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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.