Life during marital/relational separation can be considered high conflict times that create emotional and behavioral reactions in the body. When we enter in and out of the court system we create relational stress and re-enter grief scenarios with children. There are ways to support children during these times and whenever we see behavioral cues that our children are struggling with grief. This can be when we have high conflict times or when they are faced with new relational circumstances such as in adolescent dating exploration.
1. Listen with your heart and not your head. Allow your child to express all of their emotions without judgement, criticism, or analysis. You need to remember that while the family stress or changes may not seem that dramatic to you, it is to your child. Offering him or her reasons not to feel sad will not make your child really feel any better. In that moment, they do not need to be judged!
2. Recognize that grief is emotional, not intellectual. Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong or why are you sad, because he or she will automatically say “nothing.” or “I don’t know!” Your child does not understand that you are practicing a new skill set with them and remember that the last time they felt sad, you may have given them logical reasons not to feel that way.
3. You are the adult and you need to go first! Talk about your own feelings of grief and frustration with changes and stress in your life (being careful not to lead them to believe there will be a martial/relational reconciliation). This will make it safe for your child to open up as well. If you were not directly affected by the loss that has affected your child, remember and tell them of a similar or parallel loss in your life. You need to do this without any comparisons! This is not a competition over who should be hurting the most, but rather an opportunity to create a chance for your child to feel safe in sharing his or her feelings.
4. Remember that each of your children are unique and each has a unique position to the relational loss/divorce/relational conflict/event. They will not respond the same way. You need to let them know that this is normal and that one is not right in his or her response and the other wrong.
5. Be patient. Don’t force them to talk. It may take a little time for them to feel comfortable to your new approach to helping them express their feelings. Again, they will still be expecting you to tell them why they should not feel bad.
6. Never say “Don’t feel sad” or “don’t feel scared.” Sadness and fear are the two most normal feelings attached to these kinds of stressful and mournful situations. They are part of being human. Rather than say these things, offer them a comforting hug.
These are six steps to better assist your children to cope with relational stress/loss/grief/change. Please keep in mind that loss and change are a part of life and as a parent, you can teach your children positive tools to successfully deal with the grief process and pain in their hearts. As parents, we try to protect our children from having to deal with unpleasant situations. What we often forget is that the ability to successfully deal with emotional sadness is a survival skill that they will need throughout their lives. Giving them this set of tools can be one of the greatest gifts that you will ever give them!