On Surviving Divorce & Raising Happy Kids

Larissa Brown, M.S., is an international relationship coach and founder of EmpowerME: Coaching & Workshops.

Divorce is hard, especially when there are children involved. My 15-year marriage to my “high school sweetheart” ended recently. It ended by phone because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, which I find tragically poetic of the times we’re currently living in.

We separated almost exactly a year ago after struggling through a difficult year the year before that. It came as a big surprise to many people and honestly still surprises me from time-to-time when I think about how quickly things can change, or maybe it just feels quick.

Throughout all the changes that my little family has had to go through, I’ve learned quite a few things, mostly the hard way. So, in honor of my marriage and the new beginning I’m embarking on, I thought I’d share some of those things in hopes that they might help you too.

Shepherding children through big changes is rough. Doing it while also trying to manage your own grief can feel impossible. There were times when I thought I would drown under this responsibility and it took everything I had to navigate the murky waters. It required a delicate balance of holding space for them and their feelings while also caring for myself.

Here’s what worked for me:

  • Answer their questions as honestly as possible in an age appropriate way. Expect that this isn’t going to be a one-and-done conversation. Your kids are going to continue processing what is happening, and questions might seem to pop out of nowhere days, weeks, or even months later.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, throw their other parent under the bus. Do not blame them for the separation, do not talk badly about them to your kids or in front of your kids. If you find yourself struggling with this, excuse yourself and walk away.
  • When your kids share their feelings with you, it’s okay to share yours with them too. Let them know you’re sad and that change is scary for you too, just be careful not to become so overwhelmed with your own emotion that they feel they need to comfort you or take care of you, that is not their job.
  • Remember that your kids didn’t ask for this, they don’t get a choice in what is happening, and it’s majorly disruptive to their lives. It’s hard to be constantly packing and unpacking in order to move between houses, trying to think of all the things you might possibly need for the next X amount of days and trying not to forget anything. Be patient with them.
  • Do your best to separate your feelings about your ex as a partner from their identity as a parent. If you can’t be friendly with them, then at least do your best to maintain a business-like relationship. I cannot stress enough how much it will help your children through this process if you’re able to create a cooperative relationship with your ex. Having the ability to be flexible (to some degree) with schedules or being able to figure out how to get the kids what they need if they forgot something at one of the houses makes things easier and less stressful on everybody.

Notice when you’re struggling and make it a priority to take care of yourself. The first day or two after my kids transitioned back to their dad’s house was really hard for me. After a couple of months, I realized that there was a pattern. My kids would transition on Friday and, like clockwork, Friday evening and all-day Saturday I would be moody and emotional. Not only was I missing them tremendously, but I was also having a bit of an identity crisis. I’d get stuck in spirals of thoughts about who I was during the weeks that I wasn’t actively mothering. Once I noticed this pattern, I was able to regain control in order to help myself through it. Here’s what I found helpful:

Giving myself time to grieve and process through all these complicated emotions but also trying not to get stuck there. Sometimes we have to feel what we’re feeling, there’s no getting around it. The more we try to avoid it, the more patiently these feelings wait in the background until your guard is down so they can come flooding back in. I give myself time to sit with my feelings but once I find myself circling, I do my best to make a mental shift, which leads me to…

Being aware of my negative thoughts and having positive and productive ones on the ready for when the self-doubt and self-criticism starts to creep in. It’s important that they be things that I believe to be true, otherwise they won’t have the necessary power to interrupt my negative spiral. Things like: I may not be a perfect mom, but I’m a darn good mom; I don’t stop being a mother just because my kids are somewhere else; and it’s important that they have this time with their dad.

Once I combat my thought spiral with positive self-talk, I implement another strategy that I’ve found really helpful: distraction. I have a mental list of activities that I enjoy and are engaging. These are things that require me to focus my attention such as playing board games that require strategy and critical thinking. I find it especially helpful when I engage in activities that are difficult to do when my kids are with me, it has helped me to start to gain an appreciation for the time I have to myself when they’re off enjoying time with their dad.

Above all, be gentle with yourself and your kids. Transitioning from a nuclear family to a bi-nuclear family is tough. If there are days where it takes everything you have just to throw together some PB&J sandwiches while your kids veg in front of the TV all day, then that’s perfectly okay. Once you make your way through and come out on the other side of this there will be plenty of opportunities to make up for the days when you weren’t able to be fully present. Plus, it’s not the worst thing for your children to witness you going through adversity and manage to come out standing.

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