What to do with the worry your kids won’t have healthy relationships and how to set them up to succeed as they go.
In the span of two hours this morning, I felt the whole spectrum of emotions with a handful of friends. One friend told me they had been sent a referral for their adoption they have been dreaming of for so long. Another told me her mother-in-law passed away this morning unexpectedly.
If you scroll through my messages or had transcripts of my phone conversations, you would see an array of even more : extended family drama, parenting struggles, marital conflict.
Most of my friends are in this same stage of life as me – figuring out the marriage, in-laws, parenting games, but even with my friends who are not married or do not yet have children, the same theme runs through all the conversations.
They are the glue holding us all together and getting us all through and driving us all crazy, right?
Nothing causes more joy and nothing causes more heartache than relationships.
And here you sit, shortly after a once hopeful relationship has ended, looking at your children wanting more for them.
It is a question we have heard many times before from many of you: How do I help my children grow into healthy adults who have healthy relationships? And what do I do with the worry that they won’t?
As a parent, I can validate that we all have these same worries and concerns for our children. We all want to give them the world. And we all want them to have the best relationships possible in this world.
After divorce, what many may perceive as failure, this longing is only heightened. Or maybe, more accurately, the worry is what is heightened. So let’s start with that part of the question.
What DO you do with the worry that your children won’t become healthy adults who have healthy relationships?
What do you do with any worry you have for your child?
You hold it gently.
You investigate if it’s valid.
Then you address what is yours to help with.
And slowly and gently let go of the rest.
Easier said than done, I know. But as a chronic worrier, this is a process I am quite familiar with and personally working through all the time.
Sure, it is way easier (initially) and totally my default to dwell on every worry I have in life. Especially over my children! But dwelling day in and day out with those worries holds me captive and keep me from living my best life and loving my children with my best self.
So we can work on the process of releasing the worries for our children and their future relationships together, slowly, with great compassion for our children and ourselves.
As for the rest of the question – how we help them grow into healthy adults with healthy relationships – we will spend the rest of this particular blog there.
Let’s start with an important disclaimer: Relationships are hard. All of them.
They are messy and challenging and beautiful and heartbreaking, and those are the best ones!
So, we have to start by clarifying that we are not trying to save our children from being in relationships that sometimes feel difficult or challenging. That’s all the relationships!
What I think we want more than anything is for them to be healthy individuals in relationship with healthy individuals who deal with the difficulties and conflict in healthy ways. See what I mean?
Let’s dig in together on a few ways we can begin to set them up for success in becoming just that kind of people in those kinds of relationships.
Tip #1: Modeling healthy relationships.
I know, I know. You are all over there thinking “Yes, we knew you would say this but this is exactly the problem! I am worried because our marriage ended and now you want to tell me to model healthy relationships? Are you crazy, lady?”
No, I am not crazy (at least not entirely!) and yes, I do know that is the worry. What I mean is moving forward in relationships, modeling health. And I do not just mean romantic relationships!
In a healthy relationship, for instance, some key components are healthy communication, clear boundaries, respect, and care. It does not take a romantic relationship to model these aspects of relationship well!
Maybe it is with a new partner and that is great. Model healthy relationships in that way. But maybe it’s with your friends or your parents or even with your kids themselves! They are watching and learning how to relate (the root word of relationships) to others all the time to form how they are going to relate to others throughout their lives.
They are watching the ways in which you value and honor yourself in relationships. They are watching the ways you care for and offer kindness to another person in relationships. They are watching it all and will imitate pieces as they go.
Tip #2: Talk about it.
So maybe you have made mistakes and have not always modeled the healthy relationships you hoped to show them. That is okay!
What your children need is not for you to model everything perfectly. No way.
What they need is for you to try, fail, get back up, learn, and try again. Just like in everything.
Then talk about it with them! Obviously, use good boundaries and keep their age and your relationship with them in mind, but share appropriate pieces of your story and the things you have learned along the way as you are in relationship with people every single day.
Talk about your hopes and dreams for them in relationships. Cultivate spaces for you to ask them about their hopes and dreams for their relationships too. And then listen, really listen.
Have the tough conversations. Introduce the toughest subjects yourself: sex, control, boundaries, safety, respect, love, etc. Our kids are very likely not going to bring these up to us. It is our job as the parents to create the space for them to talk about this in a safe manner.
This can happen in a multitude of ways.
It may be as simple as sharing pieces of your own story at their age so they can relate. It may be scheduling one-on-one time with each kid to have individual spaces for good conversation. It may be having dinner together each night and asking intentional questions regularly throughout it to show interest and safety. It may be as bold as telling them repeatedly that you will always love them or that they can never shock you and then proving it to be true. After all, we were all teenagers at some point!
Tip #3: Continuing encouraging them to be themselves.
Like I said before, typically it is two healthy individuals who come together to make a healthy relationship.
What I hope for my children and for yours is that they enter into relationships confident in who they are, not feeling pressure to change for anyone else.
This is something we get to help build in our children! We get to help build the framework for them believing in themselves, believing they are worthy, believing that they are enough.
So continue telling them what you see in them – that they are brave, intelligent, beautiful, strong. The words we speak over our children are powerful for building up themselves as well as strengthening their future relationships.
I am so thankful for the words my parents spoke over me that built my self-esteem and believe that I strayed away from some unhealthy relationships because of them!
In the end, our kids are going to make some mistakes in relationships. That is okay. We have all done it. We have lost ourselves or done things we wish we had not.
Ultimately, the goal is not to rescue them from every ounce of pain and heartbreak along the way. In fact, I would argue that it is in that pain and heartbreak sometimes that we best learn who we are and how to stand on our own two feet. In the pain is the growth and the transformation that will help them continue to blossom into the man or woman we have always known they would be.
Sure, we will continue to want to save them forever. That’s natural. What if we can’t? What if they move out one day having always been rescued forever? How will they stand?
Instead, I’m thinking maybe we model health, talk about the hard things, and encourage them to be themselves. And then we stay near as they step out and try this relationship thing on their own. We continue being a safe place for them to land, to ask questions, to be safe and home. Ultimately, I think the goal is just to be with them in the relationship struggle.
Because isn’t it true what I heard from a speaker on a podcast last week? “It doesn’t look pretty for the people who are doing it right. It never has and it never will.”
This is true of relationships as a child of divorce, sure, but it is also true as a parent, a friend, a daughter, a brother, everyone really.
So, today I encourage you to take a deep breath and lean in with your kids. Forget any stats you have heard about divorce being a generational thing. Whoever told you that didn’t know your kid and didn’t know how present you are and wonderful you are doing at this parenting thing.
Grace and peace to you as you step out on this journey.
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