. But, you believe that divorce is the only answer at this point. You don’t feel that you can continue as a family, in one house, but still hope to be a family, in two houses. Your children are young, impressionable and need two parents. You don’t want to go through a custody battle, evaluations, etc. and want to continue to have more of a voice in parenting, without the negatives that some of your friends or family members have experienced in getting their divorces. There is an answer – Collaborative Divorce. With this method, your attorneys, both collaboratively trained, are committed to helping people get divorced, out of Court and the public record, in a non-contentious environment. Collaborative attorneys work together for the benefit of the couple, or family if there are children. Although each lawyer advocates for his/her client, he or she does so in an open and cooperative manner. The result is that you can each walk away from the marriage knowing that not taking a “battle” approach allows you both to move on, feeling better about your spouse and yourself, which is invaluable when you have children of any age. A number of Collaborative attorneys work with a team, which handles, as needed, the emotionally charged aspects of divorce. Specifically trained and licensed mental health practitioners function in two ways, as a Divorce Coach or a Child Specialist. These professionals free the lawyers to do what they are best trained to do and also offer their clients additional services, often needed during divorce, at less than attorney rates. Divorce Coaches help their clients overcome any emotional obstacles (which can result in less attorney time) and offers them better ways of coping,which is so crucial during the divorce experience, and, useful for a lifetime. They do not serve as therapists in this role but can refer to another therapist, if indicated. Although a client may already be in therapy, the work of a Divorce Coach is different. It is brief and focused on the present, getting you through the divorce with your dignity intact. Many therapists are not trained in this kind of coaching and would not, ethically, be able to fill both roles anyway. We are ethically bound to not ‘wear two hats’. Therapy is a totally confidential process and divorce coaching involves sharing pertinent information only with the Collaborative team. Outside of the team, all information is confidential. When a couple has children, the manner in which they divorce sends a powerful message . The most important factor in a child’s future emotional development is how well their parents continue to co-parent during and after the divorce. The Child Specialist is another team role filled by a mental health practitioner. S/he is the only member of the team to meet the child(ren) and becomes the ‘voice’ of the child(ren). Children are not always forthright with their parents, at this time, for fear of hurting their feelings, upsetting them further, etc. When parents are not able to agree about the children, the Child Specialist, trained in child development, family relations, parent education, communication skills and marital transitions, helps parents come to agreements about each child’s specific needs. The goal is to assist parents in helping their children adapt and move forward, in the best way possible, during and after the divorce. The Child Specialist can be available, following divorce, if there are issues, with children, related to the divorce. It IS possible to have one family in two homes – when parents learn how to effect that, there are long-term benefits for each family member.

The Hardest Job In The World

If you want to drive a car, you have to take a course or read an informational booklet and pass a driving test,  In order to do many jobs, training and/or study is  a requirement.  Often, it seems that only parenthood requires no training or prerequisites and, most parents would agree, it is the most difficult and the most important ‘job’ of all ! How are we to know that what we are doing is right?
We are, in way, training (to be a parent) from the day we are born.  The experiences that we have with our own parents play an important role in the way we parent our own children. Think about it….the ways you communicate, express anger, love, disappointment, etc.  You will likely recognize some similarities in the way you were parented.  Some families express love with hugs and kisses, words of endearment or encouragement, others with gifts –  some people are not so comfortable with physical affections or words of praise.  Anger may be freely discharged (and then forgotten about) in one household and utterly shunned in another. How did your parents allow you to express your anger as a child?  Were you “seen but not heard” or could you vent your frustrations, and, in what ways?  A parent who was not allowed to express his/her own opinions as a child may have difficulty permitting his/her own child to do so.  Or, he/she may go to the other extreme (to NOT do what his/her parent did) by  allowing a child limitless expression.  All of the above constitutes our informal and, largely unconscious, job training for parenthood. How many times have you said, or done things, you vowed you would never do (because your parents did) ?  That is how deeply  some of these feelings, thoughts and actions are imbedded.
There are other opportunities for honing parenting skills, especially if you don’t come by them naturally (ie, by familial ‘osmosis’).  Our parents, or grandparents, had Dr. Spock to run to if they had questions. Today, we have almost an embarrassment of riches in resource materials.  Any good website or bookstore has a wealth of information, begininning with pregnancy, delivery, nursing, etc., to problems with sleep, toileting, and sibling rivalry, all the way through helping children get into college. Your first difficult decision may be which book or site to choose!  Take some  time and plan to explore a few. Determine which information is organized in a reader friendly way; for example, chapters that are clearly defined so you can find what you are looking for quickly without having to read the whole book if you are short on time.  See if the writer’s style and philosophy of childrearing is something you and your family are comfortable with and can manage.
Another important and pleasurable way to gain knowledge is to vicariously experience parenting through family, friends and groups. Talking with others offers  a wonderful opportunity to stretch yourself.  You can learn what might be in your future as you listen to others talk about their  child(ren) who is older than yours.  There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to parent. Each family is unique, as is each  family member. When you have gathered a variety of possible responses, you can choose  from an array of solutions that might better suit the personalities in your household.
And, that’s just the beginning.  When you have ‘launched’ your children, be prepared to be open on learning  how to grandparent!