Building Bridges


Dealing with Loss
PART II (continued)

Helping children express their feelings

The more you've been able to allow yourself to acknowledge and express your own feelings, to accept them as normal, and to let go of them and move on, the more freely you can help your children do the same. But you're only human; and even though you may be experiencing a great deal of pain and you know that your own grief work takes time, you still want to do whatever can be done to help your children deal with their distress.

However, don't expect yourself to be able to bring about the outcomes you'd like to see in every instance. In this domain, as in so many others, trusting in the process is more important than manipulating it. 

15. Remember that children will express their feelings in their own way and at their own pace.

You may feel frustrated when your children aren't expressing feelings, or frightened when they are saying or doing things that upset you. This is a time to be patient. If you are accepting and supportive, they will be able to do the work they need to do. Your firm and loving guidance gives them the reassurance that the process will continue to unfold in a healthy way.

16. Remember that children need to know that they are safe.

Remind yourself that when:
  • children's lives have become seriously disrupted, and
  • they sense strong emotions inside themselves and in others, and
  • they do not know what will happen next,
    they are likely to feel terrified and vulnerable.

If they express their inner turmoil in ways that are emotionally hurtful to others, or physically dangerous to themselves or others, it is important for the people who love them to intervene, promptly and with firmness appropriate to the situation. You can acknowledge their distress ("I can tell that you are upset"), let them know that you care ("and I care about you and your feelings") and are available ("and we can deal with this in a way that will help"). At the same time, you can make it clear that you will not let them hurt themselves or others ("but I will not let you hurt yourself or someone else.").

Almost always, this will give the children exactly what they need most at such a moment: the assurance that they are loved and that they will be kept safe. By letting them know that they can rely on you for love, modeling, and firmness, you help them discover that their world is really not in total chaos. They can breathe comfortably again.

Some children who previously functioned reasonably well may need more help during and after divorce than they can get from one parent or two parents. If they are surrounded by models of abuse instead of compassion, exploitation instead of love, and pandemonium instead of firmness, they may indeed feel themselves falling apart as they feel their family falling apart. Children who persist in hurting themselves or others need professional help. 

17. Remember that unexpressed painful feelings tend to persist, and to interfere with healing.

You can usually do more good by providing safe opportunities for your children to express their feelings of distress, and then being attentive, accepting, and supportive, than by communicating a message that says, "Don't feel the way you are feeling."

No matter how wise it may have been to decide to dissolve the marriage, the children will sometimes be as likely as you are to feel sad, angry, hurt, guilty, worried, fearful. At other times, they may be carefree, happy, rambunctious. And at still other times, you may have no way of knowing what they are feeling, and they may have no interest in letting you know.

18. Let your children know that you have strong feelings, and let them see that you can express them safely.
Although your expression of your own feelings of distress may add to your children's concern, it can provide them with a chance to see that it is normal for people to be upset when they are dealing with loss. Your modeling of honest, non-destructive expressions of strong feelings can be of value to your children, especially if you:

  • take responsibility for your own feelings (without blaming them on someone else);
  • maintain healthy boundaries (remembering that your child is not your mother or your buddy);
  • express your feelings without attacking anyone or injuring yourself;
  • describe your understanding of what is happening and what you want; and
  • end with a return to feelings of safety and love.

This is not always possible. You are human. You will not always function in ways that please you. You will sometimes be embarrassed by what you've said or done. You will sometimes apologize. How valuable it can be for your children to see how you, their own personal important grownup, deals with such events!

19. Remember that the children's feelings belong to them.
At a time when children have lost so much that was familiar and important to them, and are aware of having only a partial understanding of what is happening, they need to be reassured that their own authentic feelings are normal. They need to be helped to discover that their feelings will not be stolen from them; that having their feelings will not result in loss of your attention, acceptance, or affection; and that you have confidence in their ability to do the work that they are doing.

20. Honor your children's feelings.
Most children are not in the habit of talking readily about their feelings. Their feelings are private, powerful, and, perhaps, secret. Children may have a vague apprehension that revealing their feelings might result in a grownup becoming uncomfortable or angry. Especially at a time of great loss, they may fear that their feelings might magically cause harm to someone important to them, or even that their feelings might have caused the present events. Some children may deal with loss by returning to an earlier level of functioning, to a time before the loss occurred. 

In the child's eyes, parental divorce, unlike the death of a parent, is the result of the parents' choice. That's why children in divorce so often experience so much anger. Parents can help by describing what is happening: "I know that my choice was one that caused pain in your life. . . I'm sorry about the pain. I want to hear about the pain. . . That's OK with me. I understand."

How can you create safe conditions for expression of feelings by your children when they are probably functioning as though they were younger than they are, probably not ready to talk about the subject, and probably scared? And probably already doing it in their own way, in the language of play? Gently. Carefully. And indirectly. 

Your children can listen to you reading to them: old and new story books, poetry, biographies; readings about children, about animals, about make-believe characters. You can select readings that give you a chance to ask, gently, with pauses, such questions as these: "What happened to Ann?" " What do you think Bobby wants?" "How do you suppose Carl is feeling?"

You can sit at a table with your children, set out paper and crayons (or color markers or oil pastels), and invite them to make a picture of anything. Gently, with pauses, you can ask questions like these: "Anything else?" "Do you want to tell me about this?" "What is happening here?" "What's its name?" "What do you think Debbie wants?" 

You are being present for your children, in settings like this one and in less formal settings too: after the movies, driving home from practice, or talking about school. You are providing the opportunity for them to let you into their private place, and to reveal their secrets to you. This is not a time for you to be correcting them, advising them, telling them to think or talk or feel differently. This is a time for you to support their healing by loving them for who they are. 

21. Create a climate of safety.

What do you do after your child has made a picture of a tearful little blue sailboat in a ferocious storm under scary dark skies with an angry red lightning bolt, and you've just finished hearing about "scared" and "mad" and "sad", and you've watched the careful printing of the date and the artist's name in the corner, and you've asked for the name of this picture, and you've said, yes, you'll save this picture with all the other pictures?

Now, you can provide a safe place, just by being with your child. Your child can discover that in your presence, it's not dangerous to express being "sad," or "mad," or "scared". Your quiet presence (and, perhaps, your quiet words) can say, "I know this can be hard. And you are safe. You're OK. I care. I'm here."

One day, your child may make a picture of a big boathouse in quiet waters, where the little sailboat can be safe. But for now, it is you who provides the sheltered space your child needs for feeling and expressing anguish safely, without fear of smothering or destruction.

And you do this over and over again, in many different ways.

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