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  • Separate Lives: How Do You Mend A Broken Child?

    How do you heal your child when your marriage collapses?
  • sad child

    Photo from familyfriendpoems.com

    This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Smart Parenting magazine

    When a marriage falls apart, a crazy mix of emotions follows. If it was a bitter separation marred by violence and betrayal, there is much anger, pain, and anxiety. If the separation was civil, there still remains unspeakable pain and sadness for both the husband and wife—and, worse, for the children of these broken families.

    Children from failed marriages have varied responses to this tragedy, but generally, they feel a sense of loss, according to clinical psychologist Zachele Marie Briones, M.D. She explains, “The separation translates to the sudden absence of a parent in the home. The sense of family has been shattered. When the kid is used to doing routine stuff with the absentee parent prior to the breakup, it affects him in a big way.”

    The Three As
    Dr. Briones points out, “There are three As that can help a parent raise a child, even with a broken home: First, assure your child that, despite the separation, both parents still love him. Next, adjust to the routine that your child is familiar with, to cushion the sense of loss. Last, agree with your ex-partner on the best shared parenting technique.” She adds, “A strong support system is also very essential. If the single parent feels she could not do these on her own, she could also seek professional help.”

    Of the three As, Dr. Briones says it is the last step -- the agreement -- that is usually the trickiest. “If your ex-partner no longer wants to be involved in raising your child, you should be honest with your child and explain the situation. You can say, ‘I’m not sure if your dad could [still] visit you or spend time with you, but in case he can’t, there are still a lot of fun activities we can do together.” She stresses to refrain from saying anything bad about your ex-partner to avoid worsening the situation.

    If the disagreement stems from different parenting styles, you should be firm and respectful in making your child understand that “Dad’s style” is different from “Mom’s style” and that some things that are allowed in Dad’s house may not be allowed when he’s with Mom, she says. Dr. Briones admits that this could be confusing for the child, thus both parents should make the necessary adjustments.

    “If a compromise can’t be reached, the parents should gently and clearly communicate to their kids that they have a ‘dad’s time’ and a ‘mom’s time,’ and that these two may be different but both are fun experiences, she adds.

    How solo moms cope

    Samara’s story
    Five months after separating from her husband of six years, interior designer Samara Uy, 34, was confronted by her four-year-old daughter with the question, “Will Dad ever come back?”

    “I was in denial for several months, but when my daughter asked me when she would see her dad again, I realized my marriage had already fallen apart. My dream of a perfect family is gone. I was at a loss; I couldn’t explain the situation to my only child who is very close to her dad,” she says.

    Samara had asked for the separation after a violent quarrel in front of their child. “I was suffering from years of verbal and physical abuse from my former husband, and I suffered in silence for the sake of our daughter and to keep the family intact. However, when he hit our child during one quarrel, it dawned on me that I had allowed our home to be an unsafe place for my child and myself,” she adds.

    Dr. Briones says that when it comes to violent relationships, the safety of the mom and her kids should be top priority. “Kids who are exposed to violence at home actually become more accepting of their parents’ separation because it restores peace in the house and it gives them a sense of security,” she explains.

    Fortunately for Samara, she has a formidable pep squad composed of her parents, relatives, and close friends who provide her and her child with the emotional and financial support —- and the prayers —- they need to get through this difficult journey.

    “I remind my daughter that even if Daddy lives some place far now, he still loves her as much as I do. I also allow my ex-husband to spend time with our child occasionally, and the setup has been great so far,” she says.

    Poi’s story
    When creative manager Poi Beltran, 31, ended her five-year marriage, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to provide for her child, and that her only daughter would suffer from separation anxiety.

    To cushion any adverse effect of the separation, Poi and her ex-husband agreed to stay civil whenever they are together as a family.

    “We always show our child how much we love her. We take turns bringing her to school. Her teacher, who knows about the separation, has been a big help in guiding our daughter,” she reveals.

    “My former husband and I do our best to parent our child separately. We use the parallel parenting technique. We inform each other if our child is sick; I send him a copy of my daughter’s report card and update him on her activities. When my child is with her dad, he also lets me know what they’re doing,” she says.

    Her advice to other single moms: “It is okay to break down after a separation, but you must learn to pick yourself up and start rebuilding your life. Never criticize your ex-partner in front of your child. She will cope better if she knows that she has an emotionally secure, responsible, and independent mother.

    Icy ’s story
    Accountant Icy Rodrigo is a self-confessed perfectionist, so when she decided to leave her marriage of more than 10 years, her biggest fear was that her “perfect image” as a wife and a mom would be shattered. She never spoke about the separation with her colleagues, nor did she voluntarily discuss it with her family.

    “My mother-in-law pleaded with me to continue attending family gatherings so our kids would not be estranged from their paternal relatives and I relented,” she says.

    Icy reveals that the breakup did not affect their children [badly] because her husband was never actively involved in raising the kids.

    Icy and her kids -— Ivy, Rosanna and Rio, who were only 11, 10, and 8, at the time -— continued with their usual routine so as not to make the kids feel even more displaced. Icy reveals, “I scrimped especially on my personal needs. My kids are aware that I hardly bought anything for myself because their needs became my priority.” She adds, “I never attended office parties because I wanted to get home early so that I could spend time with them. I did not get involved in other romantic relationships after the separation because whatever free time I had, I wanted to spend it with them. I was very focused on raising my kids."

    Now that her children are all grown-up, Icy says her greatest reward came when her kids asked her to retire so that they could take care of her this time, take her to places around the world and just enjoy life. “As a single mom, I also feel honored when my kids’ friends commend me for raising them well,” Icy says.

    Jolinne’s story
    Life coach Anna Jolinne Pamatpat, 41, reveals that prayer has been her constant guide in raising her son Dominic after separating from her French partner.

    Jolinne says, “I make sure that the image of his dad is not tainted in Dominic’s eyes. It would be very tragic and traumatic for any child to have the image of his parent ruined, most especially by the other parent, and more so before the child can even develop his own concept of his parent. I feel blessed that Dominic constantly expresses that he loves his papa and me no matter what, simply because we are his parents.”

    Jolinne, who is currently writing her first parenting book, says that it helps that she and her ex-partner don’t allow pride to get in the way of their parenting.

    “When Dominic was a toddler, he asked me, ‘Why doesn’t Papa live with us?’ I calmly answered, ‘Papa has his own place and he chooses to stay there. We have our place and we choose to stay here. How do you feel about it?’ His reply: ‘I’m okay.’ And that was that. No drama -— and no one destroyed in the process of telling the truth.”

    As a life coach, Jolinne advises single parents to live without guilt. “If a parent takes responsibility and owns up to her part of the separation, it would be easier to forgive oneself, bounce back, and stand up for one’s convictions and one’s love for family -— no matter how broken it may seem.”


    Red flags
    The kids may not talk about the pain they are going through after their parents’ marriage breaks down, but there are signs you should keep an eye out for:

    • Extreme sadness
    Some children experience uncontrollable crying fits. It is the only way they know how to deal with the separation, and it is important that you address this concern immediately.

    Dr. Briones suggests, “Find time to talk to your child and listen to what he has to say. Start the discussion by telling him that you understand what he’s going through and that you will do everything to make it easier for the whole family. Then, ask your child to verbalize his feelings and take it from there. It’s not going to be easy, but with constant communication and the support of your extended family, your child will be all right,” she says.

    • Isolation
    Single parents should be alarmed once their child suddenly loses interest in playing and interacting with friends, and chooses to be alone.
    Dr. Briones says, “Respect the distance in the meantime, but be highly alert and sensitive to his readiness for a heart-to-heart talk. Tell your child that just because Mom and Dad have separated, it does not mean that his ties with Dad have been cut off, too. In cases where the other parent no longer wants to be a part of the family, the solo parent should present positive options to the child to assure him that, despite the separation, he is still loved and cared for.“

    If the child is younger and prefers to play alone, listen to his “dialogues” without being intrusive. This will give you an idea on how your child is feeling at the moment.

    It would be best, however, if you join in the play. “Character plays and bahay-bahayan are effective tools for gaining insight into your child’s current state of emotion. For example, you can assign certain dolls to represent family members and create dialogues that could clue you in on your child’s feelings. Start with, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ or ‘You seem sad, why are you sad?‘“

    • Aggression
    Some kids take their parents’ separation with intense anger. They are constantly outraged with their siblings and other kids. They say hurtful words and get into fights. In some cases, they direct their anger toward the parent left to care for them, blaming her for the now broken home.

    If your child resorts to aggression, redirect his energy to more positive pursuits. “Yes, your child needs to let off steam, but instead of hurting himself or others, let him explore other avenues, such as sports or the arts, where he can express his anger in a more positive way. In worst-case scenarios, you may assign a corner of the house where the child can shout, rant, and release his pent-up emotions.” Dr. Briones also advises that you implement rules such as ‘No hurtful words’ or ‘No hurting’ in the process.

    Once your child has cooled down, it might be the perfect time for you to have a talk. “Let your child talk about his feelings, and be sensitive to his pains,” Dr. Briones adds. You may want to tell your child, “I am sad that you are hurting this way, but I would like you to know that I am here, I love you, and I will listen to you. I want to know how you feel, and I want us to work through this together,” she continues.

    • Fear and sense of guilt
    There are kids who think that they are the reason for their parents’ separation and believe that others are blaming them for the breakup. Some children go through shaking fits and profuse sweating and stammering when they see either parent. The child may also feel that it is his responsibility to think of a way for his parents to reconcile.

    “These are seriously negative thoughts for a child to handle. Have regular talks with your child to assure him that the separation was a decision made by you and your ex-partner, and that it has nothing to do with him. You can even say that you both decided to separate because you could not agree on many things and these disagreements cause tension in the home. Tell him that Dad and Mom want peace in the house, and that you both could still be good parents, even if you live separately.”

    • Sense of insecurity
    The family puzzle is now missing a piece, and this impacts the child especially if his friends all belong to whole families. The separation makes the child feel he is no longer accepted by his friends.

    “If the child had a good circle of friends before the separation, you could encourage his barkada to spend more time with your child, so he would feel that, despite the separation, he’s still got his friends.”

    • Slipping grades
    Dr. Briones explains, “If your child’s grades start to slip after the separation, there are two things to note. One, the child is severely stressed and cannot focus on his studies, and two, he deliberately does not do his best in school as a call for attention. Either way, you must remember to treat this with love and understanding. Do not berate your child for the slipping grades because this will only add unnecessary pressure.”

    It would be best, she says, to talk to your child in a gentle, kind, and understanding tone. Start by saying, “I know this is a difficult time for you, and I understand why you are having a hard time focusing on your studies. I love you, and I know that you’ve always worked hard to get good grades. I want to help you; please tell me how. I am not mad, but I know you can do so much better. You always have. Let’s do this together.”

    It would be good to actively seek the help and support of your child’s teacher. A dialogue with her will give you an idea on how your child has been doing in school after the separation. “What’s important is that you commit to your promises. If you tell your child that you would work together so that he could study well and get better grades, you should keep your word and really help him out,” Dr. Briones ends.

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