If you got lucky and you have a simple separation, that’s one without children, you’ll be free to focus your energy on following these steps I’ve laid out for you. Trust me, I’ve been through both; and the ones without kids, no matter how contentious, are usually simple in comparison.
With kids, you have to do some juggling. Meeting the kids’ needs first. Yours second, but actually both of those have to be done simultaneously or you’ll run out of energy for the kids. You don’t have the luxury of waiting a year to get the kids straightened out, like you do childless with this step by step process. With kids you’ll have only half your energy for changing yourself. That change will be a big drain, but it will also feed you spiritually. The other half will be caught up in dealing with the many forms children’s fears and uncertainties will take. Another way of saying it is that an emotionally depleted dad won’t be able to console and direct a frightened, confused child.
Here are some of the basics you’ll need to start on right away with kids. You don’t need to be alone here. The problem is too many guys have counted on their wives for the emotional side (which often includes the disciplinary side) of things. Sorry that just went up in smoke. Time to get a handle on this fast.
Parents Without Partners support groups are one option. Get on Google to see where the closest one is. But the closest one may not be a good fit, so try out several to see which one you like best. Then there’s friends (the right friends, to be discussed in the next section). A male support group – your church may have one for guys going through separation. You don’t need a coed version of one of these groups. You may be ready for a woman’s point of view who’s a good friend, aunt, mom, etc., but probably not one who’s in an active separation. That could easily heap junk on your head you don’t need. Too many churches have those coed groups. I will keep trying to talk them out of that. For singles who are a year out of a separation, ok, but not right away.
SO HERE’S HOW TO START DEALING WITH KIDS RIGHT AWAY:
Many kids will express that, “The good stuff is over.” They don’t want to burden their parents more, so they stuff their feelings which can stunt their emotional development. Their feelings do not have to be somehow fixed or cured, but the kids do need to be heard. Luckily, many parents are mature enough that, with help, they can learn how to help their children talk about their painful feelings.
Once those feelings are acknowledged and listened to, you can create new rituals with your children as a single parent to replace the family rituals
Take heart. There are plenty of studies now documenting the successful parenting which can occur during and after a painful separation.
Communicating with children is tough for several reasons:
Depending on their level of development, they may not understand what they are feeling.
Kids may have the misimpression they need to protect you or your spouse from their feelings.
(A child feeling protective of a parent. What’s wrong with that picture?? But it is very common. Wow, if that’s the case, get help so you can coax them to tell you how they feel.) What can you do so your child doesn’t think they have to protect you from the separation with its built in difficulties.
If things are hot bet ween you and your ex, kids may shut down to keep from adding to the cauldron. Sometimes they guess that if they are quiet enough things will go back to normal. Don’t force their hand by insisting they tell you what they feel. Instead make them comfortable that you’re going to be ok. Lightly, you can tell them you’d like to know what they’re feeling when they are ready. In other words, let them come to you.
Here’s a quiz: What are a range of emotions your children may go through?
If there is any way possible, encourage your wife to join you in these last three points. You shouldn’t get a lot of push back on that one. Or give her this book. Since I wrote a newspaper column in the 1980’s: Understanding Men, I’ve always been impressed how many women want to know how men operate. Good for them. When you are raw out of a marriage you may think they are ALL bitches. No, that ain’t so.
Almost unanimously, children of separation/divorce express that the toughest thing for them to start off is that when they are with one parent, they miss the other. They are grieving the concept of a family. Again, you can’t fix that, but you can empathize with their feelings as you are going through the same thing. You can wait for them to express it, or suggest, lightly, that such feelings are normal and inevitable, but will eventually slack up as the child makes a separate life with each parent. Just keep reassuring your child they won’t be forgotten in the turmoil of change.
The initial concern of almost all kids in these circumstances is, What will happen to me.? Specifically, 1) Who will take care of me? 2) What if my brother wants to stay with you,
and I want to live with Mom? 3) If Mom and Dad can stop loving each other, might they stop loving me too?
Keep reassuring them they won’t slip between the cracks as things change. Almost all such kids start off with the fear of not knowing what will happen to them. You may have to just keep reassuring them repeatedly, especially during the first year. Again, try to get your spouse to join you in this support of the kids.
CARDINAL RULE: Never Say Anything Bad to a Child About His/Her Mother.
At the same time, as a parent, do not underestimate your child’s ability to adjust to changes. You DO NOT have to fix their feelings, but they do need to be heard.
And again The Cardinal Rule, no matter how tempting, DO NOT criticize their mother. She is just your ex-wife. She is their ONLY mother.
If that really chaps you, not to worry. Kids already know parental weak spots. Kids are like finely tuned radios. They don’t miss any broadcast bands, no matter how weak the signal.
More and more school systems have provided support groups for children of separation and divorce, where they can discover they are not alone, learn new coping skills, and share experiences. Just as churches are realizing the needs of divorcing people, so are they recognizing the needs of children of divorce – where they can talk without having to protect a parent.
In the U.S. the majority of such programs are run in the schools. In Canada, the majority are run by community organizations. If there’s not such a group for kids in your area, see if your church will start one. You may be able to find a good soul who is the adult child of divorce acutely aware of the need and would start one.
The good news is there are plenty of studies now documenting the successful parenting which can occur during and after painful separation. Of course such parents must be willing to put the kids first over their anger or bitterness with the other parent. Finding such inner resources can stretch anybody, that’s why it is crucial get your own support.
Meeting your own needs can be really tough, especially since you’ve been taught it is wimpy for a guy to have needs. Boy, what a bag of it that is! So work hard on figuring out what your needs are, then start meeting them. I gave up count long ago of all the guys I’ve explained that what takes real courage in our confused society is to admit to having needs. Once you start figuring that out, you’ll naturally free up energy to take care of your kids.
It’s not unusual for a child to look at the whole thing as my divorce. That’s how much they feel involved from the inside of the turmoil. CAs I mentioned earlier,communicating with kids is tough for several reasons. You need to ask yourself, Have I done enough to teach my children, by modeling, what a normal range of emotions looks like?
Teens who are learning to break away may have a rough time without the boundaries which often disappear when parents split up. Get past resentments with your ex by agreeing on mutual enforceable boundaries with your kids. Otherwise their grades may suffer. Athletes may bail out of a sport.
Questions from kids never stop. Just do your best to be ready and honest. Here’s one I got from my seventeen year old daughter, complete with smug attitude, fifteen years after I’d separated from her mom, Dad, I bet if I asked my mom why your marriage broke up, she’d have a different answer than you do.
Thank goodness by then, I had done a lot of work on myself, so I could answer, I was an immature, angry, unfaithful brat. The smartest thing your mother ever did was give up on me. Then I just watched as she deflated like a balloon. I will confess that felt pretty good. When you have teenagers, you will celebrate such small and innocent victories.
Somewhere along the line of all this, I had to give up my fantasy of the perfect family.