Friday Counseling Issues: Children of Divorce

“The kids will be just fine.  They’ll cope, and you need to dump the jerk you married after what he did.  Don’t worry about the kids.  Kids are resilient, and  they bounce back fast.”

Sometimes  grownups are less mature than their own children.  Some friend gives them this kind of advice, and because they are deeply hurt over a betrayal in the marriage, they think maybe the friend is right.

She’s not.

It’s true that children are resilient, but it’s not true that children of divorce wil be “just fine.” They are the most hurt participants in this tragedy; they lose the most, they have to adapt to change the most, their financial circumstances are often affected the most, they have more to lose than anyone else.

And perhaps most difficult of all, they almost always have to deal with some new person entering their lives as a step-parent, often accompanied by step-siblings.  Their whole world is rocked.

There are tons of studies that have been done on this subject.  They detail both the short-term and long-term effects of divorce on children. Some of them make for pretty dry reading.  I did some research on the topic for a paper of my own when I was working on my master’s degree, and I have to tell you that my eyes crossed sometimes while I was doing the research.

More important, though, is the heartbreak that accompanies the process and results of divorce, both for the parents and the children.  Divorce often seems like the only possible answer, but it also often opens a host of new problems.

If you are interested in reading about all this, I found an excellent paper that goes into a lot of detail supported by linear studies.  You can find it here.

The paper covers the whole range of topics that children of divorce cope with, from matters of faith to education, income and earning capacity, crime, abuse and neglect, drug use, government services, health and well-being, and so on.

Not every child will experience every problem. Some divorces actually do make the child’s life better, if one of the parents is abusive, alcoholic, drug-addicted, or criminal in other ways.  I had one young man tell me that the best day of his life was when his father got carted off to prison.  The second-best day was when his mom’s divorce decree was final.

I’m not being naive here.  I know that there are situations like that one.  However, the usual story is not like that, and children are often the victims who are overlooked in the process of the divorce, and are expected to happily move from mom’s to dad’s and back again for the rest of their growing up years.

It’s hard, and there’s just no way around that.  I’d encourage you to read the article.

If you are in a difficult marriage, please move heaven and earth to figure out a way to avoid divorce. Your kids don’t deserve to have to endure the fall-out.

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Friday Counseling Issues: Helicopter Moms

Before you tune out, just relax.  This isn’t going to be a post yelling at conscientious, dedicated mothers. There are never too many of those. I do want to make some observations, though, based on some things I see fairly often in my practice.  If it doesn’t describe you, you’re good to go.  If the shoe fits. . . .well, at least please think about it 🙂

First, I want to say that I think the term helicopter mom is snarky and unkind. What I know beyond a doubt is that the intentions of an overprotective mother are for nothing but the good of her child. She has invested in her child heart and soul, and what seems overbearing to her child and, perhaps, to observers, is simply her ongoing desire to see that child succeed.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Here’s the thing: Any good thing, taken too far, becomes a negative instead of a positive.  Think in terms of sugar, chocolate, alcohol, financial success, exercise and diet, and so on. All pleasant and good until they are taken too far and become obsessions.

A mother who is obsessed with her child and his welfare has gone too far.

As a teacher, years ago, I dreaded certain moms. In their minds, the entire educational system was responsible not only for her child’s education, but also for his physical, emotional, and social welfare. If the child came home unhappy, the mom was sure to come to school the next day with her cannon loaded, looking for the culprit who caused her child’s misery.

She maybe could have aimed those cannons at herself, because the one thing she isn’t doing in her devotion to her child is teaching him to stand on his own two feet and be responsible for his own behavior. She is not allowing any difficult consequences to go unchallenged. The child will grow up to always expect someone else to bail him out. He will have a hard time understanding that when you choose the behavior, you choose the consequence.

There are a couple of identifying sentences that overprotective moms (dads,too, by the way) use whenever their efforts are frustrated:  “I was just trying to help!  It was just a suggestion!”

They do not–will not–see that their constant hovering over the child has become interference. They don’t realize that the child needs to have the freedom to mess up, make mistakes, get knocked down a time or two and learn to get back up and try again.

Some kids learn early to cope with these ubermoms. They learn to let the constant stream of warnings, instructions, reminders and questions slide off their shoulders.  Others become angry and rebellious, demanding their space and their independence of the smothering concern of someone who is ALWAYS “just trying to help.”

One of my major concerns about these well-meaning but overly aggressive parents is how thier obsession with their children affects their marriages.  There are some women who, the minute they know they are pregnant, feel that their immortal destiny is fulfilled in bearing and rearing THE PERFECT CHILD.  This will be a child to whom no harm will come; who will know that Mom always has his back, no matter what horrendous behavior he has committed; a child that the world will recognize as being something special in human history.

And while this incredible child is incubating, the father learns that he has just lost his position as first place in his wife’s life.  After the child is born, he will experience a slowly but clearly widening gap in their relationship as more and more of her energy is poured into her child or children. She just has nothing left for him. The least little whimper or gasp from the baby’s room has her flying to the rescue, and if she finds that Baby is sound asleep, she may pick him up and rock him anyway just because she loves to do it.

A little bit of that kind of thing is fine.  Take it too far, you’re going to reap the whirlwind.

The child should never be the center of a parent’s existence. Eventually, in spite of all efforts to keep him safe at home, that child is going to spread his little wings and fly, and then Helicopter Mom or Dad will have nothing to do with their time–except, of course, to send a prodigious number of texts, emails, voicemails and requests to be called.  Sometimes I think the electronic age has done more damage than we will ever know.

If you see  yourself in this short little article, take a step back. Give your child room to breathe.  You’re a well-meaning, dedicated parent, and we would be a better world if there were more like you.  Just don’t take it too far.

Don’t clip the rotor blades on your child’s helicopter.  He needs to learn to fly alone.

Friday Counseling Issues: Child-rearing

What is the biggest parenting mistake you made? Tell about a time you “hit the mark” in parenting.

(Thanks, kathleenduncan)

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This is a hard one for me, and somewhat painful.   We all evolve over time in how we respond to people. Our attitudes change. They grow either harder or softer. Mine have softened considerably.  What that means in terms of childrearing is that I was too quick off the mark, especially with my first two.

I was reared by an authoritarian father. His word was law, and you challenged him at your own risk. He was typical of his generation. That wasn’t always a bad thing.  I grew up watching Father Knows Best, and it was a great program. We could use more of that today, couldn’t we?  Instead, we have programs that portray Dad as Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest.  Mom is the wise one, and the kids are all full of perfect one-liners that put both parents firmly in their places.

I hate those shows, and I won’t watch them.  Give me Andy Griffith any time!

Anyway.  Add to my authoritarian father my natural temperament to take charge, lead, problem-solve. Whoever first said “my way or the highway” was like me.

Also add into that mix the strong belief in the church we attended when our kids were young that every home should have a well-used paddle.  We did.  I am not against spanking, and I don’t believe we ever took it to the level of abuse. Three quick swats was the usual discipline, over and done pretty quickly.

So I would still apply that board of education to the seat of learning, but it would be far less frequently.  It would be reserved for outright, rebellious disobedience.  I would be more creative in dealing with smaller infractions. I’d like to believe I would be a better listener.

I had very good radar with my kids, and I didn’t miss much.  I did, however, miss some things that cause me deep regret now.  No parent can be there 24/7. No parent can know every interaction between the children, and no parent is god-like. And contrary to what we’d like to believe, all children lie. All children push the boundaries.  All children hide things from their parents.  I did.  Why wouldn’t mine do the same?

So, wrapping it up, I would paddle less often, and listen more closely.

Where did we hit the mark?  Sometimes I feel there was very little we did right, but the thing I hear from all four of my kids is that we taught them to think for themselves.  We had lots of family discussions at the supper table, something which I fear is becoming a part of the American past.  We talked about faith, politics, history, relationships, dating, just about everything.  It was good. We spoke, they listened.  They spoke, we listened. They have all told us that they are thankful for our teaching them to think criticially, not to be duped by every silly fad or fantasy; to be able to defend what they believe because they believe it, not because someone else believes it.

And they’re all raising good kids.  That is a great joy to me.

Friday Counseling Issues: Grieving a Child

My blogging friend Kathleen Duncan gave me a wonderful list of ideas  this morning for future blog posts. Here’s her first one:

What counsel would you give to parents who just lost a child to illness or accident? What actions would you advise and what words would you not say?

I have never had to walk through this particular valley, so I’m not going to tell you that I understand.

I’m not going to tell you, “Your child is in a better place.”

I’m not going to tell you, “You’ll have other children.”

I’m not going to tell you, “Time heals all wounds.”

I’m going to do my very best to avoid all the cliches that have no meaning whatsoever when you are reeling from the loss of the most precious  gift, the child made by the love between you and your grieving spouse.

I’m not going to ask how the mom is doing, but neglect to console the dad.

I’m not going to quote Romans 8:28 to you, even though I believe it is true.

I don’t think there is any advice that a grieving parent–and let’s not forget the grieving grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins–is able to hear early in the experience of such a dreadful loss.

So I’m going to keep all my wisdom to myself, and here’s what I will do:

I’m going to cry with the mourners.

I’m going to open my arms to them and hug them tight while they sob.

I’m going to tell them how deeply sorry I am for their loss.

I’m going to tell them, if I knew the child, that I will miss that child very much.

If I didn’t know the child (this happens when I’m counseling grieving parents) I will still tell them that I wish I had known their child.

I’m going to encourage them to tell the story of what happened, over and over again, as often as they need to repeat it.

I’m going to reassure them that God has not forsaken them. I will continue to do so as long as they are still feeling that God has deserted them.

Eventually, I will be able to tell them that grieving is a long and painful process; that they are not sinning or lacking in faith when they grieve so deeply; that they must allow themselves to grieve and not try to stuff it all down inside.

I’m going to tell them that when when well-meaning but ignorant folks say hurtful things, they are not required to smile and say thank you.

They are going to feel some degree of guilt, whether or not there was a single thing they could have done to prevent their loss.  I’m going to remind them that they are not to blame.  A zillion times, if that’s what it takes.

I’m going to look at their pictures, listen to their stories about how bright beautiful and amazing their child was.  I’m going to nod and smile and allow my own tears to fall because I’m a mother, too, and we all think our own kids are the brightest and the best.

When the time is right and they are beginning to be able to hear, I will share all the scriptures I know about peace and comfort and the great love and compassion of God.

I will not be impatient when they return to some stage of grief that they have already been through.

I will tell them that what they are experiencing is normal. Normal is a word I use a lot when I’m counseling grief-stricken people.

I will try to remember that grief-stricken is just as awful as it sounds.  Beaten down, overwhelmed, knocked senseless with grief. They don’t need to be told to be strong for their other children. They don’t need to be told to be strong for anyone. They need people to be strong for them.

I will not criticize them for the depression they may experience. It is not a sin for a believer to experience depression.

No, it is NOT!  You will do more harm than you can imagine if you tell a grieving parent that depression is just a sin problem. Please just be quiet if that’s all you can think of to say. And I pray it never happens to you, because you will not survive it.

The loss of a child is, in my opinion and observation, the hardest loss to endure. It is out of sequence. A child is not supposed to die before its parents do. This goes for miscarriages too, by the way.  It’s the loss of a child, and the parents will need to grieve.

Don’t get in their way.