What do you tell your children when faced with life style changes?

What to say to your child when you are facing life-style changes:

  1. Listen attentively. Their real concerns may not be what you think.  move7Children are most concerned with aspects of change that affect them directly, like changing schools or after-school activities or friends. They may care very little who’s fault the change was or how upset the adults are unless they are pulled into taking sides.
  2. Domove8n’t try to talk them out of their feelings right away. It makes children feel you can’t handle seeing them upset and they will  try to “protect” you by not sharing with you how they really feel in the future. Validate and paraphrase back what they say to you. Go easy on the evidence about why they should feel differently or want something you can’t give them.
  3. Speak move3often about your own gratitude, even if you are also worried about financial changes. It’s okay to hold more than one feeling at a time. Children can benefit from having adults model that ambivalent feelings (feeling opposite emotions) are okay and do not need to be minimized or invalidated.
  4. Find ways to help children learn to give to others (volunteer, give to the homeless, help another child at school, etc.). Volunteering is one of the best ways to help children build good self-esteem,
  5. Tell stories of difficult times you have overcome in your life. Children love to hear move5stories about parents and grandparents’ childhoods, as long as they are not given as examples to shame or humiliate them (i.e., “I walked two miles to school in the snow and you shouldn’t complain about…”). Share your stories of courage and family ties.
  6. This is the time to convey your spiritual values. Let your child know how you view the bigger picture. Do you believe you are guided? Provided for? Not alone? There are lessons and empowerment to be had?change
  7. State often and out loud the upside of the changes (i.e., We’ll have more time together. We’ll have a park nearby. We’ll get to see your cousins more often. etc.)
  8. If children see you upset, let them know it is okay to feel scared, sad, angry, etc. AND let tmove4hem know that you can “handle” it.
  9. Try hard not to compare (how things were, what others have, what you could be doing, how their siblings or cousins are doing things better, etc.).
  10. Be honest if something they want is not currently in the budget. Don’t shame them for having desires and wishes. And don’t make them responsible if you have to say “no”. Teach them you are strong enough to respect that they have age appropriate hopes and dreams and your saying “no” or “not now” is not their fault. Help them set up a long-term plan to get what they want.
  11. Celebrate. Demonstrate joy. Have special acknowledgments for their accomplishments (They get to choose what’s for dessert. They get to eat on a special plate. Decorate their chair with their clothes and a cut out drawing of their face. Have a picnic outside in their honor.)
  12. Keep some of their activmove2ities the same. With most changes there are a few things that can remain the same.
  13. Help them keep a journal of their feelings and the changes they are facing. Be their scribe and write down their ideas at the end of the day. Help them cut out pictures from magazines and create a collage journal. Let them draw pictures of their feelings and daily events.
  14. Take care of your own feelings. Don’t make children responsible to be your sounding board, or blame them for making you feel stressed. Don’t vent to them about whoever you believe to be at “fault”. Let children be children. Making child en an adult’s emotional peers robs them of the innocence and protection of childhood. Vent to adult friends or in support groups or to a therapist.
  15. Forgive yourself. In every decision, you have done the best you could see to do at the time. Looking backwards we may see many other alternatives, but at the moment of decisions you did the best you could see to do at the time. move6


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Building resiliency in a child of divorce (10)

Spend time with caring friends

There is so much to do as a divorce unfolds. There is never enough time and never enough money. You will feel pulled from many directions and fear that you a aren’t being competent at any of them. It will seem like a luxury to spend time with your own adult friends. But the truth is that connecting with those people who have cared about you and will cheer you on and give you a shoulder to cry on is an important part of having enough energy to parent well through this difficult time.anxiety

If you find you have a short fuse and small things send you through the roof, you might need more time with your support network. If your support system was your ex’s family or couples who you don’t feel comfortable with right now, then you may need to focus on making a new friend or two or joining a MeetUp.com activity or sigh up for a divorce recovery group.

Most single parents are surprised at how recharged they feel after just a short amount of time spent with caring friends. Even though you may feel you don’t have enough time or are afraid you will be judged or pitied, take the risk. It’s worth it. Positive friends who share your sense of humor and values can give you a safe place to vent, cry and dream about a better future. Accepting friends will support you, even if you feel ambivalence and are unsure about yourself. Leaning on emotionally supportive adults to meet your needs is a safety net so you don’t slip into leaning on your child for support.

Parents who encourage their children to be their emotional support at this challenging time of life, are inadvertently stealing their childhoods. Children need to trust and believe their parents are emotionally strong enough to care for them. When a parent shares their deep grief and outbursts of rage at the other parent with their child, the child learns that their parent is unstable and may not be able to protect and support them as a child. Children who are taken into inappropriate confidences of a parent may like the power of being treated like an adult, but will also hide their own strong emotions and challenges from the intense parent as a way of protecting them from any more stress. Conversations about your finances or sex life, or those of the other parent are inappropriate and harm children.move7

Sad and frightened divorcing parents do need to talk about money, sex, betrayal, fear, rage, devastation and confusion. But these topics need to be shared with other adults, away from and anywhere near the children. I find parents think children don’t know what they’re talking about if they’re on the phone and children only hear one side of the conversation. Don’t believe this! Children are very intuitive and at times of transition and change they are extremely curious.

Again, there is nothing you can do about your ex’s behavior and conversations with your child. You can spend time with your child and remind them that they can do things to make themselves feel better, no matter what happens. If your child is focused on how other children at school are making him/her feel or talking about being responsible for other children ‘s feelings, these are opportunities for you to show your child that everyone is responsible for their own feelings. Be very sure to model this. Don’t tell your child, “You made me mad,” or “You made me do that,” or “Be good and make me proud.” Don’t vent about other adults and accuse them of making you feel this or that. Model taking

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responsibility for your own emotional state. Use phrases like: “I feel grumpy, I’m going to sit and read for a bit.” “I feel angry, I’m going to go work out.” “I feel sad, I’m going to take some alone time, I’ll be back in five minutes.

The more time you spend with positive motivated friends, the less likely you will try to make your child your emotional peer. The more your child watches you handle your feelings (this doesn’t mean you don’t have strong feelings, it only means you show that you alone are responsible for them) the more likely they will be to use the skills you model (talking to friends, writing, listening to music, exercising, being creative, eating healthy, making plans with others, complimenting yourself, using the punching bag in the garage, finding fulfillment in your life’s work, etc.).

Be careful about what you say around your child. Remember kids are concrete in their Mom hushingthinking. “I’m dying to…,” “There’s not enough money,” “I’m going to kill…,” are all very scary things to a child who takes things literally. Speak respectfully to your child and about everyone in your child’s life. Don’t model hate and retaliation. No matter how scared or angry you are, share these sentiments with your friends, not your children. Let your child have a childhood, even through difficult times. They deserve that. Have your focus on your children when you are with them, the focus can be on you with your friends.

If you feel isolated and have little time or energy to make new friends or nurture the ones you have, spend time and resources on yourself. Get up a half hour before you have to get the kids up and sit outside and with a cup of tea or coffee and no electronics. Just breathe and be still. If your kids are with your ex part of the time, don’t just use that time to only do errands and chores, spend some of it doing things that rejuvenate you. Doing yoga, depressionrunning, biking, cooking, baking, playing an instrument, journaling, doing a hobby, volunteering, gardening, scrapbooking, reading, learning a new language or skill, meditating, singing, swimming, or investing resources into that dream you’ve been neglecting can all help recharge your batteries when you’re not with your child.

If you don’t get a built in break with visitation to their other parent’s home, find some reliable babysitters. If you spend every moment you’re not sleeping, at work, or they’re at school with each other burn out is likely to happen. And with burnout will come relying on your child in emotional ways that force them into a role that is unhealthy and can have long-term consequences.  No matter what happens at the other home, your child can trust that it will be safe at your home. This safety can make all the difference. It gives your child an emotionally safe place to develop resiliency.


Dr. Lois Nightingale

Psychologist PSY9503



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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (9)

DIVORCE_2586284b Don’t Put Your Child in the Middle or Try to Make Them Take Sides

Every parent who has learned about the dos and don’ts of divorce knows they’re not supposed to put the child in the middle or make them a “pawn” in the battle of divorce. The challenge is being able to spot the triangulation when you’re doing it. It is so easy to see when the other parent is using the child for their gain, or emotional welfare, but it can be nearly impossible to see when we’re doing it ourselves.

The primary reason for this is that most parents are not trying to put their children in the middle or make them take sides, they are just trying to survive the loss of a spouse, extended family and a social network that was contingent on being a couple. With all this loss of connection it can be terrifying that a parent will also lose the emotional connection with their child. This fear often leads parents to say and do things that they would otherwise never think of doing or saying.

When a parent is fearful that the community or the extended family will judge them and blame them for the divorce they may be extra sensitive and defensive. They may see judgement and blame even when it is only appropriate developmental individuation on the part of their child. They may interpret a child’s desire to comfort and protect their other parent as betrayal or criticism.Unhappy-young-girl-in-cus-009

As parents struggle with their own new identities it may be far more difficult to view their children as becoming more opinionated and seeing the world through their own eyes. All parents tend to see their children growing and maturing more slowly than they are. Part of this is because just as they are developing coping skills for one developmental stage the child is blooming into a new one that requires different disciple skills, different communication skills, different motivational tools and more vigilance as to what behaviors a child may pick up from their modeling. All of this can be overwhelming in the best of intact families, but when a parent doesn’t see a child for days at a time, these developmental stages can be impossible to monitor.

The most important thing to remember in speaking with your child, or within ear shot of our child, is that your child is pulling their identity from both parents. If they come to believe one parent is “bad,” “mean,” “stingy,” Weak-willed,” “a liar,” “a cheater” or “unreliable”, then a child will believe this is true for fifty percent of themselves. The best thing you can do for your child’s self-esteem through a divorce, is to never belittle or demean their other parent when they can hear you.

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Portrait of boy (4-5) sticking fingers in his ears

“But I never say anything bad about their other parent,” I often hear a parent protest. But they are continually defending themselves against what they have heard or they believe the other parent is saying about them. This IS triangulation, it is making the child take sides and decide who is telling the truth and who is lying. This is a horrible position for a child to be put in.

When faced with an accusation you know is not true, try to put your child’s feelings first. If you defend and explain yourself and give facts proving the other parent is a liar, you are demonstrating that your feelings matter most and that how your child perceives you is more important than you being there for your child and letting them know you care about how they feel. A good way to begin a conversation where every cell of your body wants to be defensive is to say. “Really? And how did you feel when you heard that?” Beginning with curiosity about your child’s feelings and emotions says that you care more about them than how you are perceived. It demonstrates that you are strong and you can take it. That you will always care about how they are doing before worrying about yourself. It indicates that whatever the mistruth was, it was so insignificant and ridiculous that it didn’t even warrant your defense. (In reality we are only defensive about things we are afraid are little bit true. Think about a time your child was extra defensive. What did that mean to you?)

It can be emotionally excruciating for a parent to hear gossip, especially if it’s untrue or embarrassing, carried home by one’s child. The shock and rage can be hard to contain. This is a good time to take a break from the conversation and clam the adrenalin in your body before you speak. Only reply to a comment when you feel sure you can respond calmly and put your child’s needs ahead of yours (your need to be seen accurately, your need to defend yourself, your need to have your child see you accurately, your need for retaliation, etc.).fighting-over-child-divorce

You are your child’s protection and safety, if they have to worry about how upset you are, they won’t be able to tell you how they’re handling the information, true or not. Over the course of their childhood, the truth will be revealed. Not by you, but by their own observations or others. Trust that if you stay centered and don’t lower yourself to the level of gossip and belittling your child’s other parent, you will be seen as the strong more powerful parent who can handle your own feelings. Demonstrate to your child how to not lower themselves to the level of peers who will say means things about them and compete in unjust ways. Model resiliency by waiting for the truth to come out on its own. Don’t eat the first marshmallow and lose out on the long term benefit.

If you find you can’t focus on the moment with your child and the truth is burning to get out, start a long letter or journal addressed to your child. When they are 18 or 25 take them out for a nice dinner, and if you still feel you need to explain yourself give the information to your adult child who will be better able to handle the big picture.

Life isn’t fair. Demonstrate dignity, grace and rising above the unfairness for your child. AS they build resiliency over the years they will reach back to what you taught through your actions. You are building a legacy. If you’re undecided what to make a big deal out of and what you want to rise above, picture your child telling the story of this situation to your grandchild, and hen your grandchild telling your great grandchild. Decide if it’s worth it to roll around in the mud. You’re building resiliency through this as well.

Dr. Lois Nightingale

Psychologist PSY9503


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Building Resiliency in a Child of divorce (8)

Ask You child about friends of theirs whose parents are divorced

One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make when they speak to their children about divorce is forgetting that children are often afraid of saying something wrong or getting parents upset. Asking direct questions like, “How do you feel about us getting divorced?” “Do you have any questions?” “What are your concerns?” “What do you think about us getting divorced?”move7

These types of questions may elicit answers in some children, but most kids will withdraw and feel pressured like they are in school and have to come up with the right answer that the teacher is looking for.

It is easier to start a conversation about feelings and possible fear by asking about any of their friends’ families that might be divorced. Asking kids about another family or other kids lets them off the hook from feeling like they might have a wrong answer or that they have to be too vulnerable.

A child is more likely to talk about fears that the police will have to come, or that one parent will move very far away or that a new significant other of a parent is going to move in right away, if they can address these fears by telling stories about a friend.

When I work with young children in my office I have them create a sand tray picture of their family doing something. I have several boxes filled with small toys (people, animals, trees, marbles, cars, rocks, home furnishings, etc.) One box is half filled with fine sand. Children stand the toy figures up in the sand to create pictures. Children are more likely to share their feelings during play and are more willing to act out or demonstrate their inner thoughts and feelings with figures and toys. This “once removed” way of gathering how a child is doing provides a safe way for them to convey fears or events that they may not have the right words for.divorce

Providing drawing materials, costumes to put on “shows”, telling back and forth make believe stories where you take turns adding lines to the plot, even chalk pictures on the patio are all likely to give you more self-revealed information from your child than direct inquiry.

It is probable that your child has received most of their ideas about divorce from friends and TV. Asking about how their friends feel about being from divorced homes, or with parents that live apart gives your child the chance to tell you unfortunate events that they may have heard about in terms of a divorce. While what has happened down the block or on TV may have almost nothing in common with your divorce, these stories can give you information about your child’s fears and expectations around divorcing families.

When discussing other divorced families that your child knows, make sure to address emotions and hopes, not just concrete stories. While it may be interesting that Billy’s father drove off in the middle of the night with no shoes, asking your child how he thinks Billy felt that night, and what does your child think Billy wanted to happen next, can be of even more interest. Children are very concrete by nature, and may have difficulty with expressing abstractions, such as feelings and wishes. Listen to their stories, don’t try to figure out if they are accurate or not, listen for the emotional truth. What feelings are they trying to tell you about? What wishes or fears are they trying to express? Focus on their internal states. Validate feelings and hopes, even if there is nothing you can do to change the circumstance, you can always indicate to your child that you really “see” them and really understand how they are feeling.

Even if you are not sure your child’s story about another divorced family is perfectly accurate, listen for their emotions their fears, where they may be indirectly asking for reassurance. Don’t address the veracity of their story. This may be the only way your child feels safe enough, or has the words to talk about your divorce. Be patient with half-truths or outright lies that children tell at this time. Try to look past the facts of the story and inquire about the feelings and hopes they have, as if the story were true. You can talk about telling the truth and how lying affects how others see your child at a later date. Now is the time to gather all the information you can about what your child’s experience and fears are.family

When you watch TV or movies together and the subject of divorce is portrayed, take the opportunity to be curious about what your child thinks is happening or what will happen to the children in the story. Don’t be discouraged if your child is one of those kids who doesn’t talk much about feelings, take your clues from what they say about other families who’ve faced divorce.

Dr. Lois Nightingale

Psychologist PSY9503


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Building Resiliency in Children of Divorce (7)

Reassure your child of their personal safety

As mentioned before, children are dependent on the adults in their lives for all their needs. When major changes take place in a child’s life they are understandably afraid. They don’t get to have a say about where each parent will live, what school they will end up at and how money will be spent.move8

Children at different ages naturally have fears because of developmental processes. When children are toddlers they do not have object permanence and may exhibit fear when a person or object is out of sight, believing the object or person won’t reappear. At seven a child can understand that death is permanent and re-processes past losses with this new information. Around puberty children understand there is sexual tension in flirting and boy girl relationships. At each age children are aware of new facets of life.

Your child may have seemed calm and accepting of your separation or divorce when it happened, buy may develop fears later. These may not be due to any change in circumstance, but a development stage that a child has entered and is now capable of understanding other aspects of the world. I encourage parents to read about the developmental stages at the ages of their children. Ames has a series of books staring with “Your One Year-old” and progressing through adolescence. Many parental anxieties can be relieved when parents stay updated with research and descriptions of the ways children normally act and react at different ages.  As children mature neurologically they have a greater capacity to understand the dangers and pleasures in the world around them.

Frightened single parents can mistake new fears, telling lies, back talking, daydreaming, peer issues and a slew of other behaviors as indications that there is stress in the other parent’s home. When in reality, these irritating, but normal behaviors have nothing to do with either residence but rather a child’s age.truant

It is important to take a child’s emotions seriously. Belittling or minimizing a child’s feelings can create distance from your child. Dismissing their fears as “ridiculous” or “irrational” will only serve to have your child withdraw from you emotionally and will decrease the chances of him/her sharing difficult situations and emotions with you.

All children develop night time fears at some point during childhood. Some want to sleep with the light on, others want to be reassured and others want to sleep with a sibling or parent. These nighttime fears may be of monsters, bad people, or fictional villains. Try to remember that while the feared creature may be unreal your child’s feelings are very real. They are really scared, they are feeling helpless and vulnerable. Interact with them I a respectful way, being kind about the fear they are experiencing.

The calmer you are the more you are demonstrating to your child that you feel safe and you are not afraid of the danger they are crying about. If you escalate and yell at then your child will have more to be anxious about. No child wants a parent mad at them. Try to stay calm and problem solve with your child. Sometimes just reassuring them that you are nearby is enough. Other children want to have some tangible way to feel safe. A squirt bottle filled with water labeled “Monster Repellent” can help. Creating an alarm with pie tins and string can be a way of showing you really understand that they are afraid.truant 3

Often children do not have words for what they are really worried about. It could be a peer at school made fun of them, they are afraid the teacher will call on them and they won’t know the answer. They may be afraid that they will have to change residences again, or are really the cause of the divorce.

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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (6)

It’s normal for your child to want their parents to get back together.

One of the hardest things for a parent to hear is a child begging for their parents to safe kidreconcile. Some children do this subtly such as drawing pictures of the family back together, or maneuvering both parents to linger during exchanges, or sit together at sporting events. Other children are much more active in perusing their wish such as trying to hold both parents’ hands at once or pitching arguments about why the family should reunite.

The first thing to remember is that this is a very normal wish for children of divorce. It’s convenient to have the two adults they love the most under one roof. They don’t want to see the parents they love sad, angry or lonely. Children are dependent on the adults in their lives. They want to feel safe and having both parents readily available means feeling safe.

Children look through the eyes of innocence and they can only see events as they relate to themselves. There is nothing wrong with this. Kids are immature. That’s the definition of childhood. Your child wishing you were back together with their other parent is a statement made from their perspective.

Be kind in responding to these wishes. Make sure you indicate that they are completely normal and that all children with divorced parents wish that their parents could somehow get back together. Don’t give reasons for the divorce that put the other parent down. Don’t explain the divorce in ways that shame the child’s wishes or indicate you expect your child to put your welfare ahead of their wants.

Be accepting and kind. Let your child know whenever they have wants or wishes they can come to you and discuss them. This does not mean you accommodate their wishes and wants. It means that you help them build self-esteem by having words for their internal state and can identify how they feel and what they want.change

If your child feels emotionally safe sharing impossible dreams with you and knows you will accept them and not make them responsible for your hurt or shocked feelings, then you up the odds of your child sharing other difficult topics in the future. If you scold your child for wanting something that caused you so much pain they will learn to keep their wishes and hopes to themselves. Open communication is the most safety you can create for your child.

In accepting that most children want their parents back together again you are not telling your child that this is going to happen. You can compassionately say, “That’s a very normal thing to wish for, but parents don’t get back together after divorce. But whenever you are sad or wishing that could happen, I’m always here to talk to.”

Making it safe for your child to talk about things that are unlikely to happen is an important part of building resiliency. Having a wish list of things they want to accomplish, setting high standards for themselves, aiming for high goals are all outcropping s of children who believe it is okay to dream and reach for the stars. If only very reasonable wishes are entertained and discussed with respect, a child learns to be mediocre and never push beyond what is likely in life.

Handle your own feelings of discomfort when your child asks for something you can’t accommodate. Learn to cope with feelings of helplessness. Many of the painful challenges of childhood are unavoidable. It’s what a parent and the child do next that matter. TalkingFather homeworkwith care and concern, praising courage and being curious about feelings builds self-confidence and resiliency.

Don’t get defensive and try to make children only wish for things you can give them. Let them see you be strong and accept things that you cannot change and stand by your commitments of the things you feel strongly about. You do not have to bend every time someone is unhappy with your decision and you don’t have to explain yourself. Show your child what resiliency looks like.

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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (5)

Let Your Child Know However They Respond is Okay.

Every child is an individual. No matter how well you know your child they may still surprise you during times of challenge and change. Children who are hyper-responsible, self-motivated and natural caregivers may become more of these, or they may regress and require more nurturing and attention. Children who have always been a bit high-need and sibrivalryrequired more help with homework and chores may try to help out more, or more likely, they will seem less responsible, more distracted and need extra prompting and time to complete tasks (even seemingly simple ones like getting into the car to leave for school).

Children’s reactions to hearing about your divorce may also change day to day or week to week. The more you can be fully present and engage with your child where they are each day, the more connected they will feel.

Some children will want to talk a lot about how they feel, ask questions about what’s going to happen and reveal what they want and hope will happen in the future. Other kids will be reluctant to chat about the changes in the family. They may try to avoid the topic or change the conversation to something more mundane and safe. Both of these reactions may be normal

It is important to say positive things about how you and others react to the changes you are facing. If you express judgement about the acceptance or anger of relatives, you may be telling your child how to act. If you say complimentary things about how you are handling your divorce you are giving your child permission to express their feelings.

If you don’t feel like talking, say that and give a time when you will be available to discuss what your child wants to talk about. If you are experiencing intense emotions, let your child know you are attending a divorce support group or individual therapy. If you are spending time with supportive friends or carving out extra time just to be alone to rejuvenate compliment yourself out loud around your kids.

When I see children for therapy in my office I let them lead the conversation with topics Teen introvertthey wish to chat about. Sometimes it’s friend issues at school, or with a coach, or with homework. Children often talk about their feelings in indirect ways. If you only listen to see if the facts they are telling you are true, or are judging to see if what they are talking about is what you think is their most pressing issue, you may miss the most important things they are trying to tell you.

Spend time with your child doing activities like tanking walks, riding bikes or cooking together and leave quiet spaces in the exchanges for them to bring up topics. Let your child set the pace. Let them talk as much or as little as they are comfortable. Let them stop whenever they indicate they want to change the topic or wish to be quiet. The less you pressure your child the more comfortable they will be discussing difficult topics in the future. They don’t need to have everything sorted out immediately. The meaning of the divorce and a child’s feeings about it will change over time. All the many implications and potential changes in the family will dawn on children over a period of time. Be patient, a child is processing a lot of information with an immature perspective. Be patient and let their concerns come out as they are comfortable.

Temperament plays a large part in how people process changes and loss. If your child is more extroverted they many want to talk a lot, even redundantly about many aspects of the divorce. If your child is more introverted, he/she may only ask a couple questions and Kindergarten2appear to be satisfied with this amount of information. Try not to impose your own temperament preferences on your child. If your child is more comfortable with texting or other brief forms of writing, use them to communicate. Even if you are less comfortable with digital communication try to keep an open mind. You will have more opportunity to understand what your child’s real concerns are and more chances to show you are listening if you exchange information in a form they use with their friends.

Provide art materials for processing emotions like magazines for collages, altered books, or sculptures. Be curious but not prodding. Sometimes children don’t have the right words to express what’s going on with them. Let their art say what they may not be able to articulate.

Don’t scold or harass your child if they aren’t discussing the topics you think they should be sharing. Don’t ask them about routines or discipline at the other household. Anything that might sound like interrogation will shut down their sharing with you and you will be viewed as pressuring them to give up dirt on their other parent to be used against the other parent. Most children will shut down if pushed to “tell” on a parent.

Handle your own stress. Build in extra time between activities so you are not rushed to get to scheduled appointments and school.  At the end of the days when your child is with you, eat meals together without the television, computer of cell phones. Take turns going move7around the table saying what good things happened that day and what you each were proud of. If your child is hesitant, give them an opportunity and let them know they can change their mind if the wish.

Don’t compare how much or how little your child is talking about their feelings or reactions to the divorce with how you imagine they should be talking or how your friend’s child is talking to them. Your child is unique. Their response will be their own. Don’t put expectations on them. Don’t give them the message that they’re disappointed with how they show their feelings. Let them be children and don’t pressure them into being more mature than they feel comfortable being.

If you are afraid that your child is too emotional and distracted from homework and peer relationships or is too closed-up and may be depressed, have them evaluated by a professional. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t assume any one particular exchange is the last one you’ll have on a particular topic. You’ll have many chances over the years to revisit unresolved concerns your child may have.

Remember, setting the tone that you are available and you care, are more important than having perfect answers for every question and resolving every uncomfortable feeling. You are encouraging resiliency, not a perfect childhood.

Dr. Lois Nightingale

Psychologist Psy 9507

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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (4)

Listen Quietly

We don’t listen very well in our culture. We watch people talk over each other on talk shows, movies, TV episodes even our news casters don’t wait for the other one to take a breath before jumping in with a new idea. We have very few examples of real listening in

TV stationour adult lives.

To make the issues even more complicated, most adults who work with our children have assigned a strange meaning to the word “Listen.” If you sit in on your child’s classroom, scout meeting, or sport’s practice, you’ll hear the adult in charge say “listen” when they mean “obey.”

Active listening is a special type of listening that increases the connection between the speaker and listener. Active listening includes getting down to eye level with your child and paraphrasing back what they just said. Rephrasing what you heard doesn’t include trying to fix or change the child’s perspective or emotional state. Active listening is only focused on conveying that you really understand what they are saying, and you get how they are feeling at that moment.

Leading with curiosity, without trying to educate or teach, can go a long way toward helping a child really feel heard and cared for.

It can be hard to hear your child express emotional pain or watch them struggle with anger or sadness. If you jump in right away and try to make them feel better (ie. change how they

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Portrait of boy (4-5) sticking fingers in his ears

are feeling) even if you mean well and want to show them that you love them, you may be sensing messages like:

“I don’t think you can handle your feelings.”

“I don’t think you can figure this out.”

“I see you as a victim and in need of rescuing.”

“I can’t handle watching you in pain or experiencing such strong emotions.”

”Don’t show me that you feel bad.”

“Don’t’ have uncomfortable feelings when you’re with me.”

“Expressing strong feelings during times of transition is a weakness.”

“Just act like things don’t bother you.”

“”You’re responsible for my comfort.”

“Calm down so I don’t feel anxious, guilty or embarrassed.”


Waiting a little bit, while really paying attention, is more likely to be felt as comforting to a child. Not interrupting or giving quick-fix answers conveys that you see your child as strong and resilient. You believe that they have the ability to self-reflect and self-soothe. You trust that they’ll find the words to share what’s going on inside of themselves. Pausing for a few minutes before you attempt to reassure them is a powerful statement.

Make sure when you are listening that you are fully present. Close your phone or tablet, turn off the TV, shut your book. Children rarely share their feelings at convenient times. Kid and phoneParents may need to take a break from some other activity when the opportunity to hear children shows up.

Not all children need to talk a lot. Some children share their feelings by talking about events and stories. If a parent isn’t paying attention they may miss what a child is really trying to say.

One in four children are introverted (some families have more or less). Introverts do not have the same need as extroverts to process everything out loud. An introverted child may feel shammed or belittles if held to an extrovert’s standards. If your child is on the introverted side, go for walks, spend unhurried time in nature. Don’t interrupt. An introvert will often interpret an interruption as disinterest in what they are talking about. Many times an introvert will communicate better in writing or texting than verbally face to face. There is nothing wrong with this. If fact, teaching an introverted child that how they communicate is acceptable can build self-confidence and give them skills for the rest of their life.

Children who are Highly Sensitive, or make their best decisions on their emotions may experience deep feelings during family changes. Even if these traits are significantly different than your own, do your best to not criticize them. Educate yourself so you can use a vocabulary to help children express these strong feelings in words. The better vocabulary for emotions a Highly Sensitive Child or a Feeling child has, the more tools they will have to cope with their feelings.

It is okay to reassure your child and help them focus on the positive. It isn’t okay to use the Teen introvertother parent or other household as contrast. Don’t compare households. Focus on what you and your child can do in your own home to help them learn ways to handle feelings.

“Why are you feeling that way,” is not a good question. It is likely to sound like “Explain yourself. Prove you have a right to feel that way.”

Better questions are, “What happened before that?” “What ideas do you have to help yourself feel better?”

Don’t ask questions than insinuate your child can change other people. “Why don’t you just tell them how you feel?” “Are you going to stick up for yourself?” “Just tell them you’re Mom hushingnot going to go.” None of us can change other people. The divorce itself is proof of that. The only people we can change is ourselves. When a parent listens (or reads messages in the case of an introverted child) and indicates they really understand a child will often find answers on their own.

Don’t be in a hurry to fix how your child feels. Build in a little space between the time a child shows how they feel and your reassurance and problem solving. Show that you care, and that you believe they are resilient and smart.

Dr. Lois V. Nightingale, Psychologist PSY9503


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9 Ways to Teach Children Tolerance in a Fearful World

Brilliant Star Magazine, Parents and Teachers section.



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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (3)

Let Children Know the Divorce is not Their Fault

 It may seem obvious to the adults involved, but a divorce is never a child’s fault. Children have little control over their lives. They depend on their parents and care takers for everything. They don’t have much choice about their daily lives.  This fact makes children very sensitive to anything that may disappoint or upset the adults who care for them. When a parent is upset, often the first thing a child thinks is, “What did I do?” or “What teendid I forget to do?”

Because this process is natural in children, it is very important that parents remind children that adults are always responsible for their own feelings (don’t say things like “You made me mad,” or “You’ll make me happy if you…”). If you notice your child trying to take responsibility for your emotions (“What can I do to make you not sad?” “What can I do to make you happy?” etc.) make sure you state clearly and directly “I am sad, but I’m handling it,” or “Thank you for caring about me, but my feelings will change, and I’ll be okay in a little bit.” Don’t say things that indicate your child is responsible for your decisions or behaviors (“I wouldn’t have done that if you’d only….” “See what you made me do? etc.) Children take what you say literally.

When problems show up in families children often blame themselves. Kids would prefer to feel guilty rather than to feel helpless. Tell children that the divorce is not their fault. As a parent you can say this directly, but also take other opportunities to remind children that divorce is always an adult issue. For instance if your child tells you the parents of a kid at school are getting divorced, recap to your child that the divorce is not their friend’s fault. If you’re watching a TV show with your child and the topic of divorce is portrayed, again use the story to point out that divorce is never a child’s fault.

As children get older their theories of why the divorce might be their fault change. A five year-old might believe their parents are splitting up because they were mean to a sibling. A ten year-old might think their parents got divorced because of the stress caused by him/her not doing homework. A teen might believe they caused their parents to fight and decide the marriage wasn’t worth the trouble, because of their acting out or defiant counselingbehavior. Because this list goes on and on as kids mature, it is good for parents to periodically bring up the topic that children can never cause a divorce. All families have stress. All families face unexpected issues.  All families have to find ways of problem solving. All families do the best they can. And in all families affected by divorce, the decision to divorce is never a child’s responsibility or fault.

If your child tends to take responsibility for things beyond his/her control, help them find other ways to feel a sense of power. Volunteering, tutoring, coaching and helping others can show a child that they have an impact is other areas of life. Feeling like they make a difference builds self-esteem. Children have no impact on major adult decisions. Adults are responsible for their decisions and their own emotions. But children can have an impact in many other areas of their lives such as sports, grades, hobbies, music, etc. Help your child find ways to feel like they matter and have a beneficial impact in the lives of others.

Use words that indicate you are taking responsibility for your own emotions.

Don’t use words or phrases that portray yourself as a victim. When children believe a parent is victimized they want to protect the parent, rather than feeling protected by the anxiety4parent. This robs a child of the innocence and safety of childhood. A child that “grows up too fast” faces many difficult challenges. Children need the safety and simplicity of childhood for healthy neurological and social development. Children need to play, pretend, create and not develop anxiety by anticipating danger.

Give children the freedom to live in the moment and obtain developmental skills that are age-appropriate. Anxiety and worrying about being responsible for a parent’s emotions rushes a child through essential developmental tasks, with poor results. Children who have focused on making a parent feel better, or who feel guilty for the breakup of the family become codependent adults and gravitate to partners they believe they can save or fix. Codependency is a significant cause of depression and anxiety in adults. Give your child the gift of a playful childhood. Let them know adults are always responsible for their own feelings, decisions and behaviors.

Give yourself credit out loud for the things you do to feel better. Grieving is a long process, being respectful of grief includes embracing your sadness and using coping skills to work through it and come out the other side stronger than you were before.

Compliment yourself for actions you take to make the world a better place. Model for your anxiety3children how to take personal responsibility for and your choices, your emotions, and how to express these feelings to others. Show your child that you are responsible for your own happiness. If you use victim statements, don’t be surprised if your child picks them up. (Kids mimic adults, but in immature and unpolished ways.)

Say the things about your life that you want your child to say about their life. Live in gratitude and awe. When the waves of grief hit, know you have tools to ride out the waves. When unexpected sadness climbs out of some hidden pocket, know that you have skills to address it and not make others responsible for it. Children learn resiliency by watching the Self-improvement2adults they admire be resilient. Resiliency is not about being stoic and unaffected. Resiliency is acknowledging vulnerable feelings while demonstrating how to be personally responsible for them.

Dr. Lois V. Nightingale, Psychologist 9503


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Building Resiliency in a Child of Divorce (2)

Tell the Truth

Parents set precedents during a time of crisis. If you lie or deny the truth to your childrenparenting2 during a divorce, you may be indirectly instructing them to hide their later adolescent mishaps from you. If lying to make oneself look good is the unspoken rule in your household, children will follow suit when they experience things that are hard to talk about. Being open and honest, but revealing only what a child can handle is a difficult task.

Telling the truth to kids does not mean sharing with them everything you would tell your friends or your parents. Children not only need to trust that you won’t lie to them but they need to trust that you will remain the adult and protect them from issues that aren’t age-appropriate. Many adult concerns and topics place undue stress on children and distract them from the concerns they should be focused on like homework and healthy peer relationships.

“No, we’re never going to get divorced,” “Mom’s just away on business, she’ll be back,” “Dad’s visiting his family for a little while, there’s nothing to worry about,” are lies that will lead to a child’s mistrust.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do, we’re taking a time out right now,” “We’re having a hard time living together so I’m moving out.” “I know it’s confusing. We’re a bit confused too, but wherever you are there will always be someone to love you and take care of you,” “I care about your questions and I’ll answer them the best I can,” are all honest answers, yet said in ways that are suitable for a child to hear.

Children may ask many questions. Most of the questions children ask about divorce don’t mean the same thing they would mean if an adult asked them. For instance, “Does the new house have a yard?” when asked by an adult might be an inquiry as to the affluence of the neighborhood, or a comparison to the home you’re leaving. A child asking the same move3question, may be really asking about being able to take their dog to the new residence. An adult asking, “Who wanted the divorce?” might be trying to figure out whose side to take. A child asking the same question may be revealing terror that one parent will abandon them.

It’s a good idea to respond to children’s questions with a bit of curiosity before giving an answer. Don’t assume they’re asking what you think they are asking at first. I’ve seen far too many parents respond with defensiveness and frustration to children’s questions, when a child was only asking for the reassurance that they were loved and safe.

The details of your adult relationship issues shouldn’t be shared with your children. Issues about sex and money are certainly none of a child’s business. Concerns about addictions may be shared at an age appropriate level. There are many 12 step programs such as Alateen, Prealateen and Alatot, where children can learn about the disease of addiction and how it can affect a family.

If you share the dirty details about what pulled your marriage apart with your children, you’re making them your emotional peers and robbing them of their childhood. It’s normal to want to vent about the person who betrayed your trust and shattered your dreams of growing old together, but share your anger and devastation with other adults, a support group or a therapist, never with your children.

Appropriate (and truthful) answers to “Why are you and mom (dad) getting divorced?” include: “We’ve decided we fight too much when we’re together,” “We can’t figure out how to get along living in one house,” “It has nothing to do with anything you or your siblings did or didn’t do, these are adult problems,” “We see the specific reasons that we’re getting divorced differently, but we both will always love you and take care of you,” “It’s very complicated, but I always want to know how you’re feeling and what your concerns are.move4 I’m always going to love you.”

It may be tempting to defend yourself to a child who quotes the other parent’s accusations, but do your best to resist the temptation. If you explain how the other parent isn’t telling the truth about you, then you’re putting your child in the middle and making them choose who’s telling them the truth. Defending yourself may seem “fair’ and “justified,” but anytime a child is put in a position to have to make one parent wrong, they lose out on self-esteem and feeling proud of who they are.

A child knows they have two parents and that they are part of these two people. These two important people will never be replaced in a child’s life. Kids draw their own identities from these two key authority figures. If one parent is “bad” or “broken” a child learns he/she is half “bad or “broken.”

Tell your child things that are true, but never things that put down the other half of their identity. Tell your child honest statements, but make sure they are age-appropriate and are vague enough for children to be able to ask about what they are really concerned about. move2Remember, the ending of a marriage is very complex. The issues have probably been building for years. You yourself may not even be aware of all the underlying causes of the break up until many years later, and with much reflection. Stay focused on reassuring your child, not on getting them to take your side against their other parent.

Dr. Lois V Nightingale, Psychologist PSY9503


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