Most of us acknowledge the importance of communication but find it difficult to practice — especially with our children. Put simply, they don’t often say what they’re really feeling.
As Dr. Bingham Newman observes, “They’re more likely to tell the parents what they think the parent wants to hear.” To get the true picture, we must use our eyes as well as our ears. “You can sometimes discern it from watching their behavior,” she says, “because their behavior speaks very loudly. ”While they may not verbalize their experiences, silence doesn’t mean everything is okay.”
And remember, she says, each child is different: “you have to know your kids.” Some are easygoing and cope more readily with change. Others harbor hidden insecurities that are easy to miss. She recalls one child who moved to a new home after a divorce and was extremely disturbed when a drunken neighbor inadvertently knocked down the mailbox.
To the child, that mailbox represented a sense of order in what had become a very chaotic world. He felt compelled to restore that little piece of normalcy. Bingham Newman recalls, “He got a little box and wrote on it, Mailman, put mail here.” The mail carrier was probably amused but surely had no idea of the deep motivations behind that childish act.
These issues are on my radar every day because of the work I do; I live and breathe the divorce environment, so I’m very aware of how parents can hurt their children. I always thought I had a pretty good line of communication with my own kids, but as I found out, even a conscientious parent can get it wrong.
We sent our oldest son to summer camp one year, and he loved it. When we picked him up afterward, he was elated. But when we sent him again the next year, his reaction was the opposite; he seemed almost dejected when we picked him up, and I couldn’t figure out why. I told myself that the initial excitement had probably just worn off. But as a parent, I found the worst possible scenarios rolling through my imagination.
Much later, our nanny told me the real reason: “You know,” she said, “when Andrew came home from camp he went up to his room and he cried.” She had gone up to see him and was surprised when he pulled out a stash of papers he had been keeping. As he showed them to her, she was even more surprised to realize what they were: all the letters I had written to him at camp the year before! They meant so much to him that he had kept them. And this year, there hadn’t been any.
There were good reasons for my lapse: It was an exceptionally busy time for our family. On top of my business activities, we were in the process of moving. That meant managing two complicated sales transactions at once. At the same time, we were preparing for a trip to Florida. In the rush of activity, I simply never got around to writing to my son. And I was oblivious to the effect that had on him. For someone who should know these things, I had messed up big time!
When Andrew finally broke the ice, he didn’t let me off the hook easy. “You never wrote to me, Mom!” he scolded. “All the other kids got something and I didn’t; I waited every day, and you never wrote to me!” Needless to say, the next year I changed my ways. He was excited about going to camp again, and after sending him off with a promise that I wouldn’t forget this time, I wrote him a nice letter—complete with a picture of our family dog.
The lesson is that kids don’t always tell us what’s bothering them. And they can be amazingly sensitive to little things that we might overlook. Combine that with the extraordinary trauma of divorce, and the potential for real damage is sobering.
Excerpt from The House Matters in Divorce by Laurel Starks, Unhooked Books.