Children can thrive when they see their parents living their authentic lives. Children who see that people can love each other and then release each other learn that life is never permanent. In fact, the only thing we know for sure is that things are impermanent. Kids will have an opportunity to talk about their feelings with their parents. They will be allowed to explore different relationships with their parents that they would not have been able to if they had stayed in an unhappy marriage that sucked their energy.
The most crushing words a kid can hear, “Your mom/dad and I are getting a divorce.” To a child, the initial news is going to shatter their world, but I can tell you, if you keep them away from the ugliness and learn how to swerve around the negative, you will not ruin your kids’ lives. In fact, you have an opportunity to shine the spotlight on a wonderful lesson they can take cues from while you grow into a star role-model they call a “Superhero.” Dr. Elizabeth Cohen is a New York based therapist and known to many as, “The Divorce Doctor.” Dr. Cohen who is also the author of, “Light on the Other Side of Divorce” says, use this time to make it as positive as possible so everyone feels hopeful about the future.
Ilyssa Panitz: Jennifer Gates, the daughter of Bill and Melinda Gates posted on message on her social media handles in honor of her mom’s birthday and wrote, “‘a one-of-a-kind woman and hero.” That is a powerful message. Why can women like Melinda use their divorce as a teaching tool to empower themselves and their kids?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: Divorce is a teaching tool because when you say something is not working you are sharing that your feelings and experience matters. You are empowering yourself and children to look and care about how they feel as a major health concern. Feelings matter. You need to feel comfortable and like you are growing in relationships- not all the time- but if a relationship is holding you back that matters. YOU matter.
Ilyssa Panitz: What else can women show their kids as they go from being a couple to becoming a single parent?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: Women can show their kids that it is smart and brave to say when you are not feeling fulfilled, happy, and growing in a relationship. Women can show their kids that settling is not an option and pursuing your own personal goals can override your dependency on another person. I often ask the women I work with to consider how they would feel if their kid came home and said, “I am going to date my lab partner who I find pretty blah because all my friends have boyfriends.” We would scream…NO! You deserve better. Kids model what we do not what we say.
Ilyssa Panitz: Jennifer also wished her mother, “the most incredible year ahead.” Instead of writing something sad, Jennifer is loyal, compassionate, and encouraging. How can the support of a person’s children help them while they are going through a divorce?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: This is lovely that Jennifer is supportive of her mom, but it is essential to remember that it is never a kid’s job to take care of their parent. In fact, when kids worry about how their parents are feeling about the divorce, they might ignore their own feelings. This might also lead kids to not feeling comfortable sharing all their own worries for fear of upsetting their parents. It is our job as divorced parents to show our kids that while we are sad, we are also going to be OK and know where grownups go for help- to other adults, not to kids.
Ilyssa Panitz: It appears Jennifer is standing behind her mom’s decision to be on her own. What can children learn from Jennifer’s words?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: Supporting your parent is always going to make the tough experience of being a child of divorce easier. Picking sides or being aggressively involved in the conflict hurts children. Children do best when they can have a connected relationship with both parents.
Ilyssa Panitz: When the news first broke that Bill and Melinda Gates were splitting, Jennifer issued a statement saying, “I’m still learning how to best support my own process and emotions as well as family members at this time and am grateful for the space to do so. I won’t personally comment further on anything around the separation, but please know that your kind words and support mean the world to me.” Although Jennifer is not a minor, age does not matter if a person’s parents are breaking up and children are going to be devastated and cry no matter what. How should parents be prepared to handle the tears?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: I always suggest parents think about themselves as a safe container. They need to be the place where kids can cry. Tears are appropriate. Every emotion is appropriate and acceptable. Feelings are not facts, but simply an excitation in the brain. We need to sit with them and allow them to be. Holding space and validating your kids experience is the best gift you can give them. If you do not believe me, think about how you felt the last time you complained about work and your friend or partner started problem solving! You probably wanted them to simply stop talking and hold you and listen.
Ilyssa Panitz: When parents are going through a divorce, their kids are going to have a million questions. What are some of the common one’s children ask and how should mom/dad answer them?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: I always say that the questions keep coming. Parents often think that when they “announce” the divorce there will be one hard conversation, but actually there are many and they unfold over time. My kids still ask me questions 13-years post-divorce. Common questions at first are: Where will we live? What will be doing after school? Questions are mostly about them. Even if questions are about, you make it all about them. They need to be the focus, not your relationship.
Ilyssa Panitz: When Melinda has been photographed in public, she appears to be strong and has a smile on her face. We know, divorce can make a person an emotional wreck, especially if the circumstances are crushing. How can women take a cue from Melinda and be resilient? What tips can you share to stay tough during difficult times?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: I believe deeply that no one knows what another person’s divorce experience is. I wanted people to congratulate me after I got divorced, not say “sorry.” So, she might actually feel relieved since living in an unhappy marriage is very painful. I believe the number one way to obtain light, hope and joy post-divorce is to turn the focus from the external (your ex, your marriage) to the internal (yourself). If you are willing to dig deep and look inward, you will grow and thrive.
Ilyssa Panitz: Melinda once tweeted that, although she and Bill can no longer believe we can grow together as a couple they will continue to work together at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Melinda has always been passionate about her charity work. Why should women who love doing something, like Melinda, continue to devote time to it?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: The same reason men should! If we love the work, we do we feel good about ourselves and we do amazing work. Her relationship to Bill has ended, not her relationship to other things in her life. I think this is a good example of how divorce does not have destroy all aspects of one’s life. We are more than our relationships.
Ilyssa Panitz: Is this also an opportunity for women to reinvent themselves and do other things outside the box that can make them feel good?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: If your relationship kept you from pursuing your dreams and desires then “YES” you might look for another type of work. But if you were happy where you were then it will be interesting to see how work shifts as you allow yourself to release your relationship.
Ilyssa Panitz: I repeat the words “surviving” and “thriving” throughout the day. What are 5 reasons women like Melinda can kick butt as they move forward on their new path?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: One: She made a decision that her happiness mattered and that she deserved to pursue it.
Two: She took a brave step to share her personal life and struggles with the world.
Three: She has created a beautiful generous life separate from her relationship that will still continue.
Four: She created a legacy with her children that loving yourself matters.
Five: She has had huge amounts of integrity by not bad mouthing her ex
Ilyssa Panitz: Why can children “survive” and “thrive” too?
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: Children can thrive when they see their parents living their authentic lives. Children who see that people can love each other and then release each other learn that life is never permanent. In fact, the only thing we know for sure is that things are impermanent. Kids will have an opportunity to talk about their feelings with their parents. They will be allowed to explore different relationships with their parents that they would not have been able to if they had stayed in an unhappy marriage that sucked their energy.