SMILE (Start Making It Livable for Everyone) Presentation
This is the text of a presentation I do regularly for the SMILE (Start Making It Livable for Everyone) program of the Oakland County Circuit Court. It is based upon the SMILE Handbook and was adapted from a presentation by my colleague, Janice Tracht.
Every time I see the SMILE video I learn something, just by listening to the kids in the video. The kids in the video are like your kids, and like the more than 1000 kids I have seen who were going through a divorce or had recently been through one. What I hear is:
1. Confusion and uncertainty: there is a lot they don’t understand (or didn’t understand at the time of the divorce) and a lot of changes that, from their perspective, are not necessarily in their interest, right now.
2. Exposure to conflict: fighting, lack of respect in their parents’ behavior to one another, being put in the middle of their parents’ conflicts.
3. Insecurity, hurt, worry and anger. They may experience the divorce with feelings of loss, sadness, or loss of confidence in their parents. They don’t choose for their parents to get divorced. They often don’t want it, and they don’t want to know about your struggles.
4. Uncertainty: kids (and adults) want to know what the future brings. Remember the kid who wondered, if his parents were not going to be living together any more, who he would live with, some third person? Uncertainty is inherently stressful.
Believe me, the children in the SMILE video are not unusual. I’ve also worked with hundreds of couples, so I know that going through a divorce is a tough process. Some of you may be experiencing the greatest stresses of your lives. If divorce is hard for you, it is probably harder for your kids.
How Children React to Divorce
Going through a divorce can create painful feelings, memories and events for kids, including interference in their relationship with one or both parents, and with extended family and friends.
Also, this is probably near the low point of your relationship with one another, and your behavior in front of your children is often a problem. Older kids tell me that their parents get "temporarily crazy" during a divorce.
We know that divorce is a risk factor for a variety of psychological problems for children. Many kids, although less than half, function more poorly in the period before the divorce and for a short time thereafter. In general, however, their functioning, like yours, recovers over time, unless the conflict between you stays high.
Lets review some common short-term problems that your children may be experiencing, so you can recognize your child’s distress and try to support your child. If you are not succeeding in helping, get some professional assistance, whether through your school district, church or a private counselor.
It is best to look at children’s responses in terms of their developmental level. For more information, I recommend Neil Kalter’s book, Growing Up With Divorce.
1. Infants and toddlers obviously don’t understand the divorce, but even very young infants can react strongly to changes in their schedule or to changes in their parents' moods, behavior, or availability.
These changes can lead to increases in fussiness or crying, clinging, or even regression to earlier levels of development, such as crawling instead of walking, or wanting to go back to a bottle if they have been weaned to a cup. Your baby or toddler may be more distressed at minor separations, such daycare. They are also likely to sense tension when you exchange them with one another, leading to fussing, clinging or resisting the exchange. Sleeping may be affected.
2. Preschoolers, when under stress, can share younger children’s separation problems, display tantrums, whining, sadness or aggressiveness. A temporary regression in toilet training may also occur.
Kids this age and younger are very sensitive to consistency in their schedules and routines. If you only communicate about one thing, communicate about your kids’ needs and how you are handling them, so that your child experiences his or her life as predictable and stable.
3. Young children, from older preschoolers to early school age children, are egocentric; that is, they experience themselves as the center of the universe. If good things happen, its because they have been good; if there are bad experiences, they often feel that they are to blame. Such children may blame themselves for the divorce, and feel guilty. Or, they may try to be extra “good” in order to bring the parents get back together.
In addition to the problems seen at earlier ages, it is a common finding that little boys can become more aggressive in the early period after the divorce. Little girls are more likely to keep their feelings about the divorce inside.
Again, consistency and structure are very important for children at this age. Do not expose them to fighting or other frightening events; they just can’t make sense out of them. They are better able to explain their feelings in words, so that listening to their feelings is important. Because of their language development, it becomes even more important not to speak badly about the other parent; it is not only confusing but also frightening to hear their mother or father described as a bad person or have bad behavior attributed to them.
4. Children ages nine to twelve are more likely to try to figure out who was to blame for the divorce; and they are more likely to try to take sides in any disagreements between the two of you. They are more willing to be used as “spies” or intermediaries, but this is bad for them. They see conflicts in “good guy” ,“bad guy” terms. Increases in anger towards one or both parent, trouble in school or with peers, anxiety, withdrawal or somatic symptoms may be signs of difficulty coping with the family situation.
5. Adolescence is a difficult period even in the best of circumstances. Adolescents question their parents while trying to fit in with their peers, and they have to handle a variety of new temptations and fears.
Divorce exposes your weaknesses or failings to your adolescent. At a time when the teen is trying to master new ideas, emotions and impulses, to see his or her parents losing control over their emotions or acting inappropriately puts more on the adolescent’s agenda than he or she is equipped to handle. And he or she is too often pushed to choose between parents, to become an ally, judge or confidant.
In addition to all the problems shown in earlier years, adolescents can act out in more ways, including aggressive, sexual or even criminal behavior.
Long-Term Consequences of Divorce
As I said before, most children can cope with their parents’ divorce, after a period of stress adjustment. Only about 11 percent of kids whose parents divorce show measurable psychological problems, as compared with 8% of kids whose parents don’t divorce. The good news is that the great majority of your children will end up without disabling adjustment problems. The bad news is that the presence of divorce leads to a modest increase in such problems.
What determines whether the impact of your divorce is modest and temporary, or serious and long-term?
Here are some factors over which you have control, based upon the research literature:
1. First, freedom from being exposed to conflict between the parents, and not being put in the middle of the parents' disputes is associated with better adjustment; That means not sabotaging the children's relationship with the other parent, not using the children as messengers or spies, not arguing in front of them or speaking badly about the other parent. It also means not pressuring the child to become your ally against the other parent. Remember what kids said in the video about their parents putting them in the middle.
2. Second, the quality of the children’s relationship with each of you affects outcomes. Quality means warmth, listening, and firm but loving discipline.
3. Third, children’s contact with and the quality of their relationship with the non-residential parent. If one of you has the children most of the time, access to, and the quality of their relationship with the other parent is extremely important to their well-being. Do not interfere with this, or your children will pay a price
4. Fourth, your health and emotional well-being. It is critically important that you take care of yourself. Bitter, unhappy or ill parents have much less to give, and their children have more problems.
Of these factors, I feel (and many researchers and clinicians agree) that the post-divorce relationship between the parents is the key factor in protecting your children from negative long-term effects of divorce.
Most important, its not how hurt or angry you are towards the other parent, but how you express it: is the anger something you are open about in front of your children? How long do you stay angry after the divorce is settled? Do you discuss your grievances with your children, or with others in front of your children? Do you directly or indirectly ask for their sympathy or say things which might make them mad at the other parent? Do you place them in a conflict of loyalty? Do you interrogate them about what happens at the other parent’s house, and sympathize with anything negative they say? Do you use them as spies, to get information about the other parent? Do you compete for their love?
If you do these things, you are placing your children at risk, and it is necessary to stop. Otherwise, your kids are much more likely to have difficulties, including emotional and behavioral problems, substance abuse problems, problems in their relationships with peers; and when they are adults, in problems in relationships with adult partners.
Divorce is a challenge to all children. Even children who end up normal report that more often than not, there were significant painful experiences resulting from the divorce which had a big impact on them.
WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR CHILDREN, YOU HAVE CHOICE: You can make the effort to put your children’s needs ahead of your own. You can put aside your feelings about your ex-spouse in favor of your children’s feelings.
Talking About The Divorce
Many parents express concern about how to talk with their children about the divorce. Some of you have talked to your children already, but talking about this is likely to be a continuing issue. Lets focus on the first talk:
What are the goal for this conversation?:
1. First to calm the children’s fears
2. Second, to rebuild their trust
3. Third, to keep them out of the middle of your problems
- Gather your children together, with both mom and dad present, so that the children can see you united in attempting to help them
- Reassure your children that you both love them and will always love them and take care of them, no matter what happens between the two of you
- Listen to your children as you comfort them.
- Reassure them that they are not to blame for your problems.
- Help them to express their feelings and questions about the divorce, and to understand that everything will be ok. Listen to them.
- Younger school age children may be most concerned about concrete details like where they will stay, etc. If you don’t yet know the answers to their questions, reassure them that this information will come.
- Older children may want lots of details of why there is a divorce- an agreed upon answer that does not get into details about your marital difficulties, and does not blame either parent, is best
- Reassure them that they will still have a family, still have a mom and dad, but now in two homes instead of one
- Give unnecessary details about why the marriage is ending
- Don’t blame or disparage the other parent, or try to turn the children against them.
- Don’t rely on your children for your own emotional support, or use them as your sounding board or best friend. They lack the emotional maturity to handle your problems, and they are likely to be frightened or confused by your problems. They are looking to you for support.
It is important to help your children to open up and talk about their feelings at this time.
- Be open in listening to your children, and let them know it is ok to have feelings and to be confused. Listening is even more important than explaining or reassuring.
- It is ok to let them know that you feel confused or worried, sometimes, to encourage them to talk. But don’t lay it on too thick. Kids need a sense of hope about the future, and a sense that their parents are strong.
- Put your child off when he or she wants to talk. Your child may keep things inside and then all of a sudden need your attention. Stop what your are doing and listen.
- Don’t dismiss or minimize your children’s feelings. They may interpret this as meaning that you really don’t want them to talk or that it is wrong to feel that way.
We know that we are asking you to help your children at a time when you may feel like an emotional wreck. You’re going to have to overcome, for their sake.
- Do what you need to get support- from friends and professionals, and to meet your other emotional needs. Join a divorce support or divorce recovery group, get into therapy, exercise, don’t neglect your physical health.
- Don’t allow yourself to slip into a downward spiral. Your children don’t need a martyr. They're looking to you for help, stability, and hope
- When you begin to date, don’t expose your children to casual relationships. And give them time to adjust to the divorce before introducing a potential partner, then take it slow, to allow them to adjust.
Renegotiating Your Relationship
Right now the level of conflict between you is probably near its highest point. As you get distance from the pain and anger of your marriage, you need to let go of your problems, to close the book of your marriage. But there is another book that continues, the story of your life-long roles as parents of your children.
I like to describe a successful post-divorce relationship between parents as a formal, practical or business relationship, which is a relationship of shared goals and tasks. You need to close the book on your romantic relationship, which is a relationship of love, anger, and other strong emotions. In business or professional life, it doesn't matter very much how you feel about the people you deal with, your customers, clients, supervisors, etc. You can be friends with them, or not like them personally, but that is not is what important.
What is important is the business you need to conduct. The most important business you will ever conduct is raising your children. What is the goal? Healthy children. Raising healthy children takes two parents, and it can be ruined by holding onto grudges.
Moving from a conflicted, intense or hostile relationship to a detached, business-like exchange can’t be done instantly. It may take some time for your emotions about your former spouse to become less important than they are now.
One thing that is needed is to create what we call a “conflict-free zone” for your children. It is not how you feel about the other person that counts, but what the children are exposed to. Remember:
- Your children’s perception of your former spouse is likely to be very different from your own. They have a different relationship and different needs with regard to their other parent. It is not necessary nor helpful for them to see that person the way you do.
- Your children’s well-being is more important than your anger at the other parent. You could get revenge by hurting their relationship with the other parent, but this is likely to hurt your children.
- Remember that your child needs and deserves to have the best of both parents.
To create a conflict-free zone:
- Decide to contain your feelings about your ex- enough so that you can separate your feelings from their role in your children’s lives.
- Protect the children from your disputes.
- Allow your children to keep photos and keepsakes related to the other parent.
- Allow them to speak about their positive feelings about the other parent, and if they wish, to tell you about positive experiences with the other parent. Do not spoil this opportunity to support your child with negative comments or nasty looks.
- Encourage the other parent to stay involved in the children’s school and other activities
- Write, call, fax, etc. your children when you are not with them for extended periods of time.
- Encourage your children to work out their differences with the other parent, if they occur, rather than interceding all the time. Listen to your children, but don’t use this as an opportunity for fighting with the other parent. Get involved only when absolutely necessary.
- Put your children in the middle.
- Try to dictate the parenting style of the other parent. One of the difficult aspects of divorce is that you have little say over what happens at the other household. If you have a concern, respect the right of the other parent to make decisions. Try to be helpful and constructive in discussing disagreements outside of the children’s hearing. Help your child to accept differences between the two households.
The exchange of children between their parents is the most frequent contact you may have with your ex-spouse. It is also the most likely time for conflicts to erupt into arguments.
This is also the time when kids are most likely to fuss about having to be passed back and forth, without being asked, between two homes.
You may feel vindicated when your child resists or refuses to be taken to your ex’s home.
But children are not adults, and their relationships with their parents are unlike your relationship with your ex.
It is likely that this behavior is caused by one of the following factors:
- The child senses tension, conflict and anxiety between you, and may fear that an incident may occur
- They may refuse to go in order to please you. You may be directly or indirectly communicating that you don’t want them to go, are anxious about their going, or want them to say they don’t want to go.
- Finally, children don’t enjoy being made to interrupt their activities for adults’ sakes. They may be tired, or for some other reason want to stay where they are.
The court order for parenting time is not something to be dismissed or taken lightly. The court and friend of the court will insist that the children be present at the designated time according to the parenting schedule.
Here are our suggestions for exchanges:
- Don’t discuss disagreements the other parent at the exchange. Use the telephone or other means of communication about adult issues.
- Don’t discuss child support in front of the children.
- Do not display animosity towards the children’s other parent at the time of exchange.
- Do not use foul language, dirty looks, or aggressive gestures.
- If you feel that the other parent has violated these rules, keep your cool. Don’t increase your children’s stress by responding in kind.
Other suggestions for exchanges:
- Count to ten, and take a deep breath if you feel stress at the times of exchange, and promise yourself to keep civil.
- Use other means than talking at exchanges to share information. Send emails, fax or mail notes, or make phone calls when the children are at sleep or in school.
- If it is not possible for you or the other person to control themselves, make alternative plans for the exchange such as having another person make the exchange for you, or exchange the children in a public place. You can also arrange exchanges in which you don’t meet the other person, by dropping off or picking up the children from school or daycare.
- Make sure the children are ready at the time of exchange and make sure the children are returned at the designated time.
- Make sure the children have what they need for parenting time with their other parent. Make sure that what they brought with them is returned
- Have an agreed-upon procedure for contacting the other parent in the case of an emergency.
Other Suggestions for Keeping Your Kids Out of the Middle
All experts agree on the following rules for protecting your children from conflict between divorce and divorcing parents:
- Do not talk (to anyone) in a negative way in front of the children about the other parent.
- Do not allow your family or friends to disparage the children’s other parent in front of the children. Their negative statements may make you feel better, but they have a negative effect on your children.
- Don’t quiz your children about their activities with the other parent when they return home from parenting time. Your children may feel that you want them to “tell” on the other parent. Listen supportively to what they tell you voluntarily, just don’t grill them.
- Don’t discuss financial matters such as child support with your children.
- Do not use your children as messengers, to substitute for you communicating with their other parent.
Make sure that you have detailed co-parenting plan that spells out as many issues as possible, including:
Parenting time during the school year, holiday sharing, vacations, special events, transportation, telephone calls, sharing information and problem solving.
The plan should take into consideration everyone’s activities, including the children. Have a very specific agreement should limit conflict to a great degree.
The Parenting Plan
In the spirit of making your children’s lives predictable and understandable, the schedule should be followed, treated with the greatest respect. This schedule is a legal document, and changes should be made by mutual agreement only. If the schedule becomes outdated, get the Friend of the Court or the court involved.
If you need help devising or following a parenting plan, you may seek the help of an impartial third party. Your Family Counselor with the Friend of the Court is trained and experienced in mediating parenting plans, and can help you at no cost. Private mediation and parenting coordination are also available from a number of trained professionals in Oakland County.
This presentation is intended as introduction to a healthy outcome for your children. If you get lost along the way, seek help to enable you to face the challenges you experience.
Many parents will benefit from therapy to help them resolve their feelings about the divorce. Your marriage is a chapter in your life which is now ending. Go to the next chapter; don’t get stuck in the old one.
There are also mediators and divorce coaches who specialize in helping folks to divorce in a collaborative fashion.
You must make efforts to help your children move through this crisis in their lives and come out the other end unscathed. It can be done:
First, be the best parent you can for your children.
Second, allow the other parent to give all they can to your children.
Third, set an example of hope and stability. Be a role model. Teach your children how to relate to others in a constructive fashion. Do you want your children to learn bitterness, revenge, martyrdom, manipulation and sabotage? Or do you want them to learn to get along with others, in good and not so good, or easy and in difficult contexts?
These are your choices.