Parenting While Heartbroken: The Do’s and Don’ts – TIME
â€œMama, play with me.â€ I heard my three year old plead with me distantly, as if through thick glass. Irritation was rising in her voice, her toddler brain scouring for what was wrong with Mama.
I sat next to her on the playroom rug. You are the parent, I thought numbly. Do your job.
But I couldnâ€™t. I was distracted and elsewhere. Iâ€™d had my heart broken days earlier by someone I loved, and I was still reeling from the shock of it, my mind pickaxing trails of why, how, what-did-I-miss? I picked up a wooden block and offered it to her. She took it, her body relaxing with relief.
It was my first time confronting this kind of grief as a parent. An ended relationship was hardly a death, but the experience was a window into the ways sorrow can short-circuit our ability to parent.
Grieving a relationship is an imperious state, demanding we submit mind, heart and body. Parenting, meanwhile, is nothing if not an endless stream of selflessness. How do we indulge the self-focus grief requires while performing the most selfless job a person can do? And how should we?
Painful breakups can have profound effects on the body and mind. In a 2010 study, scientists studying â€œrejected individualsâ€ found activity in regions of the brain related to physical pain and cocaine addiction. The researchers concluded romantic heartbreak can trigger clinical depression, addictive behaviors and even suicide as a result.
Sadness, irritability, fatigue, and distractedness are among the most common side effects of grief while parenting. Dr. Chris Overtree, a child and family psychologist, says parents are generally inclined to pretend everything is fine. But kids are way more hip to our feelings than we think.
â€œWhen we try to hide our grief, weâ€™re not that successful at doing it,â€ he said, â€œand it usually comes out in other ways.â€
Children, meanwhile, tend to pick up on subtle shifts in parentsâ€™ behavior. Kids are developmentally self-centered by nature, and tend to overestimate their power to control the world around them. If parents donâ€™t tell kids why theyâ€™re upset, Overtree said, kids may blame themselves, believing they are the cause of the problem.
Parents are teachers as much as caregivers, and our children learn to navigate lifeâ€™s challenges by watching us. Kids can get a road map for how to handle painful emotions. â€œWhat they see is their most meaningful role model going through something hard and overwhelming, and learning that itâ€™s okay to not know what to do,â€ Overtree said. â€œItâ€™s okay to be devastated and itâ€™s a normal part of life to take these challenges and get help from someone else.â€ And, when kids witness a parent grieving, they have an opportunity to practice empathy with a loved one in pain. They learn that our feelings change throughout life, but donâ€™t define us.
If parents shield their children from real feelings, kids falsely imagine their parents are in constant control of themselves â€“ and may try to emulate them. â€œIf you never see your parents struggling with real world things, you donâ€™t get a model for how to do that yourself,â€ Overtree said.
So how do we share our sadness with children without burdening them?
Say it in child-friendly language. How do we explain big problems to small people? Keep a childâ€™s age in mind and explain the situation in terms they can understand.
When talking with kids about divorce, said psychotherapist Julie Mencher
If the break-up is with a non-parent who the child was attached to but may not see again, itâ€™s key to make room for the childâ€™s grief, too. â€œItâ€™s really sad that weâ€™re not going to be able to see so-and-so anymore, and I know thatâ€™s hard for you, too,â€ Mencher suggests saying. â€œThe child will have her own reaction to that, including blaming a parent for a loss that was out of their control to begin with.â€
Manage how and when you share your feelings. Itâ€™s not just how we say it, but how much we share that must be scaled according to the childâ€™s age. â€œKeep it simple, choose how much you share on a need to know basis, and be watchful for signs of overwhelm in your child,â€ Mencher said. â€œSeveral short conversations might be more digestible than one dramatic sit-down.â€
Stay in control. Parents should send kids the message that they are hurting but still able to take care of themselves and continue being capable parents. If you feel too distraught, wait until you are more composed. â€œIâ€™m sure Iâ€™ll feel better when Iâ€™m done crying,â€ is both instructive and reassuring.
The good news is that kids are remarkably resilient, as anyone whoâ€™s seen a kid bang into something and dust themselves off with barely a peep can attest. Most children move through a world full of distractions, and many learn to compartmentalize effectively. This can serve them â€“ and us â€“ well.
â€œMama, are you sad?â€ my daughter asked me.
I paused, trying to decide. â€œYes, mama is sad,â€ I finally said. I watched her face carefully.
â€œWhy?â€ she asked.
â€œDo you remember J.?â€ I asked my daughter. She did.
â€œShe wasnâ€™t kind to mama. She was my friend and she hurt me.â€ My daughterâ€™s face contorted slightly.
â€œAnd that made you feel sad?â€ she asked.
â€œYes, but Iâ€™ll be okay,â€ I said quickly. â€œBecauseâ€”â€œ
â€œCan we play blocks?â€ And just like that, she had moved on. The young mind reset with unselfconscious, enviable ease. I took a deep breath, and we went back to building our castle.
Rachel Simmons is the author of â€œOdd Girl Outâ€ and â€œThe Curse of the Good Girl.â€ She is co-founder of Girls Leadership and develops leadership programs for Smith College. Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons.