Parenting after Conflict, Separation and Divorce: Questions and Answers

Introduction Every family is unique. There are as many different ways of parenting as there are families, family circumstances and cultural settings. Clearly, it is impossible to provide definitive answers for parenting in the face of such diversity. However, families often experience similar difficulties and there is some agreement in clinical experience and the professional literature about how to address many of these difficulties.   You may not agree with all that you read below. Why should you? However, don’t reject new ideas too soon just because they don’t fit your assumptions. Unless you are a very unusual parent, you will experience challenges in your parenting. Consider new approaches that make sense to you and, if you believe they might be helpful, try them. If one works, it will be to your, and your children’s, advantage. If it does not, then try something different. Continue to do what works; change what doesn’t. Questions and Answers 1) “How long will it take for things to get back to ‘normal’?” Some separated parents are concerned about their children’s “lack of progress.” They are frustrated about how long it is taking them to get back to “normal.” From the children's perspective, there is no progress and no normalizing to be had from their parent’s separation. Something of considerable significance in their lives has happened, that they probably did not wish to happen, and likely had little warning about. What you can hope for is that your children are able to come to terms with their shock, loss and changed circumstances. In matters of grief it is unhelpful to think of progress or normalization.   If you think of someone coming to terms with the death of a loved one, there is no norm for how long the transition takes. While children of divorce are not dealing with death when they face the separation of their parents, they are dealing with loss; grief is the appropriate response. Grief shows itself in many different ways, including withdrawal, frustration, irrationality, anger and a refusal to come to terms with the new reality.  2) “How do I answer my child’s questions about their father/mother (especially at times when my child is angry with him/her)?’” Carefully! Succinctly! Clearly! It is important that you don’t piggyback on your child’s anger. The best way to parent after separation is cooperatively, supporting each other through parent-child difficulties and other concerns. However, it is also important not to minimize your child’s complaints, criticisms and disappointments. The challenge is to acknowledge your child’s concerns without colluding with negativity towards the other parent.  A story is told about pediatrician and psychiatrist D.W, Winnicott working with a boy whose father treated him unkindly. When the boy asked Winnicott, “Why is my daddy like that?” he answered, “That’s the way your father is.” Keeping answers short and simple, and not being drawn into discussion is a good example to follow.  Some examples of succinct answers:    “Why doesn’t dad see me more often?”              “I don’t know. Do you have any ideas?”   “Why did mom leave?”               “You’ll have to ask her.”  “Why doesn’t mom phone?”                 “I don’ t know. Perhaps you can phone her to say hello and find out?” “Why is dad so mad all the time?”                “That’s one of the ways he is at the moment?”   “Has mom got a new man in her life?”               “That’s a question you need to ask her.”   “Dad was really mean to me today?”                “Do you want to talk about it?”  Note well: If you offer to listen, it is important to really listen and tune into your child’s feelings, limiting your comments to acknowledging what you hear. Don’t join in with any of your child’s criticisms of the other parent. Remember that the tone of your voice communicates as much as the words themselves: be real, be gentle, be clear and be succinct. It is as much the how as the what. 3) “When my child is having a difficult time with his father/mother, how can I avoid getting stuck in the middle of their argument?” ·         Support your child without taking his/her side against the other parent.·         Be straightforward: “I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of your differences with your dad/mom.”·         Encourage your child to talk with the other parent about what’s happening. As a general rule, resist intervening. If you must intervene, and your child has given you permission to do so, do it in a general way (e.g. when talking with the other parent, suggest that it is important that he/she has a heart-to-heart with his/her son/daughter about the matter of concern). ·         Remain neutral. One way to remain neutral is to encourage your child to get both points of view clear: e.g., “Let’s look at it from your perspective. And now lets look at it from dad’s/mom’s perspective.”·         If you want to get involved without getting stuck in the middle, you might try role play: e.g., “Suppose I take your dad’s/mom’s point of view and you try talking it through with me.” (N.B. It is important for you to be straight in the role-play and not disrespect the other parent or caricature them.) The goal is to provide your child with an opportunity to rehearse something that they may later say to the other parent.·         If your child is reluctant to approach the other parent directly, you might suggest that your son/daughter write a letter to the other parent expressing their frustration, a letter that he/she may never share with the other parent. This may help him/ her come to terms with his/her concerns and encourage a more direct approach in the future.  4) “Other than being critical and negative about what has happened since their dad and I separated, my kids have really shut down. What can I do to get them talking again?” Complaints and criticisms are appropriate for your children in coping with a crisis. It is a way for them to come to terms with what is happening and to let you know how upset they are about this change in their lives. Hopefully, it’s a stage that they will pass through sooner rather than later. However, it is not something you can move along by telling them to come to terms with it. They have to come to terms with their feelings about what has happened. They have to feel their way through the changes. So the best approach is watchful waiting, providing support, always being ready to respond to any of the hopeful signs, and doing your best not to react to the negative talk and behaviour.   5) “I have done everything that I can to help the children adjust to the new circumstances since the separation. What more can I possibly do?” There is a story about a sage answering a poor man’s questions about what he can do now that his wife is expecting yet another child, who will severely challenge their meager resources. The sage’s response: “Haven’t you done enough already?”  What this parent is asking illustrates a similar concern. The parent has, perhaps, already done too much. The father/mother has done everything he/she can do to get the children to change without realizing that it is he/she that must make changes in order to help the children, themselves, find enough trust to begin to adjust to the changed circumstances. It will not help you to rebuild your relationship with your children after divorce to be intent on shaping the children around your priorities. To do this is to risk losing your children’s affection because it may appear that you do not regard them as a priority. Instead, as much as possible, shape your own life interests (e.g., work, everyday routine, relationships, leisureactivities), around the children’s lives. Children need to feel that they are a priority after a crisis if a secure re-connection after separation is going to take place.  6) Now we are separated, what’s the point of rehashing difficulties in our relationship? How will it help our parenting? Parenting and some of the difficulties that parents have struggled with before separation are intertwined.  A couple who separate "well," work hard at a good post-separation relationship, and who are serious about effective co-operative parenting, will provide the best opportunity for their children to adjust to this significant transition with the least amount of trauma and interruption in their lives. It makes sense for both parents to come to terms with outstanding issues from their relationship for the good of the children, for their own well-being, and for the good of new relationships. Unresolved issues from old relationships with significant others (extended family, romantic and spousal relationships) frequently get played out in present and future relationships.  It is not necessary to solve all the problems or resolve all the issues. However, it is important to come to a point of understanding so that old thorny issues no longer spark reactivity. If this is sometimes not possible, you can agree to disagree and be straight with each other. For example, it might be helpful to be able to say something like, "We've talked about this before, we have different opinions about it and we'll just have to agree to differ." It will then be your ongoing work to find a way to (really) respect the other's difference of opinion and discipline yourself to find ways of not letting the issue rumble around in your thoughts and feelings afterwards. There will sometimes be issues over which no how much you work at it, you still disagree and have to reach some sort of agreement (e.g., with respect to parenting the children). For these occasions it is essential you have a strategy about how such issues will be decided worked out before you are faced with a real disagreement (e.g., It might be as simple as sleep on it and, if we still can't agree, toss a coin).   Next StepsKnowledge of various approaches to parenting and different parenting techniques may be a helpful way of addressing immediate issues that need to be dealt with promptly. However, the most effective, long-term approach to parenting is to know your self and become increasingly aware of what triggers you when you are parenting. Ask yourself what changes you need to make to be able to respond calmly, thoughtfully and lovingly to challenging interactions with your children, rather than reacting. An excellent resource to find out about self-aware parenting is Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s book, Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive 
These questions and answers are part of a work in progress, “Parenting after Conflict, Separation and Divorce,” available on my website , a collection of observations, beliefs, thoughts, suggestions and interventions that I have shared with parents attempting to meet the challenges of finding constructive ways to work together after conflict and separation.