Helping Boys Cope with Divorce
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On emotional literacy and James TW’s “When You Love Someone”
The first time I heard James TW’s song, “When You Love Someone,” I felt a door open into past pain. The lyrics, addressed to a son who is struggling with his parents’ divorce, brought me right back to the moment my ex-wife and I split up. The ache of a failed marriage filled my heart, but more acutely, I felt guilt and concern about the impact the changes in our family would have on our sons (who were seven and nine years old at the time).
Until the moment my ex and I broke up, I had been a stay-at-home mom, shaping my life to accommodate my sons’ needs. Never in their lives had I made a self-supportive move of this magnitude, one that would disrupt their lives and cause them so much confusion and pain.
To the depth of my being, I knew I had done everything I could to save my marriage. I knew divorce was the right and only option. I also knew my kids were about to enter the emotional chaos brought forward by unexpected change, and I would be their guide. It was one of the most difficult times of my adult life. While I was managing my own feelings about life as I knew it falling apart, I needed to also teach my kids how to manage theirs.
The raw emotion in James TW’s song brought me back to that moment in a way that felt both tender and dangerous—tender because the song recalls the uncertainty and vulnerability of that time, and dangerous because the father’s messages in this song lead his son into an emotional dead end and leave him there, alone.
Divorce guidebooks give us scripts for talking to kids. Many of the recommended lines appear in this song: sometimes parents fall out of love, there is no one to blame, nothing is going to change with your friends or your bedroom, and we will always love you.
I delivered all the guidebook-recommended lines to my sons. I shared the important information about what would and wouldn’t change. I empathized with their confusion. I acknowledged the uncertainty they were experiencing. But the guidebook script did nothing to assuage my sons’ pain. The guidebooks did not answer my burning question: How will I help my sons work through their overwhelming feelings about the divorce?
In James TW’s lyrics, you hear a father taking some steps toward helping his son navigate divorce. He identifies with his son’s confusion and isolation: “There have been changes in this house/things you don’t know about in this family,” “It don’t make sense,” and “Some things you can’t tell your sister ’cause she’s still too young.” You also see a portrait of a child who does not know what to do with his feelings: “I’ve been called up by a teacher, she says she can’t even reach you ’cause you’re so far; you’ve been talking with your fists, we didn’t raise you up like this, now did we?”
This father understands his son’s circumstances, but he offers no guidance on how to cope with divorce. The son in the song is told what not to do: “Don’t be hanging ’round the back of the school yard,” and “Don’t let it freak you out.” The son is told to take his parents’ perspective over his own: “Sometimes two homes are better than one,” “You gotta believe us, it’s all for the best,” and “You’ll understand when you love someone.”
No wonder the kid in this song is using his fists; no one is offering him emotional support or helping him voice his own opinions and feelings.
Of course, a song is not a divorce guidebook, and I don’t fault James TW for failing to map a healthy, child-affirming route through divorce pain. In fact, I congratulate him on creating a song that both brought me to tears and scared me. That’s the work art does . . . it stirs up emotions and inspires us to reflect on our lives.
This song left me reflecting on an ongoing question: How can I help my boys develop their emotional literacy? Nearly three years have passed since my marriage ended, and we have made big progress by taking the following steps.
1. Let go of the guilt
Like many parents, I harbored deep guilt about the losses divorce brought into my kids’ lives. On an intellectual level, I understood that my staying in a broken marriage would not benefit my kids in the long run. But that fact did little to ease my guilt when I was holding a sobbing child who was pleading, “Fix it, Mom. Just fix it.”
To show up for my kids, I needed to stare that guilt in the face. I needed to accept that, yes, the changes in our family would cause pain for my kids, and, yes, I had a hand in creating that pain. I needed to take responsibility, to embrace humility, and to forgive myself. I needed to find the openhearted courage to sit with their pain—to make space for it, to listen to it, to hold them through it—just as I was learning to sit with my own.
When the cloud of guilt dissolved, I could see the divorce as an opportunity for my children. Divorce is a training ground for learning how to handle unexpected change, and I would be their coach. If the kids and I could walk through this process while communicating openly about the thoughts and feelings that accompany dramatic change, they would emerge from childhood better equipped to handle change later in life.
2. Find your kids’ “talk time”
Communicating openly is a noble goal, but it also presents a challenge. Kids aren’t always ready to talk, and they may not want to talk to their divorcing parents. After all, we’re the ones who got them into this situation in the first place. Three strategies helped me unlock the conversations my boys and I needed to have: be available, observe, and ask.
Be available. Inviting open communication is the easy part. I welcomed my kids to tell me or ask me anything about the divorce, and I promised I would respond honestly. But being available for those conversations required me to develop some serious communication skills. I needed to learn to listen to my children and affirm their feelings without trying to fix or change their circumstances or ideas. I needed to find a way to give the honest, age-appropriate answer, even when that honest answer was “I don’t know how to explain this to you in a way you can understand.” I needed to show them how to sit with discomfort, to feel the big feelings, and to notice how, over time, those feelings would shift and change simply because we gave them time to rise up and speak to us.
Observe. Rarely did my kids want to talk when I wanted to talk—at the dinner table or when we were sitting down for an afternoon snack. But they would ask me heart-stopping questions at the most unexpected times. After observing these “talk times” for a while, I noticed patterns. For example, one kid was open to talking after I had tucked him into bed, and the other would start conversations while we were tossing a ball back and forth in the yard. Once I identified their natural talk times, I was prepared for a heart-to-heart every time I clicked off the bedroom light or picked up my baseball glove.
Ask. To keep our communication flowing, in the nearly three years since my ex became my ex, I have tested out dozens of conversation starters with my kids. I have three favorites. I ask the first two every night before bed: Is there anything you want to ask me? Is there anything you want me to know? Some nights they answer no to both questions. Other nights they stun me with their vulnerable, insightful, and articulate responses. My third favorite conversation starter is “What’s it like for you to—?” I pull this one out when something new comes along in our lives. For example, when the boys and I moved into a new house, after a week or two, I asked, “What’s it like for you to live in this house?” When I ask these questions, the kids know I will not judge, analyze, or try to change their answers. I simply want to give them an opportunity to explore their experience and to share with me what it’s like to be them.
Often when children unleash their feelings, they’re not looking for someone to fix what is ailing them, they just want to be heard. Sometimes, whether they know it or not, they need wise guidance to deal with big feelings. It’s a delicate balance: holding nonjudgmental space for your child to vent and sharing wisdom that might help them. Kids need both, but not at the same time. It’s a lot like taking a deep breath. We need to exhale completely—something we rarely do unless we pay attention to it—before we can fill our lungs with clean, clear air. My sons and I have developed a conversation pattern that works for us. I listen as they vent, making sure they’ve gotten all the old air out of their emotional lungs. I feed back what I have heard from them so they feel met and understood. Then if I have some wisdom to share, I lay it ever so gently at their feet, starting with a phrase such as, “Sometimes when I am dealing with big feelings, I . . . ” and ending with a phrase such as, “I wonder if something like that would be helpful to you?”
4. Addressing behaviors
Practicing open communication has laid a foundation for addressing troubling behaviors when they crop up. For instance, when my son started lashing out at me verbally, I would address the behavior in the immediate moment, levying a consequence. But I knew we also needed to have a conversation about the underlying cause. I waited for a noncharged moment during one of his natural talk times. I described the behavior pattern (“I’ve noticed you’ve been saying unkind things to me”); I acknowledged his inherent goodness (“I know you have a good heart, and you don’t like how it feels to hurt others”); and then I suggested we look at underlying causes (“I’m guessing you’re behaving this way because you’re uncomfortable with something. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”). His exploration led us to the root of the behavior and to brainstorming other ways to handle his feelings. Over time my sons have come to identify their behavior patterns. All I have to do is say, “You’re doing that thing again. What’s up?” and the exploration begins.
It’s been a long three years since my marriage ended, a time marked by worry, tears, difficult truths, confusion, anger, laughter, and so much growth. I’m not done helping my kids develop their emotional literacy, just as I’m not done developing my own. But I am dedicated to helping them develop into emotionally savvy men who communicate openly, take responsibility for their behavior, and consider it a lifelong goal to continue learning how to be their best selves. Because the world needs more people who know how to flex their emotional muscles instead of using their fists.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
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