Sometimes our child’s words are telling us one thing and their voices another. It’s hard to know what to believe but never more important than when you are worried about them and their adjustment post divorce, it seems.
“It’s fine, really.”
“You know, maybe I’ll change my mind, but today I feel fine.”
“Mom, I’m really fine. Thanks for asking.”
“STOP ASKING. WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM? I AM FINE.”
I wish tone was more easily displayed with the written word, but you get the idea. There are a million different ways we all tell each other just how “fine” we are. Some of them are honest and truthful and some, just by the tone alone, indicate we are ANYTHING, but fine.
It’s not too different with our kids either, really. (Especially teenagers!) Sometimes their words are telling us one thing and their voices another. It is hard to know what to believe but never more important than when you are worried about them and their adjustment post divorce, it seems.
One of the things we love at What About Me is when we hear from you. We love to address your specific questions and needs. In fact, that is an area we are always hoping to grow in. We want to hear your feedback, your thoughts, and your struggles so we can talk about them together and hopefully learn from each other in the process.
We feel grateful for the feedback we have gotten and the questions too! We won’t pretend to have all the answers, but we will share what we know and hopefully get your brains churning too.
One such mom sent us a question recently that we wanted to address directly. She will remain nameless, of course, but her question is posted below.
“What about children who pretend nothing is really going on? Our daughter expressed her grief with lots of anger, which was painful to watch and deal with but at least she addressed and worked through the issue. Our son, on the other hand, acted as if nothing was going on. He totally refused to acknowledge there was even a problem. This worried me immensely.”
What a fantastic question and legitimate concern.
With anything in life, different children and different personality types handle scenarios in various ways. Sometimes it is totally predictable and sometimes it is not. Maybe you have a child who is typically more dramatic who gave a dramatic response to the divorce and a more quiet child who turned more inward or maybe they flip-flopped on you and left your head spinning a little.
Regardless, you are watching your children now experiencing this huge life change and trying to manage their chaos… or lack thereof.
Like the mom who wrote in alluded to: sometimes, it is easier to understand and know what to do with the son or daughter who is wearing his or her emotions loosely on the sleeve. Anger surfaces and you can name it, talk about it, deal with it. You can even take it to a counselor if needed and ask for help specifically.
What about your child who is acting like nothing is wrong in the least? What do you do then?
This is where keeping a pulse on your kids is essential. Being in tune enough with your own emotions to be in tune with theirs is the biggest key to figuring out this puzzle.
As crazy as it sounds, sometimes, they may really be fine. It may feel earth-shattering for you that your marriage has ended. You may have one child who is unbelievably angry or sad and you may have another who really does initially feel okay.
For instance, it could be a relief for them that the fighting has stopped or the elephant in the room has been named and dealt with by the adults. A child could feel more settled knowing the new plan and moving forward. All that is definitely possible.
Of course, they could also be stretching the truth. Intentionally or unintentionally. They may be telling you they are doing okay because they are afraid of burdening you further, like they don’t believe you could handle it. They may be telling you they are fine precisely because they are angry with you or don’t currently trust you. It could be a million different reasons they feel the need to lie. Continued emotional safety and unconditional love in your relationship with them can crack that shell over time and we always encourage fostering those qualities!
It is also possible that your son or daughter could be WAY out of touch with their emotions. We all need a little help with learning what to do with big emotions and your child especially will if this is the first rocky patch they have hit in their little lives.
As you can tell, there is a myriad of reasons your child could be telling you or showing you they are fine. It is your job as the parent to figure out what is true in a loving, creative way and it typically starts with you, the adult, creating space to wonder about what exactly is going on with your child before you jump to worry.
Here are a few good questions to ask yourself:
Age and development is a huge factor here:
How old is the child who is telling you he’s fine?
And where do they fall developmentally?
For instance, is your child really mature for his age or typically a little behind his peers?
What kind of emotional vocabulary does your child have?
Are they typically able to speak about their emotions with confidence and accuracy?
What has this looked like in your home traditionally?
Do they need some instruction and coaching in naming emotions?
What about displaying them?
How safe is your home when different members show big or small emotions?
Is there a reason for them to stuff their emotions or feel shame around them due to their experiences or their observation of yours?
Is this a normal response to stress? Is this child usually ruffled easily or not?
Is there someone else he or she could be talking to?
What is the other parent saying?
Does your ex-spouse seem to be getting the same “fine” cues and responses?
What are the signs around you saying?
What are your context clues?
For instance: How are your son or daughter’s grades? Social life? Temperament in general?
How have the circumstances of life changed for your child?
Is it actually easier for them that you and your spouse will not be married?
Was the decision abrupt or could he or she have seen it coming and been waiting for confirmation?
How was your child’s communication with you before this happened?
Is it unusual for them to not talk to you much?
Basically, what I am suggesting is good, old-fashioned parenting detective work. Not necessarily with your child either. A lot of this is you sitting down with a pen and paper alone or even with the child’s other parent and answering these questions.
The truth is this: you probably know your child really well. It can be easy in the midst of the crazy to jump to conclusions or get really worried without all the information gathered.
So, I would suggest that you start with an information gathering session with your own self and questions first. Approach your child’s lack of response with curiosity. Become a student of your child. Why might they be acting as if nothing is going on? Your answer may rise right to the surface simply in that session of wondering and curiosity.
Personally, I think taking the time to slow down and be curious about what is going on with my kids is the hardest part.
What if you take that time and do not come up with an answer? What then?
Don’t give up and write them off in your frustration, but don’t jump to the worst case scenario either. Remember, there is a spectrum here. They could really feel okay and they might not.
So, continue to ask occasionally but don’t pester. Encourage continued communication but don’t force them to tell you something is wrong if nothing is.
Stay open. Keep wondering. Keep watching. Remain a student of your child.
If there is reason to believe they may actually be okay, test out believing them. Tell them so too. Get down on their level – whether it is physically getting eye to eye or taking them to get pizza or kicking a ball in the backyard – and tell them you trust them and believe them. Then talk about how you will be there for them if their emotions change.
Then, go about creating a space for that to be true! Model it even in your own life. Without letting them be responsible for your emotions, show them or talk about how your emotions change as you process different life events too.
Then, reassess with your questions for yourself routinely. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be with a paper and pen at the kitchen table after bedtime. Maybe it is simply watching the circumstances surrounding your child saying he or she is “fine” and seeing how it plays out a week later, a month later, three months later.
Like so many things in parenting, it is kind of a big experiment. You may test out believing them and find you were VERY wrong as you reassess or you may find that they really were doing okay but the reality hits them later as they further develop or further get into the reality of how the divorce plays out for their day-to-day lives.
If your detective work convinces you something is wrong and they are not talking to you, try finding a trusted mentor or school counselor or trusted therapist in town for your child to talk to. Sometimes a change of scenery and trusted adult produces better results than simply the routine asking of the same questions from mom every few weeks.
For your sake and theirs, support from another adult committed to caring for and loving your child whether they feel “fine” or not is an irreplaceable gift.
Our hope for you is simply this: As you study your child, you fall more in love with the unique person they were created to be and get to know how they operate so you can offer them more compassion and support through whatever they feel along this lifelong journey.
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