Grieving over a Massachusetts divorce is an imperious state, demanding we submit mind, heart and body. Parenting, meanwhile, is nothing if not an endless stream of selflessness. How do we indulge the self-focus grief requires while performing the most selfless job a person can do? And how should we?
Painful breakups can have profound effects on the body and mind. In a study, scientists studying “rejected individuals” found activity in regions of the brain related to physical pain and cocaine addiction. The researchers concluded romantic heartbreak can trigger clinical depression, addictive behaviors and even suicide as a result.
Sadness, irritability, fatigue, and distractedness are among the most common side effects of grief while parenting. Parents are generally inclined to pretend everything is fine. But kids are way more hip to our feelings than we think.
When we try to hide our grief, we’re not that successful at doing it and it usually comes out in other ways.
Children, meanwhile, tend to pick up on subtle shifts in parents’ behavior. Kids are developmentally self-centered by nature, and tend to overestimate their power to control the world around them. If parents don’t tell kids why they’re upset kids may blame themselves, believing they are the cause of the problem.
Parents are teachers as much as caregivers, and our children learn to navigate life’s challenges by watching us. Kids can get a road map for how to handle painful emotions. What they see is their most meaningful role model going through something hard and overwhelming, and learning that it’s okay to not know what to do. It’s okay to be devastated and it’s a normal part of life to take these challenges and get help from someone else.
And, when kids witness a parent grieving, they have an opportunity to practice empathy with a loved one in pain. They learn that our feelings change throughout life, but don’t define us.
If parents shield their children from real feelings, kids falsely imagin their parents are in constant control of themselves and may try to emulate them. If you never see your parents struggling with real world things, you don’t get a model for how to do that yourself.
So how do we share our sadness with children without burdening them?
Say it in child-friendly language. How do we explain big problems to small people? Keep a child’s age in mind and explain the situation in terms they can understand.
If the break-up is with a non-parent who the child was attached to but may not see again, it’s key to make room for the child’s grief, too. It’s really sad that we’re not going to be able to see so-and-so anymore, and I know that’s hard for you, too. The child will have her own reaction to that, including blaming a parent for a loss that was out of their control to begin with.
Manage how and when you share your feelings. It’s not just how we say it, but how much we share that must be scaled according to the child’s age. Keep it simple, choose how much you share on a need to know basis, and be watchful for signs of overwhelm in your child. Several short conversations might be more digestible than one dramatic sit-down.
Stay in control. Parents should send kids the message that they are hurting but still able to take care of themselves and continue being capable parents. If you feel too distraught, wait until you are more composed. “I’m sure I’ll feel better when I’m done crying,” is both instructive and reassuring.
The good news is that kids are remarkably resilient, as anyone who’s seen a kid bang into something and dust themselves off with barely a peep can attest. Most children move through a world full of distractions, and many learn to compartmentalize effectively. This can serve them and us well.
Should you be in the midst of a divorce or contemplating divorce, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour no obligation consultation.