Q: My ex-husband and I have shared custody of our children, ages 9 and 6. They live one week with me, one week with him. The children regularly act out toward me through meltdowns in which they hit, kick, scratch, bite and scream at me. Sometimes, the months go by without meltdowns, and sometimes, they happen several times a week. This has been going on since our separation three years ago.
When the meltdowns happen, I stay calm and do what I can to keep them safe. I’ll sometimes hold their wrists, so they can’t hurt me, themselves or others. Neither child will accept a hug in this state. When they calm down, I try to talk about what set them off. I say it’s okay to be angry but not to hurt others, and I tell them I’m ready to accept an apology when they’re ready to give one. I also say how much I love them and always will.
My ex-husband says these meltdowns never happen when they’re with him. My 9-year-old’s teacher does not believe my child could have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and hormones checked out at the last physical exam a couple of months ago. My 6-year-old’s teacher says my child is insecure but doesn’t act out.
Before our separation, their dad had lots of anger and regularly yelled at me and the children. The children rarely talk about their lives with him. They each have mentioned on occasion that he yells. When they do, I try to listen and not ask or say anything that could be judgmental. When I talk to professionals in the family court system and social workers, they say that we have two different parenting styles — authoritative vs. authoritarian — and that I have to accept that.
How can I tell whether the children are suffering emotional abuse from the yelling? And how can I help them build their own coping skills? Conversely, how can I accept this situation and feel as if the children will be okay?
A: This is a difficult situation, and congrats on handling your children’s explosions with kindness and empathy. It isn’t easy to be the “chosen” parent for these meltdowns, and managing these outbursts for three years must be as exhausting to your nervous system as it is to theirs. To help with this question, I’ve turned to Sandi Lerman, founder of Heart-Strong International , an organization that trains and helps parents and professionals care for children with trauma, adverse childhood experiences and anxiety.
To begin, it’s unsurprising that there aren’t any medical issues or ADHD diagnoses for your children’s outbursts, because, as Lerman says: “A separation or divorce is a major loss and disruption to the child’s sense of safety. The meltdowns started at the same time as the separation, so I would agree with the professionals that this is most likely not a medical issue, but rather a psychological response to that traumatic event and the grief and emotional toll it has taken on the whole family.”
This raises the question: Why would your children act out with you, the parent who is gentle and calm, instead of their father, who is angry and punitive? Understanding this dynamic requires a primer on attachment, so let’s dive in.
Children develop and mature by orienting themselves to their main attachments (you and their father). Children don’t get to choose these people, so they’ll cope in whatever way possible to keep them connected to their attachments. If a parent is gentle, attuned, loving and warm, then a child learns that parental love is safe and can rest easy in that love. If a child is attached to a person who yells, threatens, withholds love, neglects or abuses them in any way, then a child cannot rest in that love. These children’s bodies and minds are in constant danger, and they don’t know how to receive safe love from the person threatening them. This frustration builds and builds; in your case, it’s not safe for your children to be themselves with your ex-husband, so as soon as they see you, pop! All of this frustration comes out in the form of aggression, tears, yelling and feeling out of control.
You’re witnessing two children who have been doing their very best in an emotionally unsafe home; it’s a form of survival.
“This is a complex situation to resolve, because it will require both parents to understand the nature of traumatic stress and acknowledge that separation is traumatizing to everyone in the family — the children and the adults,” Lerman says. “It’s also best if Dad comes to an understanding that yelling doesn’t do anything to reduce the stress and trauma, but only makes things worse for the children.”
In lieu of their father attending therapy or parent coaching, it’s recommended that you work with a trauma-informed therapist or coach, so you can move through your own feelings to best support your kids. For example, you may learn that grabbing their wrists may be accelerating their anger and frustration, so instead, other safety plans can be created to more rapidly promote a sense of calm.
A trauma-informed coach or therapist is important, because they have the best understanding of what children need to heal. And don’t forget: Your children are lucky to have you. Keep going.
Find this on The Washington Post.
Looking for more parenting support? Click Here.
Sign up for my Newsletter here to get this in your inbox every week!