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My husband and I are separated and headed toward divorce. It’s been difficult for our children. My 12 year-old daughter wrote me the following letter: “So there are lots of kids even just at my school their parents are divorced. So I won’t always feel like I will overcome it. How long will it take to overcome it? Do you still really love dad? If I had to talk to someone at school or like that who should I talk to? How is it not the end of our family? What’s the most important thing to you? Do you expect me to be happy? Why do people think it’s their fault? How do you let anger and sadness out but not anger hurt or yelling at someone like when my brother makes me mad all of my anger from everything comes out? When I tried to tell dad it seemed like he didn’t care. It’s all about him and he’ll do what he wants. Why?”
Your sweet daughter’s painful questions are difficult to hear. It’s a blessing she feels safe enough to ask these questions. Even if you don’t have answers to some of these questions, recognize that your willingness to stay close in her uncertainty will let her know she won’t be alone. Her biggest fear is losing connection to her family. Show her you’re not going anywhere by taking as long as she needs to feel comforted.
Denison Witmer beautifully captured this longing in his song, “Take More Than You Need”, when he sings, “Wait with me for just a while when the water in me dries. Stay with me all afternoon when the spirit in me moves.”[i] Your daughter will have many tears that won’t dry up for a long time. She needs to know you can handle difficult questions without defensiveness or shame. These are the first of many questions she’ll have as she moves through these challenging times.
As a loving parent, you will sometimes feel pressure to give her an immediate answer to help her alleviate her distress. Be careful that you don’t rush into giving quick answers to these important questions. She’s thought about them for some time and you have just as much right to think about your responses. Let her know you hear her and that you will spend time with her answering all of her questions to the best of your ability.
Please recognize that your answers aren’t the only way she’ll feel comforted and soothed. The simple act of identifying feelings and speaking them out loud is a significant part of regulating her nervous system and emotions. Dr. Sue Johnson said, “The simple act of naming an emotion calms the emotional center of the brain. Naming the emotion begins the process of regulating it and reflecting on it.”[ii] Ask her how she feels sharing these questions with you. Help her make the connection between speaking up and feeling calmer.
I’m not going to answer her questions in this response, as that’s your opportunity to support her. However, there are some themes in her questions that you want to make sure you address. She obviously has strong negative feelings that she doesn’t know how to handle. It appears that some of these feelings, aside from the devastating loss and grief she’s experiencing, come from a place of self-blame. Make sure you make it clear that she is not to blame for the demise of your marriage. Children believe everything relates to them in some way, which can be devastating when they believe they’re the cause of divorce.
Make sure she has access to a personal counselor at school or in the community so she can sort through her feelings without having to protect her parents. Even though she’s courageously asking you these questions, there is nothing wrong with offering her additional support and perspective in the form of a school or private personal counselor. They will be less emotionally triggered by her questions and they can help her learn new skills and clarify what she needs from you and her dad.
Please don’t underestimate the power of your presence and interest in her questions. Even though she deserves heartfelt and honest answers to her questions, she is asking you to care about her pain and confusion. Send her regular reminders that you are there for her and want to make sure she has all of her questions answered. Encourage her to keep sharing her worries and fears with you. She has some difficult years in front of her, but at least she won’t have to navigate them alone.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Johnson, Susan M. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.