It's the first step toward healing the hurt of divorce By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W. • Illustrations by Stephanie Manner WagnerIllustrations by Stephanie Manner Wagner
In the emotional baggage left behind by divorce, it's normal to have one load that is especially hard to let go of-the guilt that stabs you every time you look at your child.
Guilt over disrupting your child's life, combined with the frustration of having less time to spend with him, sends many divorced parents straight to Toys "R" Us in search of a way to make up for what has been done. At other times, you may find it harder to discipline, seeing that as yet another negative experience you are forcing on an already injured child.
While these actions are based in love and good intent, they don't work. Your child ends up spoiled by too much freedom and too many things, but doesn't get what he or she really needs: your love. You end up frustrated when you realize all your efforts have done nothing to diminish the guilt.
There is a way to manage the guilt-one that doesn't require another trip to the toy store. The healing that both you and your child need comes from within, and all the presents or vacations in the world won't make it happen. Fixing this problem requires that you learn to deal with your guilt on your own time and learn how to give love without opening your wallet.
Good guilt? Guilt does just one positive thing for us: It sends the message that we have done something that we should try to avoid doing again. But once that one good thing has been done, any more guilt can do only harm.
If we have gotten the message, it's time to end the guilt and decide to make different choices in the future. End of story. Continuing to dwell on guilt once it has served its purpose is a negative, draining and unhealthy experience.
We only make ourselves feel worse; we do nothing to improve the current situation and we do nothing to change what has already happened.
If guilt from your divorce is causing you to spoil your child (for the purposes of this story, we'll refer to the child as "he" or "him," but these suggestions apply to parents of girls just as much as they apply to parents of boys), try some of the following suggestions for letting it go:
• Forgive yourself. Until you have taken this critical first step, you won't be able to get past the guilt. You have made a mistake. You have made others and you will make more. Hanging on to the emotional residue won't change that. Accept that you are human and doing your best to get through life without purposely damaging yourself or anyone else-certainly not your child. Tell yourself sincerely that you are forgiven, and then move on. Forgiveness is the shortest path to healing.
• Forgive your co-parent. It takes two people to make a good divorce. Your child's other parent is going to be a part of your life since you are still linked by mutual responsibilities to your child. So make peace. It will help both of you do what you want most: To make life as safe, comfortable and secure for your child as possible.
• Remind yourself that guilt doesn't help. When you start feeling guilty, stop yourself immediately. Remind yourself that dwelling on the guilt will do nothing but make you feel worse. Keep a message running through your head or post notes around your home that say, "Guilt is no good," "Guilt doesn't help my kids in any way" and "Let go of the guilt."
• Write away your guilt. Putting your feelings on paper can help excise them from your mind and heart. Express your feelings and write for as long as you need to-that may mean one hour on one day, or it may mean 15 minutes a day every day for two months. Don't think about what you are writing or how it sounds, just express whatever you're feeling. When you're done cleansing those feelings from your mind, take the paper and get rid of the feelings again by crumpling, shredding or otherwise destroying the words as a physical symbol of your internal work.
• Focus on the present. Guilt is a mental exercise that keeps you stuck in a past, trying to change something that can't be changed. You only have so much energy to deal with life. If you use that energy thinking about how awful you were and what a terrible thing you did, you don't have the resources you need to develop and enjoy a positive relationship with your child.
• Apologize. The act of telling someone "I'm sorry" can be cleansing. If you think it would help, express your sincere apology to your child, face to face, in as simple a manner as possible. Let him know how sorry you are that he was hurt by the problems between you and his other parent. Ask for his forgiveness-and be prepared to cope with his response if he says he is not able to give it at this time. Then, help yourself and your child to move on by focusing on the love you still share.
• Focus on the positive. Make a list of all the good things you have done in your life, both in general and for your child. Make another list of all the positive qualities you possess that you can bring to your relationship with your child. If you feel yourself starting to dwell on your guilt, shift your thinking to the good in yourself instead. Once you see the good in yourself, you will be able to bring that positive view of yourself to your interactions with your child as well.
• Get some help. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your feelings to help release them and get some perspective. If this doesn't help, consider talking to a professional counselor. An effective counselor is trained to support and guide you through whatever emotional roadblocks may be keeping you from letting go of the guilt.
From your heart Most parents who overbuy or hesitate to discipline their child don't do it with the intention of spoiling the child. They simply have a strong desire to heal the wounds they feel they have caused by the divorce. Ultimately, however, giving a child whatever he wants does not repair damage, it creates more. A child without limits does not learn self-discipline, does not feel protected and often ends up feeling guilty himself.
It is important to continue to set normal limits on your child's behavior and keep your gift-giving at reasonable levels.
At the same time, take the following suggestions as ways to extend sincere, healthy love to your child:
• Spend time, not money. When it is your turn for visitation, be there. If you see your child only three days a week, don't schedule your social dates or other appointments for those days. Spend the time with your child. That doesn't mean doing something expensive or exciting each time you are together. Reading a story together or taking a walk is just as meaningful as an amusement park.
• Listen. Truly listening to another person is one of the greatest acts of love. Look in his eyes when he tells you about his school project, the mean kid on the playground or his favorite video game. The next time you see him, ask how things are going with whatever you discussed on the previous visit. Try to listen without criticizing.
• Be involved. Just because your child doesn't live with you is no reason to miss the school open houses, conferences, sporting events and concerts. Get to know his teachers, the names of his friends and what he does after school. Your interest tells him that he is important to you.
• Respect your child. Keep your promises, take his fears seriously and provide for his safety and welfare. Find healthy outlets for your anger so you don't shed it on your child.
• Stay in touch. You don't have to see your child in person every day to stay close. Cell phones, voice mail, pagers, faxes and e-mail all make it easy to say, "How did the test go?" "Happy spring," or "Good night, I love you" no matter how far apart you are physically.
• Smile. Your child needs to see, not just hear, how you feel. Words mean nothing if they aren't sincere, and body language expresses far more than words can ever say. Look at your child with genuine compassion and caring and he will see it in your eyes.
• Accept your child. Your child may not be growing into the kind of person you hoped he would be. He may be different from you, mentally, physically or emotionally. He may have different interests, skills or dreams. Do your best to accept this, instead of trying to change him.
• The person vs. the behavior. Always let your child know that there is a difference between who he is and what he does. While your love for him is everlasting and unconditional, there may be many times when you do not like what he is doing-and you will set limits on unacceptable behavior.
• Celebrate his goodness. Children thrive on positive information about themselves; give your child regular feedback on all that is good about him. Compliment progress as well as final successes. Point out inherent qualities as well as things he consciously works hard at.
• Say "I love you." Every child needs to hear those three little words to reaffirm that he is a worthwhile person. Other ways to say the same thing are: "You are so important to me," "I am so glad you're in my life!" "I love spending time with you," "I have so much fun with you" and "I'm so lucky you are my child."
• Go beyond proud. Saying you're proud of something your child has done is a great compliment, but it only addresses an action. His greatest need is not for your approval of his accomplishments, but your unconditional acceptance and love of who he is, simply by being alive. Tell him you love him just because he is who he is as often as you compliment his successes.
• Set limits. Many divorced parents hesitate to discipline their children because they hate to spend their limited time together arguing. But setting healthy limits is an important component of loving a child. That doesn't change simply because living arrangements have. Having and upholding realistic rules of conduct is important to your child's social and emotional growth, and it shows that you care.
• Be a healthy parent. Take care of your own physical and emotional needs so you can be as good a parent to your child as possible. Get enough rest, exercise and good nutrition. Deal with your feelings appropriately, manage your anger and ask for help when necessary.
The voice of guilt If you're having thoughts like these, let them go and practice giving love from the heart instead.
"I can't make the divorce go away, but I can make him forget about it by buying these great toys."
"I want him to like me and forgive me, so I'll take him on the best vacation he's ever had."
"I'm with him for such a short time, I don't want to spend it arguing or disciplining."
"It's so awful that he is a victim of divorce-I'll make it up to him by doing whatever makes him happy from now on."
"His other parent just did something wonderful for him; I'll have to do something even better so he will love me."
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville where she works with co-parents and blended families. She is the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.