Updated: Mar 16
As parents our greatest desire is to protect our children from feeling pain. Regardless that we know pain is an inevitable part of life, one of the most difficult experiences is see our kids hurt and not respond by doing everything our power to make it not so. In the midst of divorce, the sense of fear and urgency only compounds our natural instincts and many parents describe a deep sense of “wrongness” when they are tasked with accepting the realities of change that their children will be expected to navigate. Parent’s willingness to deal with emotions and provide guidance can set the stage for how kids venture into this landscape and I often use the story of the dark woods to describe how children look to parents to understand family challenges:
Imagine if there was a deep forest near your home. It was dark and could be dangerous if you lost your way or didn’t know how to navigate the risky spots. How might your kids understand based on you yourself approached the situation?
What if you knew they had to walk through but explained away all the scary parts or ignored or minimized any signs of their fears or their questions?
What if instead you continuously spoke of it in warning and took a wide path when walking with them to avoid it?
In the first example, it is likely your kids would understand that they should not be scared and so any fear they experienced was “wrong” or at least unwelcome and not something they could share with you. The message might be, "get going, but keep your feelings to yourself". In the second example, kids might get the message that something really bad was waiting in those woods and "you're going to get hurt, so don't even try". And if they dared, they would risk you becoming too overwhelmed and breaking down with fear. Both of these examples puts children in the position of questioning and managing their feelings all alone, with the additional burden of worrying about their parents feelings and stability in an already unstable and unpredictable changing world.
What if instead, you spoke of the woods with a realistic approach, discussing the reasons they could be dangerous and why? What if you took them through these woods, pointing out the risky places, answered their questions and allowed them to share their own experience openly? What if you felt your job was to simply be with them and offer support with whatever they might feel or ask and your message to them was "this is hard and can be scary, but we are strong enough, I am here to help and we will all get through okay".
As much as we desire to protect our kids, we cannot realistically do so in every situation. Instead, our job is to be our children's guides and help them build a foundation to prepare them for moving into the world. For children, the world is not just what is, but also the meaning we create about it. Through our actions, choices and behaviors we message important values about them, ourselves and our family’s collective strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and purpose. We message how and when they can turn to us and what we will do during difficult times. We let them know if they can count on our support and comfort or if they will need to walk alone.
However, we don't need to be perfect. In fact missing the moment or getting it wrong can actually help kids grow. If parents circle back and honestly acknowledge mistakes and imperfections, kids can realize they too don't need to be perfectly strong or capable. They can learn by our example how to handle mistakes and learn that love is not fragile, but flexible. They can see relationships can be hard and uncertain, but repair is part of working together to make it stronger. The simple rule to remember is to practice honesty with ourselves. Be willing to see our fears and other feelings, how they might be influencing our reactions with acceptance, but a willingness to challenge ourselves to try or circle back and explain and repair. Awareness and courage is the best protection we can offer our children. While it does not keep them from feeling grief and loss, it ensures they don't feel it alone. Doing so allows kids to feel safe and reassured parents are only an arms reach away and are willing to get out in front to lead or step back and allow them to safely explore, as they find their own way through.