Question: I am recently separated from my wife, and my kids are not handling things very well (nor am I). I try to be strong and affectionate when I am with them because I do love them dearly. My question to you is have you found within your experience that children in this position cannot handle criticism well and flaunt you in regard to what you have taught them in the past?
Jan Hunt responds: You sound like a very caring father. It must be distressing to feel that the guidance you have given in the past is being disregarded now.
While your love for your children has not diminished, your family situation has dramatically altered. I understand from personal experience how a marital separation can affect the whole family. While my husband and I needed to live apart, our child was forced to accept a situation not at all of his own choosing. A forced and unwanted choice is always frustrating for any of us, adults and children alike, and it's a maxim in psychology that "frustration leads to aggression."
Additionally, many children whose parents are separating or divorcing are in their pre-teen or teenage years – years that are stressful for many other reasons. Sometimes just keeping these considerations in mind can help us to understand a child's behavior during stressful times. It is during such times that a child most needs to hear that we understand, even when the situation itself cannot be changed. And it's this kind of understanding that can make all the difference in our relationships with them.
A key ingredient at this time is communication, which needs to include active listening, acceptance of feelings (both positive and negative) and undivided attention. Many families have found counseling to be very helpful. Others have benefited from weekly family meetings in which both positive and negative statements can be made safely.
Many books can be helpful for increasing understanding and communication between parents and their children. Two of these are Liberated Parents, Liberated Children and How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (both by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish).
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., is a parenting counselor, director of the Natural Child Project and editorial assistant for the Canadian journal Empathic Parenting. She is an advisor to Attachment Parenting International, Child-Friendly Initiative and Northwest Attachment Parenting. A parenting columnist and writer for many years, she is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. Jan and her 22-year-old son (who homeschooled from the beginning with a learner-directed approach) live in central Oregon. You can see Jan’s work at The Natural Child Project.