Dear David Coleman: How do I help my kids after a very traumatic marriage?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q: Two years ago, I walked out of my marriage with my three kids after surviving eight years of torture. Over those years, my husband grew from being irresponsible and abusive to impossibly irresponsible and wild. I had to leave to save my life, and so the kids could grow up in a stable environment. I still feel myself falling apart when my children ask to see their father. I can't let them, because I'm still angry and the wounds are still fresh. I am afraid whatever I try to do or say, about their father, will affect the children. How can I help them?
David replies: It sounds like you endured a very traumatic relationship with the father of your children. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to live with the chaos and unpredictability that you describe.
I do hear your question about how can you help your children, but I wonder if helping them needs to be secondary to helping yourself? In order to help them you must have the processing space to be able to contain their difficult feelings. For now it sounds like you can barely contain your own.
You describe how angry you still feel and how fresh the "wounds" are from your relationship with your ex-husband. It seems like the hurt you experienced is still very raw and very unprocessed. It sounds like, even after two years apart, that you are still experiencing a huge emotional and psychological impact.
If it is the case that you are still experiencing things like flashbacks, or panic, associated with the abuse and wildness of your ex-husband, then it must be impossible to have any emotional space or energy to support your children. I am a firm believer in the adage that in order to mind our children we must first be able to mind ourselves. That is not about always placing our own needs ahead of our children's needs. I know many parents who act selflessly at times, but it is about recognising that if our emotional energy is depleted, then we can't offer emotional support to anyone else.
Even the ability to act selflessly, when we perceive our children's needs to have priority, is not limitless. We must also have the experience of being able to meet our own needs, at times, or have them met for us by others who love us and care about us.
So, before you try to emotionally support your children in the aftermath of the separation, I suggest that you might go for some therapy for yourself.
After a relationship that was as difficult as you describe, it will take time and understanding before you feel fully back on an "even keel". Therapy may help you to get back on that even keel quicker.
In addition to personal support for you, working with a therapist may also help you to gain insight into what the children's experience of family life was like, given the "wildness" and irresponsibility that you describe coming from their dad.
Until you have insight into how his behaviour impacted you, and how you felt in the midst of the relationship with him, you may find that the potential complexity of your children's psychological response to living with him gets confused with your own.
In order to help them, you have to be able to place yourself in their shoes, and see family life from their perspective. As an integral, indeed central, member of the family, it can be hard to get the emotional distance required to be able to gain insight into your children's perspectives.
In time, empathetic listening will be the most supportive thing you can offer your children. You will need to be able to acknowledge that it may be upsetting for them not to see their dad. You probably tried to shield them from the worst of his excesses, such that they may not have a true understanding of the real concerns you have about him.
They may be mourning the loss of their dad, as he is no longer in their lives. While you may understand the good reasons for that, they may just need the permission to miss him.
So, be patient with yourself. Give yourself the time and support to be able to heal after what sounds like a horribly traumatic marriage. When you feel stronger yourself you may find that supporting your children is easier.
If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence
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