Q: My ex and I split up about a year and a half ago. I have read that kids do better when both parents are active in their lives, and their mother and I are doing our best, but I'm afraid my kids have separation anxiety. Two days before they're scheduled to go back to their mother's they get very clingy. But, to make matters worse, I think I'm showing signs of depression. I have no interest in doing any of the things I used to do and sometimes I'm so exhausted I can barely move. What can I do to help my family, and myself, cope with the adjustment?
A: Really good question — and I have to say, really good perspective, as well. You have identified that both the kids and you need help. Most of the time parents come into my office with the suggestion that their kids need counseling. I always tell them, "You get counseling, and your kids won't need it."
And, I'm going to say that to you, as well. Parents are their children's life lines. If you are disorganized, hurt, sad, and as a result, depressed, don't be surprised when your children manifest some of the same emotions. The best way we can help our children is to set a good example for them. If you openly worry as the time approaches for them to return to their mother's, then a natural reaction is for your children to be clingy. They don't want you to hurt or be depressed. Monitoring your own attitude will help your children.
Here are some quick tips to help you prepare your children for this new back and forth life:
• Try not to openly anticipate when your time with the kids is ending. Make the children returning to their other parent's home appear to be the natural order of things — because it is now.
• Prepare your child to leave by talking positively about the other home. No, "Don't worry, you'll be home soon." Since your children must go back and forth, painting one home to be the "real" home and the other something that must be endured is doing your child a disservice.
• Don't lead your child to believe you will come get him if he is unhappy. Allow your child to search out the parent he is with for soothing. That way he learns to trust both parents and feels safe in both homes.
Finally, you are correct — no longer finding joy in activities you once loved and being exhausted all the time are symptoms of depression. Many believe that after a year and a half you should be coming out of the funk and don't recognize that depression can rear its ugly head at any time. Not only that, and this is a stereotype but something that I have seen from working with thousands of parents over the years. The fact that you are acknowledging that you may be suffering from depression is quite insightful and deserves attention. Call a doctor immediately and work with a therapist to get on the other side of it. Do it for yourself — and your kids. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.