Hurricane Waters - Children Experiencing Divorce
When a child learns that his parents are no longer going to be married, nor live together in the same home, the steady ground beneath his feet shifts in one incomprehensible moment. Terrifying thoughts and unbridled emotions rush in like the furor of an ocean. Parents are heartbroken to see their child heartbroken and yet are consumed by their own heartbreak at the same time. As the reality sinks in, the child feels more and more powerless to change the direction of this turbulent course or have any influence on its unknowable outcome. Thrust forth into these raging waters, the child feels completely unmoored and unsafe.
Parents feel equally un-tethered. But unlike their child, they have had time to prepare to fight this fight. Their life-changing decision was not made overnight. Parents have had time to think about it, feel it, plan for it and at least partially accept it. For good or ill, they have become invested in seeing this decision through. The child, however, has none of this psychological preparation-- nor does he have any such investment. For the child, this event literally does happen overnight. It is neither his decision nor choice; nevertheless, he is asked to accept the unthinkable consequences and continue to go forward with life. The challenge for parents is to make sure their child never has the same investment in this decision as they do. That is to say, the child should not have to share the feelings of either one of his parents and especially not at the expense of the other. Usually, at the outset, parents are gentle and thoughtful about how best to proceed “in front of the children.” But sadly, and inevitably, as the stakes get higher and the tension between spouses escalates, it becomes the challenge of a lifetime not to implicate the child in the conflict.
In a negative parenting scenario, a parent is often comforted when his/her child is allied with his/her and assumes his perspective. It eases the guilt for a parent to feel justified in her decision in the eyes of her child, but it heightens the guilt for the child. This is the point at which the child unknowingly becomes “invested” in one or the other parent because he has been influenced by the words and actions around him. And actions can be subtle-- as any angry spouse can attest. The child is now making a choice he never wanted to make. He is drawn in by the parent who cannot refrain from villainizing the other to secure the loyalty of the child.
A positive parent scenario is one in which the parent creates a world the child can imagine inhabiting after learning the two most important people in his or her life no longer love each other. Giving a child a vision about what he can hope for under these new circumstances begins with creating a vivid sense of the positive character of the other parent. (“Did your Mom teach you how to make that sauce? She’s a great cook.” or “You get that from your Dad, he’s always helping out the underdog.”) It is a world where kindness is still a living, breathing behavior and conflict is resolved in a way that is comforting and predictable. The grounding underfoot can be reset if the parents behave in ways that are everlasting in their value. This means that the child can observe and participate in a painful and difficult situation and still learn timeless lessons about how one weathers a storm-- or in this case--a tsunami, with dignity for oneself and respect for the other person. A child can learn the opposite of hostility, toxic anger, manipulation, criticism and sarcasm if the parent replaces it with patience, speaking well of the other, respecting the other, withholding mean-spirited words even when it’s difficult, and most importantly, disengaging when it is necessary. All are life lessons that will continue to serve the wellbeing of the child throughout his life.
A divorce is a life-changing event that can be devastating and have lifelong consequences for a child. It requires each parent to “reach deep” to find the rich opportunities for personal growth, and for evolved behavior toward the other spouse. Modeling this behavior for a child is the one gift parents can give while so much else is being taken away. If parents grow—the child grows. If parents find the discipline of self to overcome impulsive negative behavior--so goes the child. Whatever emotional environment the parents choose to create will be what the child takes with him into the adult world. Parents must see to it that they rise with the hurricane waters and carry their child to a safe shore, where no parent has been sacrificed to order to get there.