CHILDREN AND DIVORCE: HOLIDAY SURVIVAL KIT

If you’re like most newly separated parents facing the first big holiday on your own, you’re probably struggling with some pretty overwhelming emotions. You’re not alone in this; it’s very likely that your children are having some pretty big feelings of their own, as well.  

The holidays are a time of year when, as a child and family therapist, I hear some of the most poignant comments from children of all ages. For example, four-year-old Maria wondered whether Santa would come to her house at all “since nobody loves each other anymore and lots of bad things have happened.” Fifteen-year-old Kevin felt so protective of his mom since his dad left that he was saving up all his allowance and chore money so he could take her out to a dinner in a fancy restaurant on Christmas Day and buy her an expensive gift.

While there are no miracle cures to make the holidays happy again, there are things that you – in collaboration with your ex, if at all possible – can do to make them better for your children and for yourself. Putting your energies on this positive track will likely help to lighten your mood.

Plan ahead and communicate.

1)      Agree well in advance on a specific schedule for the children throughout the holiday period. This may require some flexibility and compromise, but except in cases where they must be protected from abuse or the effects of mental illness, alcoholism or drug use, children want to have loving time with each of their parents and extended families. When you establish a schedule, tell your children so they know what to expect. Then stick to it. This will go a long way toward reducing tension, conflict, and misunderstanding. Having some idea of what to expect helps to reassure children and give them a sense of control in the midst of changes.

2)      Preserve some traditions with extended families, if possible. Talk with your children in advance about their favorite holiday traditions and consider including at least a few of those in your new household’s holiday celebration. For example, one child asked if there could be an “elf on the shelf” at both parents’ homes during the holidays – something that had been a cherished family tradition. Even such simple gestures help to give children a sense of security and stability, reassuring them that not everything in their life is changing. Children benefit from the familiarity of traditions, and these help to reinforce their feeling that they belong to a loving family circle.

3)      Create some new traditions. Think creatively about how you and your children can spend time together in what feels to all of you life a special and meaningful way that can become a new tradition. Like to cook? Make a special Christmas (or Christmas Eve, or first night of Chanukah) pizza together. Like to be active? Plan a special running or walking route that takes you past the best holiday light displays. Whatever you do, focus on being 100 percent present in the precious moments with your children and make these happy times for all of you.

4)      Manage emotions and contain conflict. One of the most important gifts you and your former spouse can give your children is freedom from conflict. Don’t put children in the middle of conflict between the two people they love most. You can take some specific steps to promote their positive feelings. Help your children make a card or gift for your ex and for the grandparents. This will help to teach them the importance of honoring and respecting important people in their lives. Also, support your children’s positive feelings about gifts and good times with your ex, and be especially sensitive to not making them feel guilty about these. This will enable them to build positive memories of holidays so that these occasions are not marred with bitter associations for years to come.

5)      Focus on what really matters. Your children will benefit if you and your former partner coordinate your gifts. Plan together to ensure that they receive a few gifts they especially want. Modest, thoughtful, loving gift-giving helps children feel happy and secure. At all costs, avoid overloading your children with gifts or making your gift-giving a competition for the children’s gratitude.

6)      Create one-on-one time. It’s especially important for children to have one-on-one time with each parent during the busy holiday season. Maintain structure and regular bedtimes as much as possible.  “Snuggle time” and reading together are a great time to listen to their feelings, and tune into their questions, wishes, hopes and dreams.

7)      Make plans for yourself, too. The times when your children are not with you can be very difficult. Set aside time each day to quiet your mind through meditation or a walk in nature or whatever activity brings you a sense of inner peace. That way, if you see your ex at a holiday party with a new significant other, you can face this potentially difficult situation with more resilience. As you think about your schedule, consider what will help you to find some pleasure. Maybe it’s spending Christmas morning with your parents and siblings, as you always have. Maybe it’s hosting a New Year’s brunch and inviting a few favorite people who are also on their own. Whatever you do, plan ahead for your own well being as well as your children’s. Taking care of yourself is important for you – and for them.

My very best wishes for you as you take this next step in life’s journey.

JoAnne

JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., is the author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce.” More information on parenting through the holidays is included in the book.  

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A CASE STUDY*: HOW SESAME STREET’S “LITTLE CHILDREN, BIG CHALLENGES: DIVORCE” PROGRAM HELPED A CHILD HEAL

As a mental health professional, I am fully committed to protecting the privacy of my patients. In the case study below, I have changed the identities and some of the details of the individuals involved. What is real, however, is the child’s emotional experience and the ways that I was able to use the Sesame Street materials to help her and her parents. 

A local pediatrician referred a mom and her four-year-old son to me because he was having extreme temper tantrums and meltdowns that lasted for hours. His pre-kindergarten teachers saw these highly disruptive behaviors in their classroom. His severe mood swings and rage lead them all to fear that he might have bipolar disorder or some other serious emotional problem.

As I worked with “Jason,” I could see he was extremely confused about his family. His parents had recently divorced, and his father had left their home abruptly. In the midst of their own emotional distress, the parents had avoided talking with Jason about the sudden and dramatic changes in their family life, except to say that they no longer loved each other and would not be living together.

Because he had so little understanding of what was happening, he became extremely fearful that both of his parents might “go away and never come back.” He was overwhelmingly frightened about his future and had not yet developed the skills he needed  to identify and describe his feelings. Hence the emotional overload came screaming out of him in ways that terrified his parents, his teachers, his doctor, and most of all, Jason himself.  He was completely out of emotional control.

I used Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” as a key set of tools in helping him understand that that the problems his mom and dad had were grown-up problems, but that their love for him will never stop. He watched Abby Cadabby’s video over and over. Together, we explored how Abby said that at first she’d had many of the same big feelings that Jason had, but that her feelings had changed over time. He found Abby’s description of her two homes where she lived with her mommy and her daddy reassuring. Through Abby, Jason grew to understand that like Abby’s parents, his own parents would always be there to love and take care of him.

I used the Sesame Street materials with Jason’s parents, too. Both were very worried that in the midst of their own tough emotions, they might say the wrong things to him. With the solid, research-based information they now had, they learned what messages Jason most needed to hear (that their love for him would never change, and that they would always be his parents) and how to reassure him in ways he could understand. Both parents now use the Sesame Street materials to continue to clarify their family situation and reassure their son.  

I am happy to report that within a few weeks, Jason’s rages and tantrums decreased dramatically, and he has continued to grow in his understanding and confidence about his life. He is happy in his pre-kindergarten class and no longer has tantrums or disruptive behavior at school. Neither his teachers, nor his pediatrician, nor his parents are worried any longer about him having a serious psychological disorder.

Getting psychological support early and using research-based approaches such as the Sesame materials can make such a positive and lasting impact on a child’s life.

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Dr. Pedro-Carroll served as an advisor to Sesame Street in developing “Little Children, Big Challenges, Divorce.” She is the author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce. Her blog, Helping Children Thrive, also provides valuable information for parents. Image

Divorced or Separated? Five Back-to-School Tips to Reduce Your Children’s Stress

As you check off items on your children’s back-to-school supply list, consider this: Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your children is to help reduce the stresses that arise at the beginning of a new school year – particularly if you are recently separated or divorced.

The research-based tips I will share with you here have been developed particularly for families in marital transition. But the underlying principles can help all children – of all ages – to cope with the stresses of a new school year.

The single biggest question on children’s minds during times of transition is, “What’s going to happen to me?” This is true whether they’re toddlers or teens or any age in between. They almost always experience – and often hide from their parents – a myriad of uncertainties and emotions about what lies ahead.

And then…there’s a new school year – with all its added uncertainties about new teachers, new expectations, different classmates, changes in peer groups, and more. Here, too, their anxiety bubbles up: “What’s going to happen to me?”  They may even fill in the blanks with their own worst fears.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are five proven strategies to reduce children’s stress and help them adjust to changes in their lives.

  1. Listen. Ask your children about their feelings – all of them. Help them to develop a vocabulary to express their emotions and let them know that it is always ok to use words to express how they feel. Whether it’s their (mistaken) belief that they’ll be abandoned because of your divorce or their conviction that this is going to be a terrible year at school, they need to be able to say what’s on their mind. And you need to be able to listen calmly and lovingly and let them know they’ve been heard.
  2. Reassure. Whether they express their fears or not, reassure your children that the love you have for them will never end, and that you will always be their parent and take good care of them. With regard to their anxiety about the new school year, let them know that you’ll be there to help them work through the changes – now and throughout the year.
  3. Clarify. In as much detail as is appropriate for their ages, tell them where they will live and with whom, and when and how often they will see their other parent. Let them know what will change for them and what will not change. Depending on your children’s ages, either encourage them to learn about their schedule and teachers at school, or find out for them. Then help them to clarify what will be the same and what will be different from the past.
  4. Problem solve.  Once you have listened carefully to their concerns and clarified realities, help your children take a problem solving approach.  If they are worried about forgetting things as they go back and forth between homes, create a list of solutions and ways to organize belongings to help transitions go more smoothly.  If they are concerned about all their school-year responsibilities, help them develop a realistic schedule that enables them to see how they can manage everything. Children feel empowered when they have problem solving skills and a plan for dealing with inevitable challenges of daily life.
  5. Plan Ahead. Help children plan ahead and take ownership for what happens next. Young children feel more secure with a calendar on which they color in “mommy days” and “daddy days.” They also benefit if you can plan for them to visit to their classroom before school starts. Older children can take on more sophisticated responsibilities to prepare for what lies ahead – whether it’s moving between parents’ homes or managing all their responsibilities. Getting an early start on school-year routines with earlier bedtimes and family meals also makes for smoother adjustments.

There’s no way to eliminate all the stress from your children’s lives, of course. The beginning of each new school year requires adjustments for everyone in the family. But using these strategies consistently over time can go a long way toward helping them become more comfortable, confident and secure as they face each transition in their lives.

SESAME STREET “DIVORCE” PROGRAM MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE FOR PARENTS AND THEIR LITTLE CHILDREN

What a difference Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” program is making in the lives of young children!  We are using the materials in our award-winning programs for children and parents.  I use them with parents and their children in my clinical practice, and I’ve also been distributing kits to school mental health professionals and pediatricians for their young patients.  All of us are finding the results are heartening and remarkably consistent.

One reason the Sesame Street materials are so important is that young children are seldom able to tell their parents about their fears and misconceptions.  Instead, they often act out their fears and worries in meltdowns, tantrums, or clingy behavior, and even experience physical symptoms such as tummy aches.

The Sesame Street online resources, DVD, and books give these children critical information and reassurance. At the same time, they provide parents with natural openings to talk with their children about family changes and with proven words and concepts to use in their conversations.

Here’s what we’re finding when parents use the Sesame Street materials with their children:

  • Many parents report that the materials gave them the words to have the hard conversations they had been avoiding.  They are grateful for the help!
  • Parents also report improvements in their children’s clingy, whiny behavior, and decreases in their worries and complaints of tummy aches.  They say their children are not as frustrated, demanding, and angry over small incidents.  These behavioral changes occur as children’s anxiety, confusion, anger and frustration are reduced.
  • Children come into my play therapy room talking about their “big feelings,” and some are even singing the “Big Feelings” song! I hear them reassuring themselves as they repeat that “divorce is not kids’ fault–or Abby’s!” All of this reveals that children are relieved to have accurate, age-appropriate information and a new-found ability to put their feelings into words.

Using the Sesame Street materials, children are learning the powerful ability to express their strong feelings in words.  They are also learning to manage their emotions in healthy ways – a foundational skill for healthy relationships in the future and resilience over their lifetime. With the help of their parents – and Sesame Street – they feel reassured and secure in the belief that their parents will continue to love and care for them, always.

In divorce, family and friends can give wonderful support… except when they don’t!

When your relationship or marriage ends, there are so many feelings swirling around inside. The partnership you’d thought would last a lifetime has come unraveled. You have so many emotions – hurt, fear, frustration, anger, sadness, liberation, and more – all welling up inside. You need someone to listen, help you navigate your way through them, and offer loving support.

Family members and close friends often can be enormously helpful during times of difficult transitions. If you benefit from your times with them, don’t be shy about seeking out those whose company and insights you find helpful and reassuring.

Sometimes, however, even with the best of intentions, the people we love actually add to our distress. If that’s the case, then either give them direction about what you need or don’t need, or find other resources that can genuinely help you.

For instance, sometimes people who love you believe they are showing their support when they criticize your ex. Despite the pain that he/she may have caused, criticism about that person also implies criticism of a major life decision you made to marry him/her. Even worse, if this criticism is aired around your children, it can be very damaging. Children understand that they are part of both their parents, so hearing one disparaged makes them feel demeaned, too, as well as creating loyalty conflicts for them.

If your “supporter” is going down this path, you may be able to manage the situation. You could tell them that much as you appreciate their love and support, it is not helpful to you to hear about your former partner’s faults, and then tell them what would be helpful to you. “I appreciate that you care about me, but it actually makes me feel worse when you say negative things about my ex.  What would really help me is for you to tell me honestly some of the things about me that you value; at this point, I doubt myself, and you could help me regain some confidence.”

There are many other ways that family and friends may – unintentionally or even intentionally – erode your emotional well-being. They may, for instance, give you advice you’re not ready to hear. (“You just need to get out there and start dating.”) Or they may dwell on all the difficult emotions, to the extent that you are dragged still further down. (“I can imagine how much you’re hurting. You must feel just awful all the time.”)  Or they may tell you about someone else they know whose children slid off the rails after their divorce. (“I’ll tell you, after the divorce, those kids went from being straight A students to doing drugs.”)

In such situations, you will feel better if you take charge and either redirect the conversations or simply refuse to talk with those individuals about your feelings. In cases where family or friends cling to their harmful ways, you may need to distance yourself from them, at least for awhile.

Fortunately, there are many other resources that can help you navigate your difficult emotions. You may find support, perspective, and encouragement through a support group or a qualified mental health professional. I hope you will actively seek whatever help you need. That alone is a sign of strength and can lead to healing.

What I learned about divorce in Istanbul

Putting Children First - in Turkish Translation

Putting Children First – in Turkish Translation

Recently, I returned from a trip to Turkey, where my book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce,” was published in Turkish translation. Now while I’ve conducted research and worked with parents and professionals all across the United States, and in several European countries, South Africa and Australia, I’m really not an expert on divorce in Turkey. So on my book tour, I was eager to learn about these parents’ experiences and insights, as well as to share some of the strategies that have proven so effective for separating and divorced parents in other parts of the world.

I’m so grateful for this experience. What I found in Turkey mirrored so much of what I’ve seen here in the U.S. and elsewhere, though perhaps even more poignant. Divorce is less common in Turkey than it is here, and less widely accepted in the culture. Because of those factors, the parents I met there felt greater measures of vulnerability and shame than parents here generally do. So I was particularly touched by the strength and courage it took for the Turkish parents I met to make a priority of coming to a weekend workshop, where they expressed their deepest feelings openly and sought ways to help their children adjust and thrive.

The experiences and feelings they shared, 5,000 miles away on the other side of the globe, were remarkably similar to those of parents right here in the U.S.  They expressed a sense of loss, sadness and regret at the realization that their marriages were ending, and with them the dreams they’d once had for their lives together.  They shared their feelings of anger, too, and worries about the future and their children, but also some positive feelings of relief and hopes for a better future, especially if there had been abuse and intense conflict in the relationship.

Perhaps the most painful stories were of lost relationships between parents and their children. They talked of the challenges of life in a single parent family, managing task overload and their fervent wish to find the strength and energy to raise strong healthy children.

There, as here, in the workshop we focused on the most critical factors that have proven to help children and parents thrive:

1)      Managing conflict and protecting children from being caught in the middle of adult problems.

2)      Quality parenting, providing children with abundant ongoing love and reassurance and at the same time providing clear, consistent expectations for responsible behavior, and limits.

3)      Positive relationships between children and both parents, and with extended family, as long as it is safe.

4)      Parents’ own emotional and physical well being, which is fundamental for parents to be able to focus on their children and provide quality parenting.

5)      Household stability and healthy routines for children, including involvement in school and extracurricular activities, homework, meals together, limits on screen time and regular bedtimes.

I returned home, grateful for the opportunity to meet these courageous Turkish parents, and inspired – as I am so often – by the kind of love and dedication that enable parents everywhere to put their children first.

Help your children by taking care of yourself

Your baby needs her diaper changed. The school called to say your kindergartener lost his backpack. You need to get showered, dressed, and out the door to work in 10 minutes. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in six weeks. Your coffee is cold. And just under the surface, a huge tangled ball of emotions is churning in your stomach.

Stressed? Oh yes. You’re separated now, and worries for yourself and your children weigh heavily. Taking time for yourself seems like the last item on your very long to-do list.

And yet, taking care of yourself needs to be a high priority – for your sake and for your children’s. If you’re like many single parents, you struggle with the logistics of finding time just for yourself, and you may also feel guilty for taking time away from your children. But doing so can benefit everyone. When you have greater physical and emotional well-being, you are better able to manage strong emotions, reduce conflict, and provide thoughtful, quality parenting.

Given that your life feels overwhelmingly busy already, where to begin?

Here’s what I suggest: Give yourself the gift of 20 minutes every day. If you can find more time than that, go for it. But the point is to start with an amount of time that feels manageable. Then make a daily routine of doing something that brings you peace.

Getting exercise daily is an excellent way to reduce stress and stay healthy. Go out and take a brisk walk – maybe share it with a caring friend, or use the time just to savor being alone – whatever feels best to you. Practice simple deep breathing for a few minutes, visualizing a place where you feel safe, relaxed and peaceful.  Yoga and tai chi are excellent ways to relax. If you can’t get out to a class, get a DVD at the library and try it out. Get on a treadmill and crank up your favorite music. Whatever activity you choose, clear your mind and focus on creating a calm, rejuvenating experience.

If physical activity doesn’t speak to you, then choose something else that makes you happy – read quietly, dance, play the piano, paint or draw, work a puzzle , make jewelry, or do some other creative or a spiritual practice that deepens a sense of peace within you. Whatever you choose, make it something that engages and absorbs you. Watching TV or playing video games are ok for occasional entertainment, but  these activities  don’t engage your mind in the same way.  The goal is to find routines that deepen a sense of balance and relaxation in your life.

In future blogs, I’ll talk more about other ways to take care of yourself. For now, just get started. You deserve it, and your children will benefit from a more centered you.