Divorce and your relationship with your children


Emily McGrath has parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham on this episode of Moving Forward. They discuss alternative ways to punishment while working with your children. Dr. Laura gives options and tips while gaining a relationship with your child while dealing with divorce.



Emily: Divorce Talk Radio does not give therapeutic advice. The topics discussed are for informational purposes only. If you are in need of therapy or counseling, please consult a licensed professional in your own state.

Emily: Thank you for joining us on DivorceTalkRadio.net. I am your host, Emily McGrath, on moving forward, and today we have a wonderful show. My guest today is Dr. Laura Markham, the author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” Dr. Laura has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from
Columbia University and speaks all over the world on how parents can transform their relationships with their children, and you can find her on online at AhaParenting.com, where you can sign up for her free newsletters on any pages and find lots of Aha! moments. Dr. Laura is the mother of an 18-year-old and 22-year- old who were raised without punishment, so she knows her advice works. This is just wonderful. Thank you for joining us, Dr.
Laura. It’s so nice to have you here.

Dr. Laura: Thank you for having me today, Emily. I’m delighted to be with you today.

Emily: And I want to say I subscribe to your newsletters and they are so full of information. They’re wonderful. I just appreciate them. I’ve learned so much from them, and being a single parent and dealing with discipline and punishment, it’s such a relief to know that there’s someone out there that has all of this knowledge and is willing to share it. It’s priceless, really.

Dr. Laura: Well, thank you, and I don’t know whether your listeners know this, but this is a public service, this newsletter. There’s no charge for it, so you can sign up on any page of the AhaParenting.com website and just receive it for free. There’s an unsubscribe link in every newsletter if you decide you don’t like it, but usually what I hear from parents is that they find it very valuable.

Emily: Absolutely. There is one newsletter that really sticks out for me. It was one that you had an issue with a child not listening, and you actually got down to his level and you almost validated their feeling, and I thought that was just amazing, because I did it with my five-year-old and it worked wonders. I couldn’t believe it. He was, before, crying, and after we did this process, he was hugging me and telling me he loved me, and I’m, like, “This is wonderful!” There’s no yelling, there’s no discipline. It’s, like, holy smokes, this works!

Dr. Laura: Children really want to be understood and when they feel like we not only understand but we will help them with these big feelings that are so overpowering to them, children are so grateful. I hear from parents all the time that children thank them and tell them they love them and really say, “Thank you, Mommy. Thank you. I’m sorry I was so mad before. I don’t even know why I was so mad, but thank you for helping me,” and they
hug their parents.

Emily: Right, because you’re helping them understand why they’re so angry and what they’re feeling.

Dr. Laura: Yes, exactly.

Emily: It’s such a priceless tool to have and really to be able to use.

Dr. Laura: Otherwise what we’re doing is we’re making them bad. We’re saying, “Those are bad feelings to have,” and of course we’re careful not to say, “You’re a bad boy.” We say, “It’s bad to do that,” right? But what the child thinks is, “I must be bad because I can’t stop myself from having these feelings. I can’t stop myself from doing these things I’m doing, so I must be bad.”

Emily: And it’s burned into you as a child, because unfortunately sometimes parents forget that it’s the action, not the child, and so they think that what they’re doing, them as the person, the child, is the bad, not the action, and that’s what needs to change, correct?

Dr. Laura: That certainly is. It is what needs to change. Parenting is so hard. It’s just the hardest thing anybody ever does, I think, and parents don’t have a lot of information, so when you say they forget, they do, but parents have so much pressure on them, especially after divorce. You’ve got.. You know, both parents are working and they are under so much stress. Suddenly you’re paying for two households instead of one, and you have less time
with your child. It’s easy to get disconnected, and you’re so stressed out it’s easy to not understand that in fact your child is stressed out, too, and maybe they’re reacting emotionally to the divorce. How could they not, if it’s recent?  At the very least they’re reacting to your being stressed out and your being not as connected to them, and when kids are stressed and don’t feel connected, they act out. That’s what they do, so you can expect more misbehavior and then you can get into this negative cycle unless you notice that that’s what’s happening, and you can stop and intervene.

Emily: Right. Correct me if I’m wrong. I think that the first key is really noticing that disconnection and that pattern with your child to be able to learn to correct it.

Dr. Laura: Right. Well, I think all parents assume they have a good connection with their children because they love their child! Every parent I know loves their child as well as they can. People would give their lives for their children and so naturally we feel connected, but that doesn’t mean that the child feels connected. They may feel like you’re distant, you’re disapproving, you’re not there half the time because half the time they’re with Dad’s house or whatever, and so they may feel less connected to you. You’re right, I think it’s instead of saying, “Boy, my kid is really acting like a brat. Why is he giving me such a hard time?” to stop and say, “My kid’s actually having a hard time here. He needs my help.”

Emily: So it’s almost like a cry for help.

Dr. Laura: In fact, it is. Children want to cooperate with us. They want to have a warm connection with us that’s happy. They’re going to exhibit childish behavior. They’re children, right? But they do want to have a good connection and have things be good, and so if they’re looking right at us and doing what we told them not to do, that’s a cry for help.

Emily: Wow. That’s awesome to notice, especially when you’re trying to reconnect with your child. Now, in an instance where there’s a divorced parent, they’re single now, it’s a new situation and it’s new for the child, and they’re trying to readjust and the child is acting out, do you have any tips that our listeners could do in the spur of the moment? I know with my son, he likes to push buttons like all five-year-olds do, and you’re tired at night and you just want them to be good. If there any tips that you can give us that would really calm that situation and make it into a better, loving relationship in that moment?

Dr. Laura: Yes. The first thing is always to connect. Always. So when you describe getting down on the floor and connecting with your child, that’s the first thing you do. You can empathize with what they’re feeling, you can express understanding of their wishes, you can even give them what they want — not in reality but in the form of a wish.  So, for instance, your five-year-old does not want to take a bath and is giving you a very hard time about taking the bath and ignoring you, you walk across the room, you get down on the same level as your five-year-old where he’s playing with his Legos, and you look him in the eye and you say… First of all, you admire his Legos. You join with him. You connect. You say, “Wow, look at what you’re doing! Is that a plane?” And he’ll show you,
“Yeah, it’s a plane, Mom, look how it flies around!” And he’ll zoom it around, and you say, “Wow, look at that! Look at what you did, that is the coolest! I love the way the tail and the wings are!”  And then you say, “You know what, sweetie, look at the clock.” Now you’ve just made the clock the bad guy, not you. “Look at the clock.” This is not something that can be argued with. You can’t argue with a clock, right? “Look at the clock. It’s bath-time, it’s time to get ready for bed.” And your kid goes, “No, Mom, I just need to do one more thing! I need to do this! I need to do that!” If possible, you’ve left an extra five minutes for this, knowing that it always is good to have a five-minute warning.

Think about this: would you want your friend who was going to do something with you to just walk in your house and say, “Okay, stop what you’re doing right now! Let’s go!” You would say, “I just need five minutes,” right? We all would like to have a little wiggle room there. Hopefully you’ve left five minutes if you can, and you say to your kid, “Hmm. You really want five more minutes, huh? Well, it is bath-time,” and you never go over the five minutes, you never renegotiate this longer and longer. You do this for the park, you do this for the bath-time, you do it for lunch, you do it for leaving the house in the morning. It’s always only this wiggle room once, and you say, “Hmm, okay. Five minutes, but then no fuss. Then it’s bath-time, no fuss,” and your kid goes, “Yeah, yeah, Mom, yeah.”

And you say, “Shake on it. We always keep our promises.” And they shake, and you say, “Okay, five minutes, no fuss,” and then you go back and finish emptying the dishwasher, but you come back in, like, three minutes. You don’t wait the whole five, and then you again notice, “Oh, wow, look, now you’ve got wheels on it, too! It can be a sea plane and a flying plane!”, or whatever, and you say, “Oh, look at the clock! Five minutes.” And your kid goes, “No, Mom! Five more minutes!”

And you say, “Oh, sweetie, we had our five minutes. That’s it. Five minutes and no fuss, remember? We have a deal. We always keep our promises. Let’s go,” and your kid says, “No! No! Mom!” Now you’ve connected. You gave him five minutes. You can give him a choice: “Do you want to fly your plane to the bath or do you want to get on my bath and I’ll piggy-back you to the bath?”

You might give him a choice like that, and you can empathize with how hard it is. It’s still hard, even though he got the five minutes, and you can say, “I know, it’s so hard to stop playing and go get ready for bed. I bet when you’re a grown-up, you’ll never stop playing. You’ll play all night, won’t you? I bet you will, every single night. You’ll never sleep, will you? All right, up on my back, let’s go! I’m your bucking bronco, trotting to the bathtub!” And at this point your child doesn’t feel pushed around because he got the extra five minutes. He feels more connected because you honored his work that he was doing, the Lego, and that is his work, and finally you understood, and he doesn’t always have to get his way.

If he feels understood by you, he gets something even better than getting his way. He gets someone who understands him even when…well, in this case, even when he doesn’t get what he wants, but even when he does something wrong. You understand even when he’s not perfect. You understand, and that’s what kids really need. They need someone who believes in their best self and understands when they’re their worst self.

Emily: Right, and know that either way you’re still going to love them.

Dr. Laura: That’s right, and of course parents always love their kids, no matter what. Parents say to me, “Well, he knows I love him. I love him no matter what, but I have to show him I’m mad.” But here’s the thing: When we show our child that we’re angry at them and we’re yelling at them, the child does not feel loved at that moment. We may love our child, but the child does not feel loved.

Emily: Right, and that’s what matters.

Dr. Laura: It really is a matter of perception. Perception is reality to the child, so you may love the child, but does the child feel loved? That’s what children need to thrive. They need to feel loved and we may love them, but if they don’t feel it, it doesn’t help.

Emily: And that’s just going to make them act out more in the long run than if you are really careful with them and did the validation of the feelings and giving them that little bit of room, and I liked the part where you’re shaking hands and making this pact that you’re not going to moan having to go take a bath. I like that because that’s really getting down to their level and it’s not over their head, where they can understand it. That’s wonderful.

I’m going to try this with my son because I think that would really go far, especially when there’s only one parent in the house and there’s no one to back you up, because that’s a lot of what I have issues with. He thinks he can run the roost, so to speak, because I am the only one and no one’s going to back me up, but I also let him know in a nice way that that’s not how things go. So I really like this way of working with your child instead of working against them.

Dr. Laura: Yes, and that’s a good way to say it. That’s what we’re doing. We’re working with the child, not against the child, and we’re the leader, but in order for a leader to have a follower, you have to be a certain kind of leader. You have to be a leader that people want to follow.

Emily: That’s so true, and that’s another good way to look at it with your children. You are being a role model for them and they are following what you do, and they’re little sponges, so if this is the way that you’re going to react to their behavior in a positive way, that’s how they’re going to end up probably in the long run as they grow up and not have anger issues that some people have. It sounds like it’s a more nurturing way of dealing with behavior and possibly getting rid of that behavior. Would I be correct?

Dr. Laura: Absolutely. I think what happens with anger when people have anger management issues, it’s because when they were younger they had parents who came down on them like a ton of bricks and they didn’t feel understood, so they developed this defiant attitude and they have sort of a chip on their shoulder, really for the rest of their lives. That’s one of the places that we find one of the ways that anger management issues develop.

Another way that anger management issues develop is when people stuff their emotions. If you think about it, anger is actually the body’s response to threat. Right? Fight, flight, or freeze. We know all mammals, when we’re under threat, we go into fight, flight, or freeze, and fight is the body’s mobilization, like, “I have to fight someone.” Unfortunately we know when we go into fight, flight, or freeze, our child looks like the enemy, and of
course our child is never the enemy.

It’s so important for parents to be that role model that you’re talking about. It’s so important for parents to stop, take a deep breath, realize they’re the role model, tell themselves a little mantra like, “It’s not an emergency. It’s not an emergency. Whatever happens, I can handle it. He’s not the enemy. He’s acting like a four-year-old because he is a four- year-old.” That helps us to move out of fight, flight, or freeze, and for our child, if we can stay calm, they will move out of fight, flight, or freeze also because to them it is an emergency if we’re upset.

If we’re upset at them, it’s an emergency for them and they will either freeze, like go numb. Then they have this blank expression, and parents will say to me, “He didn’t even look guilty that he slapped his sister!” Well, he was probably numb, like frozen, because you were screaming at him. So that’s freeze mode, or fight. He gets defiant. That would be fight. Or flight — sometimes kids will run away and hide under the bed or something, and they’ll be crying or they’ll be, like, “No! No! Go away!” And they just don’t want to come out because if we talk to them, they’ll burst into tears and they don’t want to feel those feelings, because the feelings feel awful to them.

They’d rather stuff the feelings than feel them because, frankly, those feelings feel yucky. There’s the fear that you like your sister better, which is why he hit to begin with, and there’s the sadness that Daddy moved out and there’s the disappointment that once again they failed and they’re a bad kid who hit their sister. There’s all kinds of feelings that go on and we need to acknowledge the feelings and let our child know that we’re going to help them with it. We won’t let him hit his sister, but we’re going to help him with those big feelings he has. He’s not a bad person, so he doesn’t have to stuff them, because what happens with kids when we yell at them for their big emotions is that they don’t work through them, they stuff them, and then when we stuff our feeling, they’re not under our conscious control, so they burst out and then he’ll hit more.

So in fact we need to allow our child to have his emotions at the same time that we say there are standards for behavior. “You must have been so upset to speak to me that way. Sweetie, what is going on?” “Of course I’m upset! I hate you! You’re a bad mommy! Why did you have to get a divorce!”, whatever, and we can say, “You are so upset, sweetheart, come here,” and we can try to help our child get to a point where he just cry — he or she
— can just cry, because sometimes that’s what kids need, and even if he won’t cry he does need a chance to tell us not just about the anger.

I’m not talking about getting stuck in anger but more the feelings that under the anger that he’s… The best defense is a good offense, right? So if he’s very upset, for instance, about the divorce, he might act angry at us but really he just wants to cry about the fact that everything is different and he lives in a new place, and Daddy’s not there and he has to go back and forth, and then he misses us. There’s so many things that are going on for him that are pressuring him and it might come out as anger, but under that anger is all of this pain that he just
needs to cry or to tell us about.

Emily: Sure. Wow, that’s great. That’s great information. Thank you for sharing. Wow, and that’s stuff that we can use on a daily basis, if needed.

Dr. Laura: Yes.

Emily: If there was a relationship with a child that was torn a little bit with the divorce and a parent was working with the child on a daily basis, approximately how long do you think it would take to regain the trust in the relationship of that child?

Dr. Laura: I guess it depends on a few factors. It depends on how you’re working with that child on a daily basis and it depends on whether there are new stressors with the child, and it depends on how big the tear was. For instance, there was a tear. Mom left for a month because things were so bad and then she came back and now they have split custody and the child is going back and forth. Well, the child will have felt so wounded that Mom
left for a month that it may be hard for this little girl to forgive her mom for leaving for a month and she may be very angry to begin with, and then when Mom is really willing to say, “I know it must have been so upsetting to you when I left, sweetie, ” and finally she trusts Mom enough to cry, then she’ll get very clingy for a while.

She’s probably not going to be angry for more than a few weeks. If Mom cannot take it personally, if Mom cannot attack back and can really understand and just hold that space with compassion for how this child was so upset when Mom left, and working with the child on a daily basis means to me you’re empathizing with whatever she says. So she says, “You don’t really care about me anyway,” and you say, “Wow, you must have felt like I didn’t
care about you. I’m so sorry I made you feel that way.”

You’re not arguing, “Of course I care about you! Look at everything I do for you!” You’re saying, “It must have been so terrible to feel that way,” even if you don’t know what you did. Sometimes kids will blame one parent for the divorce, even if the parents have not suggested that one parent is to blame, and you don’t even understand why your child is angry at you and they’re saying, “Well, you don’t care about me anyway or you wouldn’t have this divorce,” or whatever.

You don’t even know what she’s mad about, but you can still say, “Sweetheart, I am so sorry that I’ve ever made you feel I didn’t care. I care about you more than anything in the world. I could never love anyone more than I love you. Tell me what made you feel so terrible.” “You don’t care,” and she walks out of the room, let’s say. You’re not going to get this from a four-year-old, but you might get it from a 14-year-old or even an eight-year-old, so at this point I would advise the parent to just stay patient, to keep being compassionate, to keep the door open, to keep empathizing with whatever the child says. The child says, “It’s raining, I hate rain.” Now, your impulse might be to say, “Oh, it’s so good for the plants. We needed rain!” But what you say is, “You really don’t like it when it rains like this. I know, I’m sorry it’s such a yucky day outside, sweetie.”

You’re just empathizing. You don’t have to agree. You can have a different view of the rain, but you can say, “You really don’t like rain, do you?” You’re acknowledging her perspective, you’re acknowledging what makes her unhappy. “You really don’t want this. You really didn’t like this. I know it’s hard when such-and-such happens. That can be hard.” You’re empathizing with whatever and you’re connecting.

If it’s a younger child, you want to get them laughing. The older they are, the harder it is to get them laughing, but I swear by pillow fights, even with teenagers. They’re just great to get them laughing, really, and it gets the oxytocin going, which is the bonding hormone, so the child connects with you more while you’re doing the pillow fight or whatever. Little kids, you can be a bucking bronco and toss them around on your back and then
dump them on the couch, and they’ll be squealing with delight. It actually helps them feel less anxious because it sort of lets out anxiety when they experience this sort of fear of, “Oh, my God, is Mommy going to drop me?!” Roughhousing gets kids laughing. It’s always helpful to connect, so that’s another way to heal what’s wrong between you, and simply spending good cuddling time together.

The visceralness of holding your child, and if it’s a child who won’t let you hold them, who’s a little older, you can give them back- rubs, you can give them foot-rubs, you can ask if they’d like their hair brushed or braided, give them a head massage, anything that will slowly give you access to be able to connect with them if they’ll let you do that physically, it really builds that bridge of trust.

You asked how long it takes. I would say a child won’t stay angry for more than a couple weeks usually, two or three weeks at the most, but after that they could be clingy for a while, depending on the damage that was done. They could be clingy for a few months, but over time, as you build that bond, as you’re really listening to them and really empathizing, the child is going to feel like you really care, you really understand, and that trust gets rebuilt.

Emily: Thank you for sharing that.

Dr. Laura: It’s harder if you go back and forth to different houses. It can be a lot harder to rebuild the trust because you’re always getting interrupted. You’re with the child and then they go to their other parent, and then they come back to you and then they go away again, and that’s hard. It’s hard on the child and it’s hard on your relationship.

Emily: Yes, and I believe it’s hard on both parents, too.

Dr. Laura: Absolutely.

Emily: Especially when there’s two different households and two different sets of rules, which can be confusing also for the child, I imagine.

Dr. Laura: I think it is confusing for the child. They get in habits, but I do think — my parents were divorced. I was five when they got divorced. I distinctly remember knowing that at one house we did this and at the other house, we did that, so I do think kids learn that pretty quickly, and yes, it can be confusing and it can be hard to remember your stuff at each house. The transitions are hard. You’re always saying goodbye to someone and saying hello to someone, but I do think kids can learn the rules. What matters most is that they feel seen, appreciated, and understood at both houses.

Emily: So we really need to think about the child’s feelings and really connect to that on a deeper level than just, “Oh, how are you?”

Dr. Laura: Yes. Yes. Kids don’t know how to tell you how they are, but you can say, “What’s your favorite thing since I saw you last? What was the worst thing since I saw you last?” Those kinds of questions, they can usually answer.

Emily: Oh, okay. Those are great questions because then that gets them thinking. “Okay, what was it that was my favorite thing?” I tend to do that with my son and that really gets the conversation going. Sometimes I’ll pick him up late at night, so he’s tired. Ten o’clock is late for him, and about a half-hour drive home, so just trying to keep him awake in the car, “Okay, what was your favorite thing that you did today at school?”, or “What was
your favorite thing that you did with your daddy this weekend?”, or whatever the topic might be, just to try and get that conversation going and that relationship rebuilding again and that connection remade. I’m guessing that these types of tips and great information is all in your book, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.”

Dr. Laura: Yes.

Emily: What a concept! Stop yelling and start connecting. I love that. For me, I sometimes catch myself yelling, and I’m, like, “Oh, wait, no. Let’s sit back a minute and take some deep breaths and reconnect with what’s going on,” because that doesn’t help any situation.

Dr. Laura: Right.

Emily: I just love that. That’s great.

Dr. Laura: I think parents who yell assume that everyone yells and that’s impossible to stop yelling, but I’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of parents stop yelling. It’s completely possible and the whole first section of the book is about how to regulate your emotions. Sometimes parents tell me, “I’ve completely stopped yelling.” Sometimes they say to me, “I haven’t yelled in a month,” and sometimes they say, “Well, I used to yell all day long and now I yell once a day.”

Whatever the improvement is, it’s great. You’re in the right direction and you can keep improving, so I think just reading that first section can really help parents to start to notice. I had a mom say to me just today, “It used to be I would find myself yelling and there would be no warning. I would just suddenly burst out yelling, but that doesn’t happen anymore.” She said, “I used to yell all day long. Now I only yell once every few months and I always have a warning. I always can see it coming. I see what’s building, I see what’s going on,” and I think that’s the awareness we all want to cultivate in ourselves, because if we can see the warning signs, we can stop
it and we can use that opportunity to get closer to our child, to intervene in a way that actually helps our child to become a more self-disciplined, happier, more considerate, responsible kid, rather than just yelling at them, which doesn’t have that effect at all.

Emily: Right. It’s not positive for either party, and it makes you feel icky, it makes the child feel icky, and it breaks down communication, too.

Dr. Laura: It certainly does. It destroys the trust.

Emily: That, too. Depending on the situation, it can be hard to gain the trust of a child back, depending on what’s going on with the divorce and parents and stuff like that, but in a younger child, it’s easy to gain that trust back. What a wonderful gift your book is, and what a gift you are to parents who struggle with this on a daily basis.

Dr. Laura: It’s hard. Parenting’s the hardest thing we do, and we’re all carrying with us the baggage from our own childhoods, and it doesn’t mean our parents were bad. It means that our parents did the best they could with what they had, but all of us are weighted down with our backgrounds, and unless we think about it, unless we bring some awareness to it, we’ll automatically do what was done to us.

Emily: We can find your book on Amazon.com, right?

Dr. Laura: Absolutely, or Barnes and Nobles or your local bookstore. Just go in and ask them to order it if they don’t have it in stock, but you can absolutely just order it online. Yes.

Emily: Okay and it’s also a Kindle version as well, right?

Dr. Laura: Yes, it’s available for Kindle, it’s available for Nook, it’s available on CD, it’s available for immediate download as an audio, and often people will say to me, “Look, I just don’t have time to read. I’m a single mom, I have no time to read,” and I say, “No problem, just download it and listen to it on your way to work in the car.”

Emily: Oh, how cool is that! So you have no excuse not to listen or read the book and become a happier family. That’s wonderful.

Dr. Laura: It definitely works to become a happier family, and it makes it easier to enjoy your child when you’re not fed up all the time. You can enjoy your child and really it’s so much more rewarding when you can transition into that peacefulness.

Emily: Exactly. Wow. That’s such great information. I’m so in awe of your work and just so glad you’re able to join us today, and you can find Dr. Laura at AhaParenting.com and sign up for her newsletter, if you haven’t already. There’s so much good information in there, and go pick up her book, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,” and you can go to DivorceTalkRadio.net and see other podcasts and
FreedomFromHeartache.com, and we will see you on our next show. Thank you so much, Dr. Laura, for joining us. This was so great.

Dr. Laura: Thank you for having me.

Emily: All right. We’ll see you next time.

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