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Child is ready for truth in coping with divorce

My daughter has epilepsy. Her father and I divorced when she was 2. At age 5, she found our wedding pictures and (said) she really liked the pictures. That afternoon, she had her first seizure. For about three years after that, she constantly verbalized her opinion that her father and I should get back together, that “real moms should live with real dads” and that I should have asked her before I decided to divorce her father, because she would have told me that she didn’t want me to do it.

I’ve been tracking every seizure in an attempt to identify a pattern. There are many triggers, (but) the most prevalent pattern I found is that her seizures occur primarily on custodial exchange days. The seizures immediately following a custodial exchange are statistically relevant. Our older daughter reports that he “talks smack” about me to his live-in girlfriend (obviously within an earshot of the kids). His extended family has been doing the same thing for years.

I’ve tried for years to get him to focus on what’s best for our children, but he can’t help but default to his animosity towards me without regard for how it hurts our children. So, I’d like to help my daughter learn how to better deal with her stress and anxiety. I’m optimistic that doing so will at least reduce the frequency of her seizures. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions you may have.

— J.A., Las Vegas

In most cases, children of divorce do best with access to the credible truth. I acknowledge that certain details of a marital failure are best withheld from children, just as certain details of a thriving marriage are best withheld. But, pretending and play-acting with our kids virtually never works; it only makes life harder and more stressful to handle. Without an acknowledged truth, the stressful energies are “felt,” but cannot be consciously encountered and managed.

I’m saying that truth tends, in the big picture, to reduce stress, mostly because it tells us just how much resolve, resilience and courage we need to muster if we’re to live well.

I know a divorced woman whose 10-year-old daughter recently asked, “Are you and Daddy friends?” I thought her answer was brilliant: “No. There is still a lot of pain and disappointment between us. It would take a long time to build back the trust necessary to be friends.”

The answer is both general and credible. It doesn’t bash the father. It’s the truth. A sad truth, yes, but an invitation for the daughter to do the grieving she needs to do, and then get on about embracing life as life is — imperfect and oft-injured by human limits and failings.

If I’m doing the math correctly, your daughter is 11 years old? This is good news, for she is well old enough to encounter with real candor. At 11, it is time to Make The Covert Overt.

Recall to her the days between ages 5-8 when she would “constantly verbalize her opinion” about you reconciling with her father. Ask her point blank if she still had that fantasy. And then — gently but soberly — tell her that you and her father will never be together again.

Ask her point blank if she is angry with you or disappointed in you regarding the decision to divorce. If she says “yes,” I would affirm her anger: “Of course you are. If it means anything to you, I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t figure out how to make the marriage work.”

I would ask her point blank if it’s hard to go back and forth from house to house. If she gives you even a shred of segue about her father “talking smack,” I would empathize: “Honey, I’m so sorry you have to hear your father say those things about me.” From there, you could strategize with her regarding how she could protect herself emotionally from this behavior, including fantasizing about a time when she would be ready to ask her father to stop the behavior, or wondering aloud if she needed an advocate to help her confront her father (for example, a therapist).

Make sure to tell her that you’re a “tough girl,” and that she doesn’t need to worry about you. That she never has to protect you. That this pain is between you and her father alone.

When we encourage and teach a child how to make overt what is emotionally covert, stress can often be greatly reduced.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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