Mike: One of the things that I would think is vitally important is especially at the very very beginning when these issues start coming out is to try as much as possible, again going back to one of the earlier things you were talking about–is trying not to assess blame, trying to be as neutral as possible because I can see how if emotions get too raw and you’re too explicit with the children about what happened, then there’s almost no way you can frame that discussion without passing judgement.
Or at least in the minds of the children.
And so I would guess that it would be just absolutely vitally important before you even start to talk with the children, that you sit down and maybe you just hit the pause button for a moment, and really try to say what are we going to say and how are we going to say it and how are we going to do this without blaming you or blaming me or blaming each other because of course I think most of us recognise that things don’t happen in a vacuum.
That an objective observer would say that there’s problems on both sides and I would guess that that is just such a difficult thing, but you’ve got to avoid trying to poison the well at the beginning, otherwise you’re really going to be climbing out of a deep hole.
Kristine: The key word is “blame,” and I guess the tricky part is navigating between expressing the feeling of anger is allowed and invited if you’re expressing it in an appropriate way.
But blame is really a trap because we’re teaching our children to blame if we’re falling into that trap.
If it’s about who did what, why, what’s the cause and effect, that’s a really dangerous message to give to our kids because not only do kids internalise negative things that they hear about their parents, and kind of blame themselves, but it kind of invites the child to grow into a person who doesn’t really accept their own responsibility and it makes it harder to trust the parent that’s blaming as well because it doesn’t really maintain the trust in that relationship.
It doesn’t establish a relationship that is free from that.
So children don’t really know a relationship that exists without blame, that is without deceit and they can believe in that if they at least don’t have that within their relationship with you. So it’s really important not to get stuck in that, especially from the beginning, like you said.
Mike: Once somebody has decided that the only thing that they can do is to end the marriage, then you’ve got to try and have that talk with the children and say that things are–our lives are all about to change. Are there some very basic do’s and don’t's that really need to be followed when having that conversation?
Kristine: I think it has a lot to do with being clear about the structure and what it is that’s going to be changing, and what it is that’s going to stay the same. And giving kids a lot of space to be mad or sad about it or confused about it.
So like I said, “This is when you’ll be with me, this when you’ll be with the other parent, this is what’s not going to change is that we love you and it’s not your fault.”
Explicitly saying it’s not about blame, or that you did something wrong and you’re–we love you both the same, and we understand if you’re upset.
Letting there be enough space for the children to have their own feelings and being clear about what it is that’s changing and that their basic safety is going to be put at a priority.
Mike: I’m going to back up for just a moment because one of the things that is out there is the feeling that traditionally a lot of people feel like they have to stay together “for the sake of the children.”
And I really have to come question the wisdom of that particular idea because it seems to me like that should be a motivation. The childrens’ well-being should certainly be part of the equation.
But if everything else goes down the drain, I just don’t see any way–for myself–that such a relationship could really survive and be a positive environment for children if the only reason that you’re staying together is to simply make it look good for everybody else and to say, “Well, we’re bearing it because we care about our kids.”
Am I right about that?
Kristine: I certainly emphasize the child’s importance in any struggling couple because, like I mentioned at the very beginning of the interview, the space in which the child lives is essentially created by the parents. And that is true whether or not the parents are living together.
So for many people, the debate of, “Are we married? Are we not married?” is very important. And I certainly honour that. But I also emphasize, “You’re not getting away with having a tumultuous relationship and it not affecting your child,” because if you remain together and there is contempt and mistrust and blame, that will horribly affect your children, and if you separate and that is maintained, then that will really affect your children too.
If you’re putting your child as a priority, you’re responsible for deciding in which circumstance would I best be able to do my half, my 50%, because I can’t control the other person, I need my half of being a nurturing, positive, hopeful, respectful co-parent.
Mike: If the decision is made to separate and you’re dealing with separate households and shared custody and things like this, how important is it for the parents to be on the same page as far as issues like discipline and do’s and don’t's for the kids and the way that they live their lives because it’s only natural, I would think, at times, for kids to try and push the envelopes and possibly try to play one parent off against another.
Is that something that you try to address with the children and say, “Don’t go there,” or is that something that has to be worked on from the parents’ end?
Kristine: When it’s with children, it’s usually that parents can only do so much sometimes and that it’s inconsistent and just sort of sorting through that frustration with the children.
If they’re old enough, kind of instilling in them an idea of their own responsibility that whether or not the rules are this way at mom’s, and this way at dad’s, you’re still responsible for doing what you think is right within those guidelines. So if you can push a little further at mom, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s right to do.
So sometimes just helping them develop their own internal reward system, internal integrity based on their age, and also in working with parents, I really do focus on that just because that can be kind of a door that opens to comparing and competing for the child if one house is more fun or one house is more like this, or one has more of stuff, before you know it, you’re kind of doing that to win your child’s attention and that doesn’t make them like you more.
Really all it does is give them a bunch of guilt and even well-intending parents can fall into that trap.
So doing your best to communicate about consistency in bedtimes, consistency in rules about play dates or this and that is really important and it’s very rare, I realize that, but sometimes we take it for granted and it can make life a lot easier for both parents and certainly for the child.
Mike: I can see it happening where it’s like, “Well, mommy said I could stay up until 11 and you say I have to go to bed at 10,” and so then you’ve got that little push and pull. Is that something that you can address possibly with the children and say, “There’s a reason why you really shouldn’t do that. You should really try and help out here.”
And again, we don’t want to be overburdening children, I’m sure, but at the same time, is there something that you can do as a therapist, maybe some things that you can help to make clear to them about why you don’t want to act a certain way or do certain behaviors?
Kristine: Sometimes in many cases, that kind of thing is a call for attention.
It happens in homes where the marriage is intact as well, asking one parent and the other parent said no already, but you still ask the other one because you think they’ll say yes.
So addressing with the child their need for attention and kind of tracking with them what gets them the response that they need. What gets mom irritated? What gets mom feeling a little bit better?
And letting you have that time watching a movie with her that you really value and then it becomes valuable to that child that they don’t sweat the small stuff basically don’t make a big deal about bedtime because then really mom seems happier and that gets me more of what I want.
It sounds a little bit selfish and manipulative, because I’m talking about a younger child, or even with teenagers, just noticing that they can influence their environment in a positive way really opens up a lot for them because when they’re missing attention, they may start seeing that they can start influencing their environment in a negative way to get negative attention.
And when we can sort of shift that to see how they can get a positive response that they want, that can be really liberating for them.
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples.
She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com
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