Children are not as resilient as many adults think that they are, and that includes teenagers. Children are not small adults, and when they hurt, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to put into words their emotions and feelings. They have not lived long enough to understand what they are feeling. Consequently, the only outlet that some children have to make parents aware of their pain is through destructive actions.
I learned this after I went through a divorce. The four oldest children, now ages 11-15, were having problems dealing with another loss in their young lives. None of their fathers were in their lives, their biological mother was dead, I had left them for three years, working out of town, and, subsequently, had become a stranger who brought gifts every holiday, and now they had lost the only father figure they had ever known.
At first, they stopped cleaning the house. Then, they would start a food fight, throwing food across the table at each other until there wasn’t anything to eat. I had a meeting with them, sitting them side by side on the couch, and I told them that I loved them.
I explained to them that sometimes adults stop loving each other, not telling them of his cheating and the emotional pain I had been under, and that his leaving was not their fault. I allowed them to make me the bad guy, not wanting to change their feelings for him. I told them that we were all hurting.
I thought that they understood, but the situation got worse. So, in desperation and ignorance, I said to them, “You did not come from my womb. I am not responsible for you being alive. If you do not wish to clean the house, or, if you insist on fighting at the table, I will have you all placed in foster homes.”
I don’t know if it was my tears or my threat that finally got through to them, but the next day when I arrived home, the place was spotless and dinner was cooked. I had no more problems out of them, but the relationships that I had with them were altered.
I went back and told them that I did not mean the cruel things that I had said, telling them that I was at the end of my rope. But, finally it was family counseling that made the difference.
It was during about our third meeting with the family therapist that the youngest girl explained why they were misbehaving. She said,” We thought that if we ran Gina [their name for me] crazy, then she would let her husband come back!” They did not know how to tell me what they were feeling, so they tried to fix the problem, not realizing the damage that was being done to all of us.
This is because, as children, even as teenagers, they simply did not have the words to express themselves. We don’t teach children the words they need; we assume they will be fine, because they are not directly involved. We don’t tell them the why’s or what-for’s of our adult relationships, and then we are gobsmacked when they rebel.
I finally understood that they were trying to reconnect the pieces of their shattered lives. I cried and asked for their forgiveness. I told them that he was not returning, but that I recognized that they missed him. I invited him to join us in family counseling, and after a few sessions of all of us expressing ourselves, they understood my decision, and things got better at home.
Never having heard of grief counselors or child psychiatrists, I did not know to get them counseling for when their mother died. I’ve learned that children will find ways to let adults know that they are hurting, but often in the midst of our own suffering, we only see the behaviors and don’t stop to consider the underlying causes.
Even as a Christian parent, I forgot that God calls us to forgiveness, for Colossians 3:12-13 states, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”
I have good relationships with all four of them today, but it took a long time and a lot of hugging and talking to get us where we are now. I hope my story can help someone else avoid the pain for adults and children. Family and grief counseling is imperative and worth every penny, and it does not mean that someone is a bad parent, so don’t be ashamed to ask for help.