“But Doctor, they only listen when I scream!”

I remember being shocked when my children didn’t listen to me.  Never mind listen, my children did not obey!  Unless of course I raised my voice (yes, therapists “loose it” with their kids too).  I distinctly remember one such instance, after which my then seven year old daughter screamed in response  “You’re  mean! I’m going to tell all of your patients!” Oh, brother.

I never raised my voice to my parents and usually did as I was told without having to be told a second time (well, at least until adolescence, but that’s another story).  So what was I, along with so many of my clients, doing “wrong”.  What did our parents know that we didn’t?  I mean, we turned out O.K. didn’t we?  The answer is simple: our parents knew that a family is not a democracy.  Our parents were in charge and they did not feel the need to justify that reality.  They didn’t feel the need to coddle us or deliberate every feeling that would arise because we didn’t like the food they put on the dinner table, or the time they set for lights out, or the chores we were assigned, or… I think you get the drift.

So why do we ask our children over and over and over to do the same thing until we finally become so frustrated we find ourselves screaming at the top of our lungs “ARE YOU KIDDING ME, FEED THE DOG!”  It’s simple: so many of us treat our children as equals.  We care so much about hurting their feelings, or damaging their self-esteem or being “mean” that we fail to put in place the simple structure that has allowed the family unit to function since time immemorial: the hierarchy.

I am not suggesting that we turn back the clock to the days of “children are to be seen and not heard.”  Raising these little hearts, minds and souls and preparing them for adulthood is an enormous responsibility and there is a substantial benefit in allowing our children to communicate their thoughts and feelings with us, especially those of hurt or distress.  However, in the interest allowing our children to feel they have a voice, many of us forget that firm rules and consequences are not child abuse.  Clear limits serve a valuable purpose for our children.  We must teach them that they deserve to be heard and that their feelings are important in order for them to recognize their value and their place in the world.  But the world outside of the nest will ask a lot more of our children than a healthy awareness of their own worth and an ability to express their feelings.  They will be told to abide by the student code of conduct at college, they will be given directives from their boss, and they will be informed that their car insurance payment is due once a month.  Their Dean’s office, their employer and their insurance agent are authorities that have implemented structures to benefit the communities our children will become part of and they must enter these situations prepared to recognize when someone else in charge, be aware of what is expected of them and how to proceed accordingly, EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T WANT TO.  The family is the first community our children belong to and it is where they will learn, or fail to learn, how to be part of the communities they encounter in the future.

It is in our children’s best interest to learn how to follow the rules and respect authority and they can be guided to do what we ask the first time.  Ok, maybe that’s pushing it., but at least after the second time.

Incentives like a chore chart where children are rewarded for following the rules several days in a row helps them see that loading the dishwasher everyday benefitted the family and they are getting a benefit in return. It is good for children to do chores and to earn rewards.  Your responsibility to your children is to provide food, shelter, education, exercise and love, everything else is a bonus.  Do you get a bonus in life that you haven’t earned?

If we lead with strength and structure as well as sensitivity, the end result is a heck of a lot better than running our home like an army barracks or having to keep the windows closed so your neighbors don’t think (or know) you’ve lost your mind.

Just saying…

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Raising Emotionally Healthy Children in The Wake of Divorce

When couples who have decided to divorce come to see me for counseling, the first question they always ask is “how can we get our children through this”.  The guilt, pain and sense of loss that couples experience before during and after divorce is often coupled with the fear that their children will be emotionally damaged and will never fully recover.

According to the United States government, more than one million children per year are living through their parents divorce.  Although past research focused on the negative outcomes suffered by the children of divorce, especially when those children enter young adulthood, more recent studies find that most children from divorced families are doing as well as children from intact families.

Surely divorce is a crisis in the life of children and their parents. There are emotional risks to children as a result of a divorce but these can be mitigated by something very important in the child’s life and that thing is the support and love of their parents.   So let’s go back to the question I hear most often from divorcing couples “how do we get our children through this”?

Children whose parent’s are divorcing do better when they are sufficiently nurtured and supported through the process and beyond by both parents.  A good and trusting relationship with both parents helps to prevent some of the emotional problems often associated with children of divorce.  Significant access to each parent is also extremely important.

Most importantly, children must be kept out of the middle of parental conflict.  Hostility between parents is detrimental to children whether or not their parents are divorced.  A highly emotionally charged and hostile divorce complicates a child’s adjustment and sense of emotional well-being.

Many parents do try to put their own pain and anger aside for the welfare of their children.  Understandably, some parents have significant difficulty managing their emotions during such a painful time.  Parents who are struggling to manage their emotions can find support from trusted friends, clergy or a counselor.  Families involved in high conflict divorces where there has been long term conflict, infidelity, abandonment or betrayal, need particular support and care in order to shield their children from hostility, cope with strong emotions and return themselves and their children to a place of stability and wholeness. Seeking professional help may allow these parents to be better equipped to guide their children throughout the process and to shield their children from adult conflict.

Children who are raised during and after a divorce in an environment that is secure and cooperative will learn how to cope with the divorce more quickly and will likely develop into the healthy happy children we’d like them to be.  In the end, the children of divorce need the same things that all children need, among these are an atmosphere of emotional and physical safety, appreciation of their need to become the unique individuals they were meant to be,  and most of all love.