Children of All Ages: For any age group, the ramifications of separation and divorce are felt most acutely at holiday time. Adult children of divorce as well as their younger counterparts struggle with the new regime, the confusing order of things and benefit from a language and vocabulary that empowers them. Locating their boundaries and clarifying often double-edged messages from parents are necessary coping strategies. Weddings, baptisms, bat and bar mitzvahs, graduations, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and other holidays often summon up painful emotions and worries for the divorced child. A toolkit of rules can reduce the stress and pain and provide a resource for a lifetime.
Damage Control Through Empowerment: Well-meaning, distraught parents are deeply worried about the “scars” that the demise of their marriage will have on their children. I have worked with many such a parent over the decades and find that many worry and watch, taking heart in “silence” or the absence of obvious difficulty as a sign that all is well. Others refer to therapists, or engage in long-winded explanations that confuse and manipulate their children’s minds and emotions. And these are “good parents”, responsible parents.Despite these efforts a crucial element is missing, the voice of the child.
Telling them “stuff” is cool. But hearing their “stuff” is cooler. How can that happen when children cannot compose the words that describe their feelings and wishes to the adults? Or adult children of divorce are afraid to string the words together, too many old taboos; best to avoid or compartmentalize parental worlds; tremble before each family celebration; hide information of the event from one parent. These strategies warp and maim family connective tissue. Conniving survival through family events has to damage the very life blood of the family and its individual members.
The Divorce Survival Toolkit: Thanks to a very bright and special young fellow, I have a better idea. This young man gets caught in the crossfire of divorce, so we brainstormed some “rules” to cope with the painful triangulation that typically accompanies the termination of a marriage. The actual name for the set of rules was aptly chosen by the middle schooler, taking a “page” out of his therapist’s handbook/blog. Here are his rules, with additions and modifications:
Rules for School Age Children and Adults:
1. No parent is allowed to share information with me that I cannot share with the other parent. (i.e. no triangulation, see my post Triangle Traps).
2. No parent should use me as a punching bag or use an angry tone of voice toward me, because of a situation with the other parent (see my post The Divorcing Coupledom: The Art of Uncoupling).
3. No parent will give me their version of an incident that could persuade me to take their side. (Not interested. Don’t want to know. It is all equally toxic and poisonous for me).
4. Financial/Material issues related to my needs and wants should not be discussed/fought over in my presence. Inclusive in this rule are loud phone calls while I am in the house: text messages or emails that are shown to me; confrontations in the front yard, driveway or any venue.
4a. Lost And Found: If something is lost between houses, left out of back packs or forgotten at school, do not blame me or each other. Problem solve with me to help prevent a recurrence.
5. No parent will ask me to deliver a message to the other parent. Parents cannot communicate through the children.
Rules for Pre School Age Children:
Parents often seek comfort in the knowledge that their pre schoolers can’t understand much of what is being said. Do not find comfort in this. Acrimonious communications between parents expressed through tone of voice, physical behaviors, and facial expression do not require “content” to convey animosity and do damage.
The following rules can apply to children and adults of any age.
1. No parent will raise their voice, shout or gesture angrily to the other, in my presence (whether this is in person, on the phone, or talking to someone else about my parent while I am present).
2. No parent will roll their eyes, glare or use facial expression to attack the other parent, in my presence.
3. No parent will use a tone of voice that is negative, sarcastic or deprecating to the other parent, in my presence.
Rules for Adult Children of Divorce as Parents:
1. I will not pass on the legacy of triangulation to my children.
2. I will ask both of my divorced parents to develop tools to be appropriately present at my children’s significant milestones, which are my milestones as well.
3. I will not engage in conversations in front of my children with either divorced parent, about the other, unless the conversation is acrimony free.
4. If my children ask me questions about their grandparents, I will answer honestly, and in an age appropriate manner. I will not veil, hide or disguise the reality to protect myself or my parents. Children need to trust that what they are told is true.
5. I am an adult and can choose with whom I share information, how I spend my time, and will not be made to account to either parent of my choices.
6. I will follow Rules 1-4 of school age children, and ask my parents to honor those rules.
Here Is The Plan: Invite your children to read these rules, modify them, personalize them. Adult children of divorce, fit the rules to your own needs, share them with your parents, and ask them to honor your divorce survival rules. If they think that you should be over this “stuff”, remind them that the “stuff” is spilling over into your adulthood and your children’s childhood. For the pre schoolers, parents should just follow the rules identified above. As they get older, help them to write their own set of rules. Honor the rules.
Breaking The Rules: Children/Adult Children: Tell the parents when they are breaking the rules of The Divorce Survival Toolkit. And parents, try harder next time. If you are sincere in your desire to prevent emotional damage to your offspring, here is your chance.
The Experts: We are the experts of ourselves. By offering our children the option to write their rules, we acknowledge their expertise. They are the authors of their life story. Often the words or the feelings are hard to find, either because the brain is still maturing, or decades of conflict and confusion have obscured the adult child’s access to feeling. But remember, children may not feel free to say what they need in front of their parents. It may take the presence of an expert, a non parental figure, to clear the way to help them find the words. Whatever is needed, respect the product. Honor the rules. Good luck.
©Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010