Age of Un-Innocence

Confronting difficult topics with kids

Twelve Ways to Ease Your Stress in Divorce

Actions to Strengthen You and Your Children Through Divorce

Divorce is not only all consuming, it can be destructive in every sphere of life—physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and relational—yours and your child’s. You need to attend to your feelings and to gain perspective, alert to minimizing the impact on you and your child from the overwhelming painful energy of divorce. To neutralize this negative force, draw upon the following arsenal by teaching and modeling these efforts for your children:

1. "Let go" of your negative feelings! Assess and confront negative emotions and be sure that you make room for positive emotions as well. First, identify what you’re feeling (Psychologists identify six primary emotions: happy, sad, afraid, surprised, angry, and disgusted. Today, some people zero in on two primary feelings as the basis of all emotions: fear and love.) Second, make a plan to work through your negative feelings. Bottled up negative emotions are time bombs. You need to recognize and confront negative emotions. Know when you are angry, frightened, sad. Sadness, anger, fear and frustration are understandable responses to your divorce. Ask how your children are managing their feelings? Let your children know that negative feelings are normal. However, managing them effectively is important for their well-being and will rescue them from depression and worse. We know that little boys often act out with their anger during divorce; do not label your child as explosive and having a behavioral problem, particularly if he or she is reacting to the earthquake of divorce created in his or her home—which is quite normal! Notoriously girls internalize their pain and can develop eating disorders or cutting behavior to release and feel from their numbness if they do not have a way work through their pain. Help your child find constructive release and avenues to "let go," to vent; this doesn’t have to incur cost; a pick-up game of basketball works the same or an open run. Maybe for you it’s tennis or racquetball and, of course, your invaluable communication. Divorce confirms Newton’s Laws of Motion that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. The pressures of divorce are potent and toxic, and it’s important that you release the toxicity: pushing away stress—constructively.

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2. Have fun!  Fight against being hostage of your divorce. What makes you and your kids laugh?   Watch comedies and play games that they enjoy. Join your kids in their games and laughter—create opportunities for fun. The power of humor is a well-documented antidote against illness. Fun may be achieved through relaxing together, dancing, going out with friends, or playing with the dog. But do it! Understandably, play and fun may feel awkward without the central person who is absent because of the divorce; however, create new rituals, such as going out for ice cream (my favorite) or a walk around a pond. While you don’t want to impose upon your children distractions when you think they may feel heavyhearted, you may be pleasantly surprised that they welcome opportunities to get away from the cloud circling at home and also to have you to celebrate life with them. Don’t deny yourself or them this joy.

3. Exercise. It’s rare that young kids won’t want to go bowling, skating, or tobogganing, but remember that pleasurable activities—whether they’re moderate or challenging both release physical stress and strengthen your emotional bonds. Some of the most meaningful conversations that dads have with their sons are en route or on the basketball court—or tossing a football back and forth.  Just plain walking is one of the easiest activities for most. With older kids, invite their ingenuity and discover activities that you may have missed and that they can introduce you to. There’s something in the wisdom of those ancient Greeks, like Socrates and Aristotle, who taught as they walked—the so-called peripatetic school. Great ideas and heartfelt experiences marinate through constitutionals, simple walks in the park.  Shared, pleasant time together is the ticket. 

4. Arrange to be pampered. While your daughter may prefer to get her nails done and, if you insist, even a pedicure, you may find a massage one of the best getaways imaginable. Massage and the various spa arts, from Reiki to a chiropractic adjustment, work to release tension in the muscles as well as enhance relaxation. Making time for such breaks may be out of budget, but you can arrange more doable experiences, such as swimming, massaging your child, or, maybe taking a nap. The task is to shift out of the morass of the divorce and to enter a pleasant state of consciousness—one that permits you to breathe, to think, and to experience happiness.

5. Take a hot bath. If you’re fortunate enough to have a whirlpool or hot tub at your gym this can release stress from your system, relieving tightened muscles and providing calm relaxation. Your tub at home, with an accent of pleasant music and possibly some lit candles, may add ambiance and comparable decompression from getting you away from "it" all. You may want to help your child check this pleasure out (and, of course, being sure that the water temperature is not too hot). Such pleasurable breaks from routine may show your child your recognition of his or her distress and shift away unpleasant preoccupations and introduce positive, pleasant feelings.

6. Just breathe! Stress reduction programs based on improved breathing techniques document how basic breathing (something lost in the throes of a contentious divorce) calm the whole body and counter various forces from daily pressures that endanger our health. By simply taking control of your breathing—slowly inhaling, envisioning good imagery (in contrast, during stress, to naturally hyperventilating from anxiety, causing us to use only a small portion of our lung capacity), and exhaling, releasing what is not useful, muscles relax and clearer thinking is restored). In addition, from this calm we discover ourselves as persons, alive, not running in a tailspin but, in control, able to center our self, relaxed. This is one of the most inexpensive tools always readily available to counter stress—even in traffic jams.

7. Work to relax. Just stop doing things. Take a break. The stress of divorce can have you embroiled in court, entangled in emotionally charged battles with your former spouse, simultaneously saddled with working double-time in your single parenting, feeling bombarded by a continuous flow of thoughts of your mind concerning tasks, regrets, and mixed feelings. We all know that as part of the animal kingdom, we, too, may pursue the fight or flight reactions more common in less developed species, however, we tend to sit in the middle of all of “it”—and that’s where the damage occurs. As you may draw upon several breathing and relaxation techniques that target focused efforts for relaxing your physical and emotional being, you may be surprised with how receptive your kids will be to join in such efforts that have you doing nothing. These efforts will enhance contact your contact with yourslef and your kids, improve sleep, and reintroduce you to inner peace and life itself. Can you let yourself do nothing?

8. Nurture Your Body. The shakeup of divorce can easily lead to throwing off sleep schedules, ignoring a healthy diet, and engaging in eating foods and drinks that provide quick fixes for quick energy or comfort rather than needed strength. You and your children may be more prone to fast foods and even illicit substances that weaken your body as a form of rationalized self-care when your body is already under attack from the stress of divorce. At the same time, the regiment of preparing good meals or the motivation for attending to conscientious preparations and details and “former” traditions may stir up times with your spouse that you seek to avoid. Though you want to leave some room for adjustment, your body needs solid rest to manage the new challenges and, simply put, it functions accordingly to the quality of fuel that you provide. Parents tend to be slack with their kids during the throes of divorce, giving in to their wishes out of efficiency, exhaustion, or rationalized mercy. While, you do not want to harp on good behaviors or add more complaints to the airspace, you want to model the right choices. Right choices are a mantra that you want to clearly establish across the board. In the face of veiled or expressed depression, children may be prone to submit to the quick fixes of drugs and alcohol all too available in modern society. You want to head off these downward spirals at the pass with clear instruction and preventative guidance. By contrast, cooking meals together may be one a rituals that you can initiate. Similarly, you want to protect everyone's rest and reserves to manage their more challenging days and to establish their directed course.

9. Develop Friendships. In college, I found a plaque that defined my experience of one true friend who was with me through thick and thin. I purchased it while on retreat at a Roman Catholic Trappist Monastery. It depicted two overlapping circles of which one was divided, reading, “A friend doubles your joys and divides your sorrows.” Such is this friend who has continued to be with me through the decades. I still use the words from this plaque to assess my friendship with others. Am I a true friend by dividing their sorrows? Is he or she my real friend by doubling my joy? Caring relationships generate joy and instill love. It is critical to have such relationships in life and very important to help our children discern such characteristics of true friendships with our kids. Sometimes children encounter problematic challenges in their friendships that directly result from the divorce. At a time when they may seek and need true friends, the pickings may be few and they may turn to “wrong others” in their loneliness to get their needs met. Your children will need your counsel and guidance in such times, as the losses at home ripples into the field. Be sure that you are there for them to help them steer their course so that they do not hurt and are not hurt by providing your quality parental friendship of guidance and love that they can count on.

10. It’s Okay to Cry. Sometimes the pain is so great that you cannot cry, and sometimes you cannot stop crying or crying just happens! This can be the case for your children, though often to a lesser degree for your sons.  Let them know that real men cry. Crying is thought to release potentially harmful chemicals that build at times of stress. You probably know that you feel better after crying—whether it’s during the joy of a touching moment, the birth of a child, a wondrous ending to a story—or after a miserable situation that caused you to break down into tears. Several studies confirm that “internalizers”—those who do not express their emotions—suffer greater physical and emotional illnesses. If you feel the need to cry, make room for those tears—they deserve space and reward you with relief.  Crying is a signal from what we feel. It’s okay to cry; and you can express this natural outlet in the presence of your kids. At the same time, be aware of its impact, discuss it, and do not frighten them with your tears if this appears as a burden. Kids need to know that it’s okay to cry. However, when crying is interruptive, you may have a sign that you need to seek professional help.

11. Start to Mediate. Meditation has been around for more than 8,000 years. Meditation focuses deepening of spiritual and religious objectives or, in its more popular forms today, such as “mindfulness mediation,” leads to self-awareness. Meditation in this form seeks to clear the mind, requiring that you do nothing—a very challenging problem for most people in the modern world. In mindfulness meditation, as in mediation generally, the goal is not to be drawn into distractions but to stay focused—either on the spiritual task—or on nothing—to observe, to learn who we are. Meditation is an invaluable tool for self-discovery and gaining access to your True Self. One of the potential benefits of divorce, like any catastrophe, is that this life challenge may lead you to ask deeper questions about your life and how you want to direct your present and future. Such personal and philosophical questions can be neglected if we busily run a course of life pursuing continuous activity and goals—or if we are despondent and do not confront vanities. While meditation is sobering, it is a deeply enriching avenue toward self-discovery.

12. Pray as Your Life Depends On It. The philosopher Soren Kiergegaard said that as man is a natural being, and God is supernatural, it is impossible for the natural to know the supernatural—for man to know God. However, he reasoned, it is possible to know God by way of the supernatural medium of prayer: prayer does not change God, but it changes the person who prays. Prayer offers a dialogue with the God; better, a relationship with God that has the power to transform a single heart or an entire nation. While many people pray with mere words, it is prayer of the heart, prayer that is motivated, passionate, believing, and engaging that transforms. In the depth of darkness in divorce, in a state of unknowing, the Unknown may be discovered through prayer. I know of no greater hope and power than prayer. Prayer transfigures distrust to hope, confusion to possibilities, and uncertainty to knowledge; prayer dispels the darkness of divorce to the Light of life.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate and True Coming of Age:  A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships.  For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.

John Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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