By Suzanne Conlon, MA, NCC, RYT
“He’s only one. He won’t remember the divorce. He’ll be fine.”
If you’ve made this statement, you’re partially right. He won’t remember any details of the divorce. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be impacted by it. According to recent research, the most critical period for brain development is between the third trimester of pregnancy and age two.
“So what?” You might be asking yourself. “What does my divorce have to do with my child’s brain development?”
You, however, have everything to do with your child’s brain development. During that critical “brain spurt” period between the third trimester and age two, your child is busy learning emotional self-regulation, stress management, and social connection. And you are his teacher. From your own heart rate, to your soothing voice, to your varied facial expressions he watches and learns. When you smile and exude joy, he learns to express joy. When you rock him close to your calmly beating heart, he learns to calm himself. When you lock eyes and exchange coos, he learns to relate socially.
Without your intervention, his brain will develop in a completely different (dysfunctional) way. If his experiences during this critical time are filled with separation, distress, fear or rage he may grow up to have emotional instability, have an inefficient stress tolerance, to be less empathic, or even have memory impairment.
“But I’m shielding him from the fights and I only cry when he’s in the other room.”
Just because he’s not in the room with you doesn’t mean that he won’t be impacted by the stress you’re under. In fact, researchers found that when mothers were stressed, “they were more irritable, critical and punitive. They showed less warmth and flexibility in interactions with their children. Overall stress seems to be a factor that has the power to disrupt parenting practices seriously.”
“So you’re saying this is going to totally screw him up??”
Fortunately no. The stress and emotional volatility of divorce has the potential to cause permanent harm, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s what you can do to ensure your child is not a casualty of your divorce.
1. Practice mindfulness. With your mind consumed with distressing thoughts (lawyers, court, finances, custody schedules, the loss of your identity as a married woman, you name it), you likely aren’t paying attention to your words, your actions, or sometimes even your child. Before every interaction with your child, take the time to sweep those thoughts from your mind and bring your attention fully to your engagement with your child.
2. Get Your Heart Pumping. In this time of stress, your body, as well as your mind, is experiencing a state of heightened arousal. Prolonged exposure to stress can be toxic. Physical activity like running, gym workouts, or simply dancing around your living room gets your heart rate up. This helps your body to process and regulate excessive stress hormones. Regular physical activity (even just 10 minutes a few times a week) will help you to remain calm and collected with your child even when the stress of the divorce feels overwhelming.
3. Just Breathe. When life threatens to take you under, stop and breathe. See if you can breathe in to the count of four and then breathe out to the count of four. Close your eyes and narrow your focus to just this simple act. Doing so will slow your heart rate and provide relief to both your mind and body. By self-regulating your own difficult emotions, you will be modeling healthy emotional self-regulation to your child.
“And what if it’s all still too much?”
Seek help from a professional. Psychologists, counselors and coaches can be an excellent sounding board and source of emotional support during this difficult time. The Divorce Center website lists local coaches or you can ask your friends and family for a referral. It can feel like an admission of weakness to seek help, but in fact it’s just the opposite. It’s a sign of true strength. Divorce is one of the hardest things you will ever endure. You don’t have to go it alone.
Suzanne Conlon is a National Certified Counselor and a Wellness Coach. Read more about her at wellnessbp.com.