“Help! My children are out of control, and I don’t know what to do!” Laura sat in our office–tears filling her eyes as she described the turmoil of home. Adam, age 10, had withdrawn to a world of video games–showing no interest in school, friends, or family. Jennie, age 7, was lashing out at home, at school, and at church. Depleted by all the changes of divorce, Laura had no idea how to handle the change in her children.
But, there was hope. For Laura–for all parents facing this dilemma.
First–Recognize: The changes of divorce make children feel out of control.
As overwhelmed as parents going through divorce feel, the children often feel worse. After all–parents make the decision to divorce and all the choices that follow. Children are simply recipients of those decisions. Routines, living arrangements, even when they can talk to a parent changes. In the whirlwind, children grasp for whatever control they can take. Often. harmfully.
Then–Return some control to them through choices.
Whenever possible, develop the habit of offering children a choice:
- In the new house, how would you like your furniture?
- As we downsize–what 10 items do you absolutely have to keep?
- On our new budget, what one activity do you want to keep doing?
Sometimes the open-ended options can overwhelm rather than empower. If a parent senses this, provide options.
- Would you like tacos or spaghetti for dinner?
- Would you like to keep soccer or dance?
Often, as children sense a return of some control, behavior concerns resolve themselves. If that doesn’t happen, it’s often because the children feel “stuck” in a response or simply don’t know better options. Offering specific choices in the misbehavior can prove powerful.
- “You may have 1 hour a day to play the video game once homework is completed. The rest of the time you can ride your bike, build Lego’s, or invite a friend to play.” This doesn’t take away his chosen coping method (more loss of control). Instead, it puts a boundary around it while offering specific ideas for how to use the rest of his time.
- “When Tracy makes you angry at school, you may talk calmly to her, go to the teacher and ask for help, or sit at your desk and put your angry feelings in a note that we will read together once we are home.” This acknowledges and affirms that the emotions are real and must be addressed while giving specific ideas on how to do so.
Serve yourself–create a list of options.
All this sounds great in the abstract. But, exhausted parents parents often don’t have the brain function to creatively address the real world challenges as they arise. Result–parents default to either yelling or ignoring, hoping the situation will just go away.
Instead, brainstorm all the choices the children do have, make a list, and then make part of the everyday conversation. The process of creating a list will trigger parents to think of these options as they move through their days with the children.
As parents begin to develop the habit of offering options rather than simply imposing decisions, they return some sense of control to their children. As the experience of control returns, children emerge healthier and happier.