Category Archives: Divorce

Ten Tips for Parenting through Divorce

In a previous post today there was a mention of a Tip Sheet for Parenting through Divorce and one astute blog reader noticed and asked about it . . . and so here it is. It’s also excerpted from the book “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.”

Ten Tips for Parenting through Divorce

To parent well through divorce and into the future, you should educate yourself about the unique challenges you’re likely to face and how to manage them. The following short list is a beginning. Additional resources are listed in Appendix A.

 
1. Make a commitment to good self-care. There are two big reasons why this is good advice. First, divorce is emotionally painful and stressful. If you don’t take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you may suffer. Second, if you’re suffering, your children will suffer right along with you.

2. Cultivate a support system for your children. You can’t do it all. Therefore, when you’re feeling exhausted your children will need other healthy adults with whom they can spend time. Identify who these adults are and ask them for help and support.

3. Listen to your children, even when it’s hard. Your children may or may not want to talk about the divorce or their feelings. In most cases, they’ll suddenly become angry, irritable, or sad and possibly direct those feelings at you. If so, listen and comfort, even if what they’re saying is hard to hear.

4. Set limits for your children. Sometimes during and after a divorce parents will start letting their children do whatever they want. This isn’t healthy. Children need limits; they need you to be a firm and loving parent.

5. Work on communicating respectfully with your child’s other parent. Practice positive communication skills. It can also help to change your language and not call your former spouse, “My ex,” but instead, “My daughter’s father” or “My son’s mother.” See Ricci’s book, Mom’s house, Dad’s house, for more information on this.

6. Develop smooth transitions from one home to another. Child exchanges can be traumatic for everyone. Having a regular and positive routine when you get your children ready to go to their other home can help. Also, avoid conflicts with the other parent during child exchanges. Exposing your child to parent–parent conflict is very unhealthy. Consider finding an outside person to help you establish a positive exchange.

7. Set limits with your child’s other parent. Consider establishing guidelines for parent–parent meetings. Don’t meet for long hours alone or make yourself spontaneously available anytime the other parent wants to talk. Instead, set up official meetings at a safe and pleasant (but not intimate) location.

8. Educate yourself. Consider taking a class or reading a book or watching an educational DVD on divorce and shared parenting.

9. Educate yourself II. Consult with legal and mental-health professionals as appropriate. Neither legal or mental health professionals should be used in an effort to manipulate or punish the other parent or the children.

10. Embark on a healthy new life. Give your child’s mom or dad privacy and maintain your own. Encourage your children to have good times with the other parent (never make your children feel guilty about having a good time with their mom or dad). Establish new family rituals to help you and your children adjust to your new lives.

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Parenting Consultations with Divorced, Divorcing, and Never-Married Parents

Working with parents who are divorced, divorcing, or living separately can be both challenging and gratifying. In this excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” we discuss some key issues and provide a case example. The main purpose of this post is to stimulate your thinking about working with this unique and interesting population of parents.

Here’s the excerpt:

Divorce will probably always be a controversial and conflict-laden issue within our society. In part, this is due to moral issues associated with divorce, but it is also due to the many knotty practical issues divorced parents frequently face.

Divorce Polemics

Divorce and single-parenting choices still carry stigma and so parents will be monitoring for any judgments you might have about them. You may have very strong opinions about divorce or about people choosing to adopt or bear children while single. If this is something you can’t put aside and be nonjudgmental about, it’s best to put your views in your informed consent so parents know this explicitly about your practice. In most cases, professionals have values and beliefs they can keep in check while working directly with people who make choices far different than the professional might have made. For instance, you might firmly believe that all children should be born into a two-parent family with parents who are married and committed to the family, but you might still be able to be very helpful to a single gay parent who adopted a 10-year-old disabled foster child.

Because they’ve sometimes faced moral and religious judgments, divorced, divorcing, and never-married parents have substantial needs for support and education. Consequently, you should prepare yourself to provide that education and support. Their parenting challenges can be particularly acute and confusing.

The issue for practitioners working with parents is to avoid laying blame and guilt on parents for divorcing (generally, they already feel guilty about how their divorce might be affecting their children). Instead, your role is to help divorced, divorcing, or never-married parents manage their difficult parenting situations more effectively. What we need to offer is (1) emotional support for divorce- and post-divorce-related stress and conflict; and (2) clear information on specific behaviors parents can engage in or avoid to help their children adjust to divorce.

Providing Support and Educational Information
Most divorcing and recently divorced parents are in substantial distress and so parents and need comfort, support, and information. Consequently, we recommend talking with parents about divorce in a way that’s empathic and educational. In the following case, a father with three children has come for help in planning to tell the children. His children are 4, 6, and 8 years old.

         Case: Talking about Divorce

PARENT: I’m really worried about how to talk with my kids about the divorce. I can’t get the right words around it. I know I’m supposed to say something reassuring like, “Your mom and I love each other, but it just hasn’t worked out and so that’s why I’m moving out because it will be best for us to live separately.” But then I worry that maybe my kids will think even though I love them now, it might not “work out” either and then I’ll end up leaving them, too.

CONSULTANT: This is tough. I respect how much thought you’ve given this. Even though the differences between you and your wife make it too hard to live together, it’s extremely hard to leave the home and torturous to talk with your kids about it.

PARENT: That’s for sure.

CONSULTANT: I can see you love your children very much and it feels really important to talk with them about the upcoming divorce using words that won’t scare them too much and that will help them know you and your wife tried, but you have now decided that the divorce is for the best. But before we do that, I have a different piece of advice.

PARENT: What’s that?

CONSULTANT: You should plan to have more than one divorce talk with your kids. I know you want to do this right and that’s great. But the good news and the bad news is that you’ll need to have this conversation many times. As your children grow older, they’ll have different questions. It’s your job to tell them you love them and to explain things in words they’ll understand, but not to tell them too much. There’s no guarantee they’ll understand this perfectly and so it may relieve pressure for you to know you’ll get other chances. Some people like to think of it like having a sex-talk. Kids will have different questions about sex at different ages and so parents shouldn’t have just one sex-talk. You need to be ready to have a sex-talk at any time as your child is growing up. The same is true for talks about divorce. You need to be ready to talk about it now and whenever your kids or you need to talk in the future. I’ve got a great tip sheet for parents going through divorce and I’d like to go over that with you, too. [See Appendix B, Tip Sheet 10: Ten Tips for Parenting through Divorce.]

In this situation, the family’s educational needs are significant, so the practitioner will probably offer the father a tip sheet, additional reading materials, and a recommendation to attend a group class on divorce and shared parenting.

It can be difficult for divorcing parents to talk with their children without blaming the other parent. This can be either blatant or subtle. We recall one parent who insisted he had the right to call his former spouse “The Whore” in front of the children “because it was the truth.” In these extreme cases, we’ve used radical acceptance to listen empathically to the emotional pain underlying this extreme perspective and then slowly and gently help the parent to understand that “telling the truth” to the children should focus on telling your personal truth and not on the other parent’s behavior. Although it can be difficult for divorced or divorcing parents to hear educational messages over the din of their emotional pain, it’s the practitioner’s job to empathically and patiently deliver the message. Usually divorced and divorcing parents eventually see that criticizing or blaming the other parent can be damaging to their children.

More information on this and other topics related to working with parents is available on this blogsite (see the Tip Sheets) and in the “How to Listen so Parents can Talk” book.

See: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1403469599&sr=1-9

 

The Love Reframe

 

Years ago I had the privilege and challenge of teaching a class for divorced parents through Families First in Missoula. About half of the dozen or so participants were mandated to attend. This made for an initially less-than-pleasant opening mood. As I went around the room doing introductions, I came to a man who looked a bit snarly. He announced his name and then said, “But I don’t need no stupid-ass parenting class. The only reason I’m here is because the Judge told me that if I didn’t come, I’d be forced to have supervised visits with my 12 year-old daughter. I’m here, but I don’t need this stupid-ass class.”

 

This was a difficult moment and perhaps because I’m a man, complete with a pesky “Y” chromosome, I was tempted to get into an instant pissing match right there. I felt an urge to say something like, “Well, you may not think you need this class, but apparently the Judge does and so you’d better watch how you talk in here!” Instead, somewhat to my surprise, the following words came into my mind and then out of my mouth, “Well, let me especially thank you for coming because you must really love your daughter to be willing to attend this class.”

 

As the 6 hour marathon class progressed, the snarly man settled in. He was never really pleasant, but he contributed to discussions and politely got in line at the end of class to receive his signed certificate. When I handed him the certificate, I said something like, “Hey, you know you should frame this certificate and put it on your wall at home.”

 

A few weeks after the class I got a call from the guy who didn’t need a stupid-ass parenting class. He sounded different and immediately apologized for “being a jerk in class.” Then he told me in a cracking voice that he’d taken my advice and hung the class certificate on his wall. And then it was clear he was crying when he said, “My daughter came over for an unsupervised visit and when she saw that certificate on the wall, she turned around and gave me this big old hug and said, Daddy, I am so proud of you!”

 

This experience and others like it taught me an important lesson about parents in general and fathers in particular. I’ve learned that underneath the bluster of some irritable and difficult dads there are men who desperately love their children. If we tap this potential, good things can happen.

Thoughts on Sharing Parental Power

The following parenting strategy is an excerpt adapted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328919870&sr=8-1). As with all techniques, this is just a tool and it may or may not fit with your personal family situation.

Give Information—Then Back Off

Most parents, at least initially, feel drawn toward actively and directly teaching life lessons to children. After all, as adults, we have far more accumulated wisdom than children and therefore it makes perfect sense to tell them what decisions they should make and warn them of potential life dangers. Many parents also use direct power strategies of lecturing, criticism, praise, and advice-giving to teach their children important life lessons. Unfortunately, life lessons based on direct power are often ineffective.  This is likely true because, as Carl Rogers might say, children are more interested in learning about life based on their own experiences rather than learning indirectly from parental lectures.

Praise, punishment, lectures, advice, and criticism are external means of influence (Glasser, 2002). When talking with parents, we usually emphasize that praise and punishment strategies involve “outside-in” or external learning. Punishment is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something wrong; praise is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something right.

All learning is partially outside-in and partially inside-out. Children can learn from what others say (often through praise and punishment) and they can learn from their own judgments of their own direct experiences. Generally, children’s developmental issues (e.g., individuation, identity formation) make it desirable for parents to intentionally use inside-out learning strategies with their children, at least some of the time.

Inside-out learning emphasizes personal experience and judgment rather than judgments imposed by others. Most parents agree that, although they want their children to be open and sensitive to others’ opinions, they want their children to have an internal sense of direction and integrity even more. Unfortunately, using direct power to tell children what to think often backfires.  Some children oppose their parents simply for the sake of opposing their parents. In these cases, children seem to gain a sense of identity through opposition or rebellion instead of learning to personally reflect on their experiences and then consciously choose their own behaviors.

Troy’s Three Choices

Troy, a teenage boy, came for counseling. Troy was in conflict with his parents about his relationship with his girlfriend. His parents were concerned and had made it clear that they disapproved of the girlfriend and of his relationship with her. This communication left Troy feeling deprived of his personal choice and so he stubbornly clung to his relationship despite the fact that he also had doubts about whether the relationship was a good fit for him. As we worked in counseling, it became clear that Troy had three general choices: (1) He could comply with his parents’ wishes and discontinue the relationship; (2) he could oppose his parents and insist on his right to have this relationship; or (3) he could think about his parents’ opinions as information and then step back and critically evaluate the relationship himself and decide what he thought was best. We discussed the most challenging outcome of all: that he might end up agreeing with his parents and terminate the relationship and then they (and he) might think they had “won” the power struggle.

As a result of our discussions, Troy decided he wanted a joint meeting with his parents. During the meeting he effectively communicated to them that they had made their position and their concerns very clear. He then emphatically asked them to back off so he could decide how to proceed with his relationship. In the end, Troy broke off the relationship and thanked his parents for giving him the space and time to make his own decision.

This case illustrates the give information and then back off technique. The parents communicated their concerns directly. Although they were initially overbearing about what their son should do, eventually, with encouragement, they backed away and gave their son time to independently consider the issues. In essence, by backing off after expressing their concerns, they also communicated trust in their son’s ability to make a reasonable decision. One problem underlying this situation is the fact that after expressing concerns, it’s often difficult for parents to keep their mouths shut and let their children make their own decisions on their own timeline rather than the parents’ timeline.

Asking Permission

Troy’s parents might have been even more influential if they had started the process by asking Troy if they could share their opinion with him. For example, they might have asked: “Would you like to hear our thoughts on how your relationship seems to be going?”

By asking for Troy’s permission, a new power dynamic is intentionally established. The new dynamic includes some of the following characteristics:

  • The parents give a signal to Troy that they have important information they’d like to share with him, but they’re giving this signal before they provide the information.
  • Asking permission gives Troy a sense of empowerment. He may choose to (a) receive the information, or (b) reject the information. He’s less likely to feel as though his parents are shoving the information down his throat.
  • Even if Troy initially rejects the information by saying “I don’t want to hear what you think” or “I know what you’re going to say,” he can still change his mind and ask for the information later.
  • If the parents approach Troy with an attitude of concern, he may feel cared for, which is always a good thing in a parent–child relationship.
  • If the parents can respect Troy’s right to reject the information, paradoxically, he may become more open to hearing their opinion later.
  • Overall, by asking permission, the parents are at least expressing partial faith or trust in Troy and his problem-solving ability.

Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule. This particular problem-solving technique provides an excellent foundation for exploring exceptions to all indirect and problem-solving strategies. Because these approaches intentionally and explicitly give away parental power, they should be used only when parents feel at least somewhat comfortable trusting their children with the problem-solving process. For example, if Troy’s girlfriend is obviously abusing drugs and pulling Troy toward a destructive lifestyle, it may be necessary for the parents to insist on more extreme and directive steps. These steps might include:

  • Family therapy
  • A drug/alcohol intervention
  • More intensive supervision of Troy’s behaviors
  • Severe limitations regarding Troy’s freedom outside the home contingent upon specific communication and “checking-in” standards
  • Involvement with law enforcement (if appropriate and/or warranted)

Although not exhaustive, the preceding list provides a sense of how the nature of the parent–child relationship and the parents’ trust in their child’s judgment interact with the level of directiveness.  More directive, limit-setting, and monitoring parenting approaches may be necessary, depending on the severity of the situation.

A Bill of Rights for Children of Divorce

There are lots of different “Bills of Rights” for children and parents of divorce available online. I’m re-posting this one that Rita and I originally published in November, 2000, in Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association. It’s a slight revision and has been on this blog for a while, but here it is in honor of all the kiddos out there who end up with the challenge of transitioning between two homes. Feel free to share or use as you wish.

A Bill of Rights for Children of Divorce

By John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan

I am a child of divorce.  I hold these truths to be self-evident:

I have the right to be free from parent conflicts and hostilities.  When you badmouth each other in front of me, it tears me apart inside.  Don’t put me in the middle or try to play me against my other parent. And don’t burden me with your relationship problems, they’re yours, not mine.

I have the right to develop a relationship with both my parents.  I love you both.  I know you will sometimes be jealous about that, but you need to deal with it because you are the adult and I am the child.

I have a right to information about things that will affect my life.  If you’re planning on getting a divorce, I have a right to know, as soon as is reasonable.  Likewise, if you’re planning to move, get remarried, or any other major life change, I have a right to know about it.

Just as I have a right to basic information about my life, I also have a right to be protected from inappropriate information.  This means you shouldn’t tell me about sexual exploits or similar misbehavior by my other parent.  You also should not apologize to me – for my other parent – because this implies a derogatory judgment of my other parent.  If you apologize to me, apologize for yourself.

I have a right to my own personal space in each of my homes.  This doesn’t mean I can’t share a room with my brother or sister, but it does mean that I need space and time of my own.  I also need some special personal items in my own space . . . and this just might include a picture of my other parent . . . don’t freak out about it.

I have a right to physical safety and adequate supervision.  I know you may be very upset about your divorce, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect my needs for safety and supervision.  I don’t want to be home alone all the time while you’re out dating someone new.

I have a right to spend time with both parents, without interference.  My right to spend time with each of you shouldn’t be dependent upon how much money one of you has paid the other.  That makes me feel cheap, like something you might buy in a store.

I have a right to financial and emotional support from both my parents, regardless of how much time I spend with either of you.  This doesn’t mean I expect twice as much as other kids get, it just means that you should stop worrying about what I got from my other parent and focus on what you’re providing me.

I have a right to firm limits and boundaries and reasonable expectations.  Just because I’m a child of divorce doesn’t mean I can’t handle chores, homework, or other normal childhood responsibilities.  On the other hand, keep in mind that even though I may have a little sister or brother (or step-sister or step-brother), I’m not the designated babysitter.

I have a right to your patience.  I didn’t choose to go through a divorce; I didn’t choose to have my biological parents live in two different homes, move away, date different people, and in general, turn my world upside down.  Therefore, more than most children, my life has been beyond my control.  This means I will need your help and support to work through my control issues. You also need to give me time to get comfortable with your new romantic interests. You’re my parent and you should handle my discipline and not hand it over to some new person who I don’t even trust yet.

Finally, I have a right to be a child.  I shouldn’t have to be your spy, your special confidant, or your mother.  Just because you hate to talk to each other, I shouldn’t have to be your personal message courier.  I exist because you created me.  Therefore, I have a right to be more than a child of divorce.  I have a right to be a child whose parents love me more than they’ve come to hate each other.

 

For more information on the Children’s perspective on separation and divorce, check out our book, Don’t Divorce Us!: Kids’ advice to divorcing parents. It sells from $0.81 on Amazon and is available in Turkish:)

 

 

 

A Short Divorce Education Story

It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I was hoping for rain; six hour Saturday classes on divorce and shared parenting are much easier when it’s raining.

Parents begin to arrive. I offer food, but no one eats.  A few people slip into the kitchen and fill their cups with coffee or tea.

Soon, I’m sitting, knee to knee in a circle with ten other men and women.  No one really wants to be here, including me. About half the parents have been mandated by the Court to take this class on divorce and shared parenting. The other half felt compelled to come to deal with a difficult divorce situation.

On the far end of the circle, a big burly man in his mid-thirties stares into space.  He looks angry. We mutually avoid eye contact. Class is about to start and so I’m compulsively making small talk. My chatter includes the local men and women sports teams, the short and long-term weather forecast, and other conflict avoidant topics.  I make a point to NOT bring up religion, politics, or recent changes in child custody law.

We begin with ground rules and introductions. Everyone agrees to confidentiality, to mutual respect, cooperative participation, and to be open to new ideas. As introductions proceed around the circle we eventually come around to the burly man. I notice dread building up in me for what I suspect will be an outpouring of anger and resentment. Instead, when he begins speaking his face contorts. Then he puts his head in his hands and quietly starts to cry.

The room is still. He finally manages to talk. His speech is slow and his words like water. We’re submerged in the ache he feels from missing his son and daughter. Three other parents are wiping their eyes. Only fifteen minutes have passed and these parents are already deeply into their emotional pain. There are no more involuntary participants in this class now; everyone in the room is just a parent—a sad, frustrated, and angry parent missing their children and hating part-time parenting.

In the end, the class that wouldn’t eat, orders pizza together. The participants have bonded; they’ve discovered a common passion. They all love their children and want to be better parents.

Amazingly, the 10 parents agree to put their own pain and misery aside when communicating with their children’s other parent. They commit to keeping their children out of parent-to-parent conflicts. They express their willingness to try to accept and listen to their children’s anger, instead of stamping on it like a smoldering fire. They all realize that nothing will magically make their lives easier. But they resolve on a sunny Saturday afternoon to work as hard as they can to leave behind their dysfunctional anger and frustration. They resolve to become not only more loving parents, but also more skillful parents, parents who are ready to put their children’s best interests first and to treat their children’s other parent with the respect they wish for themselves.