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Trauma and Divorce: What Good Parents Need to Know (Part IV)

Rachel Alexander Dec. 18, 2019

{6 minutes to read}  Why is the topic of trauma important in divorce? Why is it important to parents? What good parents need to know?

People mess up; parents mess up. And divorce is replete with countless opportunities for the best and brightest to err aplenty! 

With some forethought and understanding, we have the chance to keep inevitable emotional “boo-boos” from becoming psychological scars.

Within every parental misstep lives the opportunity for healing. Please pause here, because this is a little bit wonderful. Here lives an almost grace-like space in the aftermath of upset; a place where a caregiver can be an instrument of cure. This is true whether the hurt was caused by a third party or the parent herself. 

This between space — the real estate between hurt and trauma — was created by the same one who, before closing Pandora’s Box (filled with all the viles and horror the world would endure), could not resist inserting Hope. This after-harm space is the Hope.

And how can healing occur here? What might this look like in practice? Let’s use an example:

It’s a chaotic Monday morning in December. Lucy’s parents have been separated for less than two weeks. Lucy, age 11, spent her first full weekend with Dad and it’s their first Monday morning together. Dad has an important work meeting beginning at 9, off-site, the address for which he misplaced. 

Dad overslept the alarm. Lucy had trouble falling asleep, still anxious over the changes from the separation. Dad comes in three separate times to rouse her. She is a bit disoriented and missing the shoes she thought she packed that go with her outfit. Without the shoes the outfit is embarrassing. Before she is dressed she realizes she left last week’s homework assignment, due to be handed in today, at Mom’s. Lucy also can’t find the permission slip for today’s field trip. Meanwhile, Sal the dog is barking incessantly for his walk and breakfast. Mom usually walked the dog after putting coffee on.

Dad, a good and loving Dad, is stressed, late, and un-caffeinated. Lucy, a careful and conscientious child, is getting a bit undone. Calling upstairs for the umpteenth time, Dad loses his temper, yelling something hurtful, angry, blameful. 

It lands on Lucy hard and angular, stunning and hurting. She breaks into sobs and can’t catch her breath.

This was the hurt.

The healing might go like this:

Dad, shocked by what escaped him, breathes deeply, collects himself, and ushers Lucy into the car. He is quiet with her for a few moments, and driving passes her tissues. 

They are together in a spacious way. This is important. 

Dad doesn’t race to a resolution — doesn’t push an agenda. He contains his own discomfort and allows for his daughter’s. 

Even an apology, if rushed, can be an imposition on the other. Instead of an expression of care, it can read as an additional act of dominance.  

The first healing act is the gentle allowing for time so Lucy can process whatever she is experiencing. Our dad doesn’t try to stop her crying or shut her up because of his own discomfort, shame, regret. He tolerates her upset and his own for just a little while, making a safe place where they can both be present together.

The drive to school is only a few minutes. When he stops the car to drop her off, he is calm and present and more grounded himself as well as more attuned to her.

I’m sorry,” he says, from this place of honest relating. “I’m so sorry for losing my temper and for making you cry. This is a tough time. We can talk some more about it later if you want. I’ll be glad to listen.” Later, depending upon texting rules at her particular school, Dad might send a message: “Just checking on you. Sorry for a bad morning. Love you.

And that afternoon, once home from work, he may call Lucy to check-in and be in a gentle, compassionate relationship with her. He might also let Mom know about the rough morning, so she too can be part of the healing-after-space.

This is an example. The words are secondary. The relating is essential.  The kind and respectful relating to the other after a trespass is medicinal.

The relating makes the difference between what’s terrible and what’s traumatic. And what’s empowering about this is that no matter what has happened, restorative actions are possible. These actions make the difference between an unhappy event growing into a lodged trauma or being processed and moving through the system with grace and growth, into the past.