The Powerful Lesson My Bonus Daughter Taught Me About Helping Kids Open Up

I clearly remember the moment, just like it was yesterday.

I was in the car with my bonus daughter (aka step daughter) making our usual trek between homes. Like lots of our car rides, the conversation quickly turned into a planning session about what we would do during our time together and what big events were coming up. As fate would have it Easter was right around the corner.

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My family usually makes a big deal out of Easter, and my bonus daughter always enjoyed the celebrations. Festivities usually included lots of kids hunting Easter eggs in a big pasture and huge Easter egg fight. Typically bragging rights got earned if you were clever enough to catch an unsuspecting adult off guard and “egg” them. Seriously…What kid wouldn’t want in on that?

“What are we going to do this year for Easter?” she asked excitedly.

I took a deep breath as my parent brain shifted into overdrive. This year, she wasn’t scheduled to spend Easter with us. And I had a pretty good idea how that was going to go over.

“Well sweetie,” I answered in my most upbeat voice, “You’re not going to be with us for Easter this year; you’ll be with your mom. AND I bet you’ll do something super special with her.”

As expected, she instantly got quiet, sunk down into her seat and scrunched up her face into a frown. I could feel the disappointment and sadness welling up within her. Then she said it:

“Christina, I really hate having two homes. Sometimes I just wish we all lived in one house.”

My heart sank. This poor kid was struggling and I had no way to change any of it. Scrambling for something to say that would make things better, I quickly rattled off, “I know sweetheart that’s the bad thing about divorce.”

The Next Moment After That I Got Schooled

This kid however, didn’t miss a beat and immediately cut to the chase. “No, Christina… it’s not bad. It’s just hard.”

And how very right she was, divorce isn’t about good or bad, right or wrong. It’s hard. It’s going to be hard for you and it’s going to be hard for your kids.

How you choose to handle the hard stuff is what makes the difference.

There are so many things about divorce that we can’t fix or change for our kids. When our kids are hurting, every fiber of our being is willing to do just about anything to make it better and take away the pain. Yet, when we take away the hurt or try to sweep it under the rug, we miss a valuable opportunity. The chance to validate how they feel.

It’s All About Validation, Validation, Validation

In that moment, when my bonus daughter was disappointed about missing Easter, I totally blew it. She didn’t need me to spin her sadness into a positive or to gloss over it. What she needed was to hear something like… “It’s really hard to miss out on something you enjoy so much.” or “I can see you’re really disappointed about missing Easter, I’d probably feel the same way if I was you.” What she really needed in that moment … was to know I was listening, that I understood, and that her feelings were totally legit.

When we can give our children the gift of being heard, it allows them to feel safe and accepted.

Validation doesn’t just normalize our children’s feelings it also helps them learn to trust what they feel.

However, the capacity for self-reflection and awareness is something we can only teach kids by listening to them without judgement.

Think about your own experiences… when you have a problem or concern and you want to talk it over with a friend, how would you feel if your friend told you you’re being overly sensitive, and to suck it up, or to look on the bright side, things could be worse? And yet… that’s exactly what we often do to our kids.

So why is it sometimes so hard to be validating?

How We Accidentally Invalidate Each Other

“I’m sure it’ll all be better tomorrow.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“At least you’re not Jill, she definitely has worse problems than you.”

“Look at all the things you have to be grateful for.”

If you’ve ever uttered any of these statements to your children (or to anyone else) it’s okay. Most of us have.

And the reason why is pretty simple. We do it because we feel helpless and uncomfortable. And to curb our own angst, we feel driven to DO something to make the situation better. We want to make the pain go away. And sometimes, we just don’t know what else to say.

We’re uncomfortable with sadness and we hate not having all the answers. So we rush in to fill the space.

But that doesn’t make the pain go away. Instead, it fuels it and sends a pretty clear message to the child we’re trying to help that what they’re feeling isn’t normal. They might even wonder if something is wrong with them for feeling this way. The end result… they stop trusting how they feel, learn to keep quiet or find other ways to cope that don’t work so well.

What if disappointment is an inevitable part of life? What if, instead of trying to make all the “bad” stuff go away, we stepped right in there with someone else’s pain and just said, “Of course, I get it, Yeah…me too…”

And that’s what validation is all about.

Validation not only makes your children feel heard, but it also brings emotions down instead of them continuing to ramp up. When they know it’s okay to feel the way they do, they are also reassured that they’re okay. Now what kid couldn’t use a little more of that?

Creating Closeness And Easing Feelings Through Communication

I’ve worked with countless separated parents over the past 20 years, many of whom are racked with guilt and mixed feelings. They judge and vilify themselves. They think divorce is ruining their kids.

What my bonus daughter taught me that day in the car is that divorce isn’t bad…it’s hard. And learning how to handle hard stuff, is a part of life. If we want our kids to learn how to handle sadness and disappointment, we need to be okay with those feelings too.

mom daughter eatting corn-on-the-cob

My bonus daughter loved doing Easter at my family’s house, and that year she would miss it. That was hard for her. And that’s okay.

My job that day wasn’t to bypass the sadness, it was to acknowledge it. And when we can do that for our kids, we have given them an immeasurable gift. The chance to be heard and understood.

While it may not feel like you are doing much, validation is a skill that takes a lot of practice. Especially when your kids are saying things that are hard for you to hear. Sometimes they may say things you don’t agree with or what about when the anger and upset they feel is directed at you?

In those moments, being fully present in the moment with your child while setting your own judgments and reactions aside can be a pretty tall order. The good news? You don’t have to tackle this tough stuff alone.

In my video program Co-Parenting With Purpose, I’ll teach you how to get kids to feel safe, open up, and unburden them from the weight of divorce.

You’ll also learn how to navigate and handle all the mixed emotions you’re contending with yourself, so that you can be more present and purposeful with your children.

When stress levels are high and feelings are strong even the most loving parent can get tripped up and say the wrong thing or blurt out something they regret. My program will give you specific guidelines for communicating with kids at any stage of their development so that they grow up to be secure, confident, happy adults.

How we talk about the “other house” is also critical—kids are very sensitive to this, and one small word can make a huge difference to their self esteem. In the program, I’ll tell you the common mistakes parents are prone to that can make and how to avoid making a child feel like a visitor in your home.

Learn More To Help Your Kids Today

Being present for your kids is so important, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help you get there.

Wishing you and your children the very best,

Christina McGhee

P.S. What if your Ex is too good at spilling his emotion–all over everybody?

Divorce alone is difficult. A high-conflict Ex makes it a minefield.

My program will give you the specific advice you need to deal with an uncooperative, argumentative Ex so you can save your sanity and do what’s right for your kids:

What To Do When Your Ex Is Difficult

Parent Without Yelling, Power Struggles and Guilt

  • Critical skills to raise happy, healthy kids
  • Make parenting the most fun you’ve ever had
  • Ensure your kids feel loved, accepted and understood
  • Co-parenting secrets to help your kids thrive
  • Common parenting mistakes you must avoid
  • Less tantrums and tears, more snuggles and laughter

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