Divorce can definitely bring out the worst in people. Often adults will revert to behavior worthy of the schoolyard bully. Witness the recent public outing of actor Alec Baldwin, who unleashed the fury of his anger and despair of his divorce at his 11-year old daughter. Baldwin has been embroiled in a messy divorce with his former wife, Kim Basinger, for years. In his recent thundering and threatening message to his daughter, he called her “a rude, thoughtless, little pig.” He ranted further that “You don't have the brains or the decency as a human being. I don't give a damn that you're 12 years old, or 11 years old, or that you're a child, or that your mother is a thoughtless pain in the ass who doesn't care about what you do as far as I'm concerned.” It saddens me to see such a clear example of a young girl caught in the cross-fire between two warring parents.
All parents, whether divorced or not, have their moments where the grown-ups act like kids and lash out in anger, dumping their own toxic emotions on the tender, young hearts of their children. I had a moment like that myself about six years ago with my oldest son, who was about seven years old at the time. He asked me a question one morning and I exploded at him. The pain I saw in his eyes shook me to my core. I decided then and there to do whatever it took for me to heal my own heart so I could be the kind of mother my children deserved.
How do parents, who’ve lost it in anger with our children, rebuild trust? I believe there are 5 steps a parent should take.
1. Own it.
Admit that you made a mistake with no excuses or justifications. You can share how you were feeling (angry, powerless, scared), but admit that it was inappropriate for you to take your feelings out on your child. Take responsibility for your actions.
2. Ask for Forgiveness.
Apologizing alone doesn’t go far enough. Put the ball in your child's court and ask for forgiveness. It gives your child back a sense of power that may have been lost in your altercation. Let them decide if and when they’re ready to forgive you or not. Give your child some time and space to regain their emotional footing.
3. Take the Heat.
Allow your child to openly share how they feel. Your job is to just listen and let your child be heard. Your child needs to find a way to express their emotions in a healthy way. This is a time to use your active listening skills. You may want to reflect back what you heard to let your child know you were really listening.
4. Make Amends.
Ask your child what you can do to make the situation right again. If your child was your teacher and you just scored an “F,” what would you need to do to bring your mark up to at least a “B” or an “A”? You may need to negotiate an amend that is related and allows you to connect to each other. (An amend of buying all the candy in the candy store would not be appropriate, for example.) Remember, actions speak louder than words.
5. Grow Up.
Your uncontrolled outburst may be a sign you need to do some emotional housekeeping yourself. Get honest with yourself and find out what’s draining your emotional resources to the point where you would take a strip off your own child. Find a friend, coach or therapist. Don’t look to your child to play that role.
Carolyn B. Ellis is the Founder of Thrive After Divorce, Inc. A Harvard University graduate, Carolyn is a Certified Master Integrative Coach™, Teleclass Leader and the first Canadian to be certified as a Spiritual Divorce Coach. She has also served as a Staff Coach at the Institute for Integrative Coaching at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco, CA, and has been trained personally by its founder, NY Times best-selling author Debbie Ford. Her book, The 7 Pitfalls of Single Parenting: What to Avoid to Help Your Children Thrive after Divorce will be published in 2007. She is a member of Collaborative Practice Toronto. Her three amazing school age children and bouncy labradoodle dog are her daily sources of inspiration and joy.
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