JoAnn C. Simmons, M.A., L.M.H.C., R.C.C.
From my professional and personal experience, if you fit into the category of a messy break-up, there are important steps need to make before sitting down with your child to break the news. YOU NEED TO HAVE A BASIC PLAN FOR YOUR OWN HEALING PROCESS, FIRST.
As a seasoned public school counselor with more than seventeen years experience, I helped families work their way through various life traumas. This experience, however, did not prepare me for my own personal journey of hurt, blame and guilt when it came to ending my fifteen-year marriage. I found myself faced with the scenario too many women face when experiencing domestic violence and emotional abuse during the course of their marriages. (Of course, men can be victims of abusive marriages, as well.) The following information is for all who need it.
The impact of going though a tough and/or violent divorce causes deep suffering and trauma for both the adults and the children involved. In my case, I was left with a toddler, child care responsibilities, financial devastation and a diminished sense of self-worth. The deeper "knowing" in my soul provided me with the courage I needed to take bold steps in the direction of wholeness for the sake of my young daughter.
Even though the road was very rocky, what helped me get through the entire ordeal was keeping my focus on creating a peaceful environment in which she could grow up. Knowing she relied on me for her life, enabled me to get a handle on my "dark night of the soul" and all the challenges that lay ahead.
While those were difficult years, I have successfully re-married today. My husband is a caring and loving mate and we live a relatively peaceful and happy life. We are looking forward to attending my daughter's wedding in a few months. She's radiantly expressive these days because of the anticipated marriage. If my life situation straightened out, there's hope for yours, as well.
Here are some suggestions I'd like to pass on to you that helped me through the process.
1) Set up a Safe Environment to live in. Create a place where you and your children can sleep well at night. Safety first must be your absolute goal. If you require legal assistance and police intervention, get it. Don't hesitate to access the help you need to insure a sense of well-being for you and your children. There are wonderful women's shelters located all over the country, set up to help victims of domestic abuse. There are also hot lines, counseling centers, churches and synagogues, and other community resources available to people in crisis. Don't hesitate to call to get immediate help.
2) Get Spiritual Support and gain a spiritual perspective for yourself. Learn to ask for support from spiritual counselors. Participate in spiritual practices that will help you get through this crisis and inspire you to reach higher levels of consciousness. Whether or not you go to church or meet with a group who share a loving nature, let something into your life that you can feel profoundly grateful for! Pray often, and listen to answers. Let others pray for you, as well.
3) Ask for and accept the Loving Support of Family and Friends. Use their shoulders to lean on to help you through an emotionally tough time. Find people who will love you, listen to you, and who don't have to rush in to fix you or your situation. In this way you will not be tempted to use your child as a confidant, because you have caring adults to play that role. When I was in the early stages of my divorce, I had a list of phone numbers to call. I called them often and asked them if I could talk and have them just listen. I moved in with my sister for a month. All these steps, and more, gave me a life raft when I needed one. Get rid of negative people in your life and choose friends who uplift you.
4) Get Professional Help. Find a licensed therapist or counselor to help you through this difficult time, and help you gain a better perspective on your situation. Your child is depending on you to guide the way for him/her. Make sure you have some guidance for yourself! Give yourself comforting mantras to say daily, such as "This too will pass," or "I'm being protected and guided every step of the way." During my divorce, and for several years after, I received professional counseling. I value the insight and courage I gained from speaking to someone who had wider lenses and a broader perspective to offer me.
5) Remember, the Better you Feel about Yourself, the Better Off your Child will be in the long run. Your children are looking to you for their safety, love and well-being. If you model someone who seeks advice, and learns from mistakes, this natural vulnerability will teach them how to be human and receptive to learning vital lessons in human relations. Children model themselves after adults in their world, so it's up to you to move beyond this experience with the least possible damage. The most rewarding moments can be felt when we make our way through a crisis and learn valuable lessons from it.
6) Be Kind and Thoughtful when Speaking to your Child about your Ex. Avoid the temptation to bash your former spouse. Also avoid the other temptation to turn them into a saint when they are not. Try to stay honest and fair in your communications with your child. Whatever you do, think in terms of what it may be like to be in your child's shoes. It's best to get professional help with difficult situations in order to address the absence of a parent. Avoid parental alienation by never "talking trash" about your former mate in front of your child, over the phone, or with friends. Get good advice on how to broach a sensitive subject with your child before sitting down to explain things to them.
With that in mind, I'd like to add the following important points.
Read through the story book again immediately before sitting down with your child to have the initial conversation so the concepts are fresh in your mind.
Create opportunities to have many discussions with your child, and become a careful listener. Release your reactions and opinions so that you are focused more on hearing what they have to say and less on what you want them to know.
It's best to allow your child to take the lead, and you become the follower when it comes to communication issues. I've learned that listening with full attention is a powerful healer. When we care and listen, children feel validated and heal more easily and quickly.
The best thing you can do for your children is to take care of yourself. That way, you'll have the reserve to be present for them when they need you.
Studies show that resiliency factors in healthy youth development result from quality time spent with caring adults. Therefore, get your child involved in wholesome activities such as chorus, youth groups, sports, etc.
In closing, many public and private schools provide counseling services on campus. Check with your local administrator and see if there are groups for children set up at school or off campus to deal with issues regarding divorce. Children gain much help and insight through these groups. By joining with others who are going through similar experiences, we tend to feel less isolated and hurt. In addition we learn some important coping skills. In some of our churches in Orlando, Florida we have wonderful programs that gently assist children and parents with these matters. One program that comes to mind is called Open Hearts (www.openhearts.com). If you don't have any groups available in your area, advocate for some and avail yourself of material you can access on-line.
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Joann Simmons is a psychotherapist in private practice in Orlando, Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also a contributor to the new ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Fill-in-the-Blanks Storybook to Prepare Your Children With Love! by Rosalind Sedacca, CCT. For additional articles on this subject visit www.childcentereddivorce.com.