If you are a separated or divorced parent, you have experienced overwhelming stress and know the value of effective coping strategies. When my own marriage ended, a savvy friend reminded me that I was the one in charge of my choices and reactions. I could decide how to manage my kids, deal with my ex, and cope with my stress.
Over time I discovered six keys that make single parenting easier and more effective. Give these strategies a try. They can reduce conflict, create greater stability and increase your peace of mind.
Key #1. Use a No Drama approach to communication.
~ Tell children about divorce/separation with parents and siblings together if possible. Allow the kids to ask questions and express feelings appropriately. Avoid drama about parental problems. Tell children that adults will work out adult business. Try saying, “You did not cause our problems and you are not responsible for fixing them.” Messages like these build comfort and security.
~ Reassure children that both parents will continue to love them, care for them, and (when true) be involved with them. This applies to the first telling and ongoing informing. Refrain from making one child your “confidant.” Being kept out of parental conflict creates more stability for the children.
~ State the facts, not your feelings, about changes in life’s events. You need not have all the answers. Reassure the kids that you will tell them what they need to know when they need to know it. Keep your personal grievances out of the discussion. Factual information reduces stress -- emotional unloading will raise it.
~ Have a no blame/no shame policy. Never blame children for marital stress, or put down the other parent to the kids. Hearing parental anger confuses and burdens children.
~ Keep as much consistency and predictability in children’s routines as possible to create a sense of security.
Key #2. Manage your stress.
~ What’s your coping method? Do you vent? Shut down? Do you eat, drink or party? Do you think your coping style affects your children? The single parent who uses children as sounding boards for anger creates confusion in the kids. The parent who withdraws may find the kids acting out to get attention. Spend some time examining your stress strategies, and...
~ Develop your coping toolkit. Learn relaxation techniques such as breathing and meditation. Vent to appropriate adults. Train your thinking toward solving, not obsessing.
~ Remember “Bette’s Motto:” children’s stress levels relate directly to the parent’s coping quality! Your children will use you as a model. The “Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” motto is a myth. The kids will “Do as you Do!!”
~ Build your Self-esteem. You have a right to value and respect yourself. Tell yourself: “I am a worthy human being by virtue of being Me.” Add this: “I am doing the best I can, and my best is good enough.”
~ Depersonalize the ex’s actions. It is easy to feel like a victim, but doing so can put you at risk to act out your anger or resentment, and cause you to make less effective coping choices.
Key #3. Keep communication open.
~ Consider the other parent a “business” partner. When exes co-parent, children fare better. When possible, discuss and make decisions together for the sake of the kids.
~ Refrain from making children reporters between you and the other parent. Children will feel pressured by being in the middle.
~ Let children express love for the other parent even when it is hard to hear. Children identify with both parents, and do better when allowed to love both without guilt. Life will be calmer when children carry fewer emotional burdens.
Key #4. Keep your outlook balanced.
~ Avoid negative mind-sets like blaming, personalizing, catastrophizing and victim thinking. Talk to yourself in ways that affirm your efforts and accomplishments.
~ Accept painful feelings, but steer clear of resentment. Clearing your mind of toxic thinking will lower your stress and increase ability to solve problems. Stay hopeful without denying difficult realities. Balanced thinking promotes clarity.
~ Learn to access inner wisdom. Use both analytical thinking and intuition to make effective coping choices. In other words, get the facts and trust your gut.
Key #5. Bring in supports.
~ Seek friends and family members who can give you a hand, lend you an ear, or sit with the kids.
~ Believe that it is okay to ask for help. You need and deserve people to rely on.
~ Develop social networks. Find support groups in the community to learn from others in similar situations. Social connection reduces stress.
~ Use appropriate adult supports for venting and advising.
These may include friends, pastoral counselors and mental health or legal professionals.
Key #6. Have fun with the kids—and without.
~ You need fun for emotional, physical, and mental health. Enjoyment can boost your spirits and your immune system too. Fun gives respite from pressures.
~ Play a little. You don’ t have to pay a lot. Take a walk in the woods -- go to a public garden -- make family play dates -- go on a picnic -- go to the beach -- make a snowman -- play with a ball, a frisbee, a jump rope -- go to a public concert -- tell stories -- do an art project -- watch a good TV show — play a board game.
~ Take alone-time for yourself. Carve out time with other adults.
This type of break recharges the coping batteries.
A word of caution and a word of hope:
The suggestions in these six keys assume that it is safe to deal with “the other” parent. If safety concerns exist, these ideas may need to be modified, and you may wish to seek legal, and possibly, mental health counseling.
With practice and patience you can utilize these strategies to reduce your stress, provide greater stability and security for your kids, increase your self worth, strengthen your resilience, and reward yourself with greater serenity.