Most people want to know how they compare to others and whether their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are “normal.” When I began researching and writing my first book, Am I a Normal Parent?, which was released earlier this year, I started exploring the subject of normal. After hundreds of hours spent interviewing parents and other experts and thinking back over my twenty years of counselling experience, I was able to define what is most normal (or typical) of parents, regardless of culture, religion or upbringing.
When I was approached to write a column for this great new website, ChangingLanes.ca, I was excited at the opportunity to share more of what I have learned is most normal or typical for couples, parents and their children (and extended families) during and following their decision to live apart. Over the years, the number of children, parents and families that have experienced or been affected by separation and divorce has continued to increase. I estimate that almost half of my practise is devoted to helping children and families cope with the many emotions related to changes in their family as a result of divorce or separation.
What do I see in my practice from couples and children?
I see couples and parents at various decision making or restructuring phases. Sometimes what begins as couple counselling develops into working towards parting ways. Often, couples will have made their decision prior to meeting with me and request my help in how, when, where and what to tell their children about their decision to separate. I will sometimes request that the parents ask their children to join us in my office after the parents have shared their decision with them. Preparing parents for the way in which their children will respond to the news is accomplished by sharing with them what it most typical of children’s reactions, depending on their age.
When children meet with me, either alone or with their parents, I see that there are pretty typical ways in which they respond – most need help coping with many mixed emotions after being told that their lives are about to change. Most children have a difficult time digesting the permanence of this change and pray for reconciliation regardless of how ugly things were at home. After the initial shock and sadness, most children adjust well with proper support and guidance. A lot of how well the children cope depends on how respectful the parents are towards one another and how much parents educate themselves about how to evaluate what is in their child’s best interests.
I also see children who are quietly relieved that their parents have decided to separate so that the fighting can stop. Some children welcome stepsiblings and enjoy the company of their parent’s new partner and others who will do anything to sabotage the new relationship. Occasionally children will fantasize about their parent’s reconciliation even after they have begun dating new partners.
What is life like after making the decision to separate?
Making the decision to divorce or separate is typically a very difficult one – especially after children are born. As parents, it is most likely the first time that one’s own needs have been put ahead of the children. After separation, most family members struggle with coming to terms with the loss of what was comfortable and familiar. Divorce is not just about two people parting ways, but signifies the change in the family structure. The family never again looks the same.
Separation and divorce is not an event but a process – often lifelong. Once you have children, you will remain attached to some extent for the rest of your lives. Being able to work together will make everyone’s life easier. As you celebrate milestones such as birthdays, weddings and grandchildren, remembering to make happy occasions out of celebrations such as these is extremely important, but often difficult.
Sara Dimerman, C.Psych.Assoc. is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario as a provider of counselling to children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. Sara is the Founder/Director of the Parent Education Resource Centre and offers psychological services out of her private practice in Thornhill, Ontario. Sara is the author of Am I a Normal Parent? (Hatherleigh Press, USA, 2008) and is regularly featured in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television across North America. After 22 years, Sara and her husband are still driving in the same lane (even though he can’t stand her back seat driving) and are proud parents of two daughters, aged nine and seventeen. In her circle of married siblings, Sara is the only remaining quarter. All of her three sisters are separated or divorced. Sara tries not to be an interfering sister or aunt, but often has a hard time not doing what comes naturally to her- offering opinion or advice. Visit Sara’s website at www.helpmesara.com