“Mama, play with me.” I heard my three year old plead with me distantly, as if through thick glass. Irritation was rising in her voice, her toddler brain scouring for what was wrong with Mama.
I sat next to her on the playroom rug. You are the parent, I thought numbly. Do your job.
But I couldn’t. I was distracted and elsewhere. I’d had my heart broken days earlier by someone I loved, and I was still reeling from the shock of it, my mind pickaxing trails of why, how, what-did-I-miss? I picked up a wooden block and offered it to her. She took it, her body relaxing with relief.
It was my first time confronting this kind of grief as a parent. An ended relationship was hardly a death, but the experience was a window into the ways sorrow can short-circuit our ability to parent.
Grieving a relationship is an imperious state, demanding we submit mind, heart and body. Parenting, meanwhile, is nothing if not an endless stream of selflessness. How do we indulge the self-focus grief requires while performing the most selfless job a person can do? And how should we?
Painful breakups can have profound effects on the body and mind. In a 2010 study, scientists studying “rejected individuals” found activity in regions of the brain related to physical pain and cocaine addiction. The researchers concluded romantic heartbreak can trigger clinical depression, addictive behaviors and even suicide as a result.
Sadness, irritability, fatigue, and distractedness are among the most common side effects of grief while parenting. Dr. Chris Overtree, a child and family psychologist, says parents are generally inclined to pretend everything is fine. But kids are way more hip to our feelings than we think.
“When we try to hide our grief, we’re not that successful at doing it,” he said, “and it usually comes out in other ways.”
Children, meanwhile, tend to pick up on subtle shifts in parents’ behavior. Kids are developmentally self-centered by nature, and tend to overestimate their power to control the world around them. If parents don’t tell kids why they’re upset, Overtree said, kids may blame themselves, believing they are the cause of the problem.
Parents are teachers as much as caregivers, and our children learn to navigate life’s challenges by watching us. Kids can get a road map for how to handle painful emotions. “What they see is their most meaningful role model going through something hard and overwhelming, and learning that it’s okay to not know what to do,” Overtree said. “It’s okay to be devastated and it’s a normal part of life to take these challenges and get help from someone else.” And, when kids witness a parent grieving, they have an opportunity to practice empathy with a loved one in pain. They learn that our feelings change throughout life, but don’t define us.
If parents shield their children from real feelings, kids falsely imagine their parents are in constant control of themselves – and may try to emulate them. “If you never see your parents struggling with real world things, you don’t get a model for how to do that yourself,” Overtree said.
So how do we share our sadness with children without burdening them?
Say it in child-friendly language. How do we explain big problems to small people? Keep a child’s age in mind and explain the situation in terms they can understand.
When talking with kids about divorce, said psychotherapist Julie Mencher
If the break-up is with a non-parent who the child was attached to but may not see again, it’s key to make room for the child’s grief, too. “It’s really sad that we’re not going to be able to see so-and-so anymore, and I know that’s hard for you, too,” Mencher suggests saying. “The child will have her own reaction to that, including blaming a parent for a loss that was out of their control to begin with.”
Manage how and when you share your feelings. It’s not just how we say it, but how much we share that must be scaled according to the child’s age. “Keep it simple, choose how much you share on a need to know basis, and be watchful for signs of overwhelm in your child,” Mencher said. “Several short conversations might be more digestible than one dramatic sit-down.”
Stay in control. Parents should send kids the message that they are hurting but still able to take care of themselves and continue being capable parents. If you feel too distraught, wait until you are more composed. “I’m sure I’ll feel better when I’m done crying,” is both instructive and reassuring.
The good news is that kids are remarkably resilient, as anyone who’s seen a kid bang into something and dust themselves off with barely a peep can attest. Most children move through a world full of distractions, and many learn to compartmentalize effectively. This can serve them – and us – well.
“Mama, are you sad?” my daughter asked me.
I paused, trying to decide. “Yes, mama is sad,” I finally said. I watched her face carefully.
“Why?” she asked.
“Do you remember J.?” I asked my daughter. She did.
“She wasn’t kind to mama. She was my friend and she hurt me.” My daughter’s face contorted slightly.
“And that made you feel sad?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’ll be okay,” I said quickly. “Because—“
“Can we play blocks?” And just like that, she had moved on. The young mind reset with unselfconscious, enviable ease. I took a deep breath, and we went back to building our castle.
Rachel Simmons is the author of “Odd Girl Out” and “The Curse of the Good Girl.” She is co-founder of Girls Leadership and develops leadership programs for Smith College. Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons.