By Sharon Strand Ellison and Ami Atkinson Combs

The love we feel for our children often prompts strong protective instincts, which can be intensified during the trauma of divorce. We just want them to feel good, safe, and secure.

When our children are sad, scared or experiencing feelings of loss, a common reaction is to try and reassure them. When our four-year-old cries, “I miss daddy,” we might hold her saying, “It’s OK, honey. We both love you so much. Daddy just lives in a different house now. You’ll still see him lots.”

Sadly, this kind of protective impulse often backfires. Whatever the age — from toddlers to adults — rather than protecting our children, an attempt to convince them that everything is okay shuts down the “real talk” they need.

Instead, we can ask questions. For example, “What do you miss about Daddy?” She might answer, “He always read to me before bedtime.” We can now respond to something specific, like, “I know how much daddy loves reading to you too!” 

The child may shift instantly from sadness to trust in Daddy’s love. And this process can facilitate more creative problem solving.  Perhaps Daddy can call or Skype in order to still read bedtime stories some nights.

We could also ask a child who is missing the other parent, “Why do you think Mommy’s not living here anymore?” This allows us to learn about stories he may have told himself, including “Mommy left because she’s mad at me.” Knowing his assumptions can make all the difference in our ability to successfully respond to what’s really going for him.

We regularly see parents wanting to avoid asking questions because they’re afraid it will make the child feel worse instead of better. This can reflect a lack of confidence in the child’s ability to handle a more in-depth conversation. We find the opposite to be true – that children welcome “real talk” and feel relieved when they can open up.

One story we both love is about four-year-old Ali, whose parents had a difficult divorce. Ali told her mother on the way to pre-school, “Daddy wants me to be a girl and you want me to be a boy.” Her mom was shocked, but shifted to asking a curious question, “Honey, what made you think I want you to be a boy?” Ali said, “Daddy wants me to wear dresses to school and you want me to wear pants.”

Surprised by the unexpected answer, Mom responded that, since they played outside and even rode horses at her Montessori school, she wanted Ali to wear clothes that gave her the freedom to do all the different activities. Then, she said, “I’m delighted you’re a girl, I always wanted a daughter,” and Ali giggled in delight.

Laughing as she us told the story, this mom finished by saying, “If I hadn’t asked that one question, she might have grown up and gone through years of therapy — trying to work through some vague feeling that her mom wished she’d been a boy!” The point is well taken because when a child carries an unexamined assumption, it can solidify into a belief that feels true even if the conscious memory fades.

When a child asks us a question, we can also sometimes shift too quickly to reassurance. Daniel’s parents were divorcing and his mom was worried he wasn’t expressing his feelings because his dad didn’t think boys should cry. One day when I (Sharon) went for a home visit, Daniel came and sat on my lap. After we talked a bit, he looked at me and asked, “Sharon, are you a crybaby?” I said, “I do cry, but I don’t think of myself as a crybaby.” He was very still for a moment, then asked thoughtfully, “Do you mean that if there are tears inside, they need to come out?”

If I had gone into protective mode and used his question as an opportunity to reassure him that crying is OK, I think he would have probably retreated back into his private conflict. When I simply answered his question directly, he compared his belief that crying meant being a baby to my belief that I cry without feeling like a baby — and came to his own conclusion. I was awe-struck by his wisdom.

When we have authentic conversations with our children, we can honor their strength and connect on a deeper level. The lessons and security that come from such conversations can last a lifetime.

© 2014, Sharon Strand Ellison & Ami Atkinson

Sharon Strand Ellison and her daughter Ami Atkinson Combs co-produced the audio-book, Taking Power Struggle Out of Parenting, winner of a Benjamin Franklin Award. Sharon and Ami offer workshops and webinars for parents and training programs for teachers in public and private schools, as well as for a wide range of agencies serving families. 

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photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.