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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Staying Connected With Your Child After Divorce

Staying Connected With Your Child After Divorce

Lauren Reitsema experienced divorce first-hand when her parents separated after almost 20 years of marriage. Drawing from her own experience, Lauren will help parents and stepparents uncover common points of grief and loss for children after divorce. And, she’ll offer helpful advice for building a stronger blended family.
Original Air Date: June 3, 2022

Preview:

Lauren Reitsema: And so I thought here’s how I can heal. Here’s how I can mend this wound. I can create a world around me where I’m even better than I was before the divorce, and that can manifest in celebration and my parents will want to be around for it.

End of Preview

John Fuller: That’s Lauren Reitsema and she joins us today on Focus on the Family. I do hope you’ll stay with us as we offer hope and encouragement for navigating a blended family. I’m John Fuller and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: John, think of this, in the United States, one in six children live in a blended family. That’s where their biological parents are divorced and most likely a remarry. Uh, but make no mistake just because it’s prevalent doesn’t mean it’s easy. And I certainly have talked to a number of people that have been through that, that are going through it now and, uh, both from the parents’ side, as well as the children’s side. If you’re a stepparent, uh, maybe merging families is harder than you envisioned, you know, you think it’s gonna go pretty well and then it just doesn’t. And we certainly wanna make sure that we emphasize do everything you can to keep your marriage intact. I mean, that’s what we fight for here at Focus on the Family. We have Hope Restored, which is an intensive counseling effort that we put forward with an 80% success rate coming back to those couples two years later. So that’s the best thing you can do is work on your relationship, but divorce is occurring in our culture. There’s no doubt about that. And today we wanna offer hope.

John: Yeah, we have a guest who has firsthand experience and a lot of insights about, um, how to adjust to a blended family. Uh, Lauren Reitsema is an author and speaker and became interested in relationship skills when her own parents divorced after almost 20 years of marriage. And today Lauren serves as vice president of strategy and communications at the Center for Relationship Education in Denver, Colorado. And our conversation today is based on a book that she’s written called In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce. And of course we have copies of that here at the ministry and, uh, you can find that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: Lauren, welcome to Focus on the Family.

Lauren: Thank you so much for having me.

Jim: It’s good to have you here and I’d wanna get your response to some common message’s children here after divorce. I don’t know if I heard this when my parents’ divorce, but there’s all the cliches that you hear as a child. Things like you’re strong and resilient. You’ll be okay. God won’t give you more than you can handle. Um, what’s the error in trying to convey that positivity, I guess you might say.

Lauren: I, yeah, I lived all- all of those cliches if you will. And I think ultimately the goal in sharing that type of feedback, especially from a parent’s lens is to do one more layer of protection because parents don’t want their kids to experience the pain of what they’re going to experience because of divorce. And so I think in preparing for the big talk or the forward thinking or that positive, hopeful optimism, a lot of those things actually are true. Kids are resilient. God does restore and redeem. There are hopeful and- and positive things that can come out of exiting a toxic relationship. But the timing is important because a lot of times when those things are delivered, at least in my case, it was really early as almost a justification for why it was happening. And it wasn’t enough for me, it felt like it rushed my process of grief.

Jim: Let me ask you this because, uh, I hadn’t thought about it this way, but I think when the parent says to the child, you’re strong enough, you’re resilient enough. And then if you have any kind of uneasiness with what they’re talking about, now, you feel double jeopardy, right? Not only are my parents divorcing, but I’m not the person, I’m not strong enough like my mom told me I was ’cause I’m crying about it.

Lauren: Exactly. And for, and it’s interesting ’cause I actually being here at focus is fun, I grew up with Focus on the Family in the home radio programming listening and my parents were very intentional about modeling and- and working on a relationship. So in our case it was a complete surprise and a little bit shocking to know that they were taking this path. And I felt like it was my responsibility maybe even subconsciously to guard the reputation of my family-

Jim: Mm.

Lauren: … and to not let anyone know that we were gonna struggle or that it was hard. And so that layer of strength and courage that I naturally had growing up and in the role that I played in my family and just the experiences I just was kind of a go getter and I felt like I had to make sure that an energy of optimism stayed consistent through the entire process of the split.

Jim: Wow.

Lauren: And- and that actually is- is what delayed, I think my healing, because I created this persona that I wasn’t gonna be a statistic. I wasn’t gonna let anyone see that divorce was affecting me.

Jim: Yeah. We’re gonna unfold that.

Lauren: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Because I think you came to that realization later in college when that happened. But let me, let me take us back to that child grief process. And one of the things you say in the book is that a child needs, and a parent needs to recognize that a child needs to grieve the loss of their parents’ marriage. But in that regard, take me through the idea of helping your child grieve the divorce.

Lauren: I think the first thing is actually calling divorce a loss. I loved how you said that because a lot of times death in any circumstance is a great loss and children who grieve a parent who has died, get all of the community support. Uh, now granted, this is not something I wish on anyone I’ve- I’ve walked through that process with friends and loved ones and it is heartbreaking. And I would never want for anyone to have to grieve that, but the grief community path and death is so felt and so present and the children feel lifted up. In my experience with divorce, it’s almost a hidden grief in that people don’t experience it or express it as a loss. They experience it as a norm or they say, it’s just at least you have both your- your family, uh, members alive, you know, they, and they try and bring you out of the loss before you’ve even processed that you’re losing something, you’re losing custody in some cases you’re losing time, you’re losing identity. Uh, we can get into that a little bit later, but there’s a lot of loss in divorce. And I think it’s so normalized that it’s almost like Monday morning, your parents are together and Tuesday they’re divorced, and your life goes on. And there’s not that- that community support to engage the child and the resources they need after their loss has occurred.

Jim: Yeah, of course. You were in junior high when your parents divorced and taking it back to that time. Um, your attitude, and I could see it in you, this positivity, you know, I’m gonna protect the reputation of my family, the words you used a moment ago, that was the tact that you took to kind of in some ways downplay that I would think, you know, we’re still normal. We’re still good.

Lauren: Yeah.

Jim: We’re still healthy.

Lauren: I remember not even wanting to say the words divorce. We, my parents separated. My dad moved out of the house if I remember it correctly, when I was in middle school and went back and forth to counseling to really try and work on their relationship and it was final when I hit was a little bit later on in- in high school. And I think for me, I had, I was watching what was happening and there were these peaks and valleys of well they’re conversing really well. Or they went on a date night or they’re engaging, they’re flirtatious. There, there’s something about this counseling that’s working. And I think ultimately that was where my heart rested because I believed at that point and still do in a God who can reconcile and redeem. And I was in, I remember reading a devotional, it was called If God Loves Me, Why Can’t I Get My Locker Open? I don’t, I don’t know if you still have it. I don’t know who wrote it.

Jim: (laughs) It’s a good title.

Lauren: But it was a good title for a middle school student. And I remember going back and reading some of my entries and I was really questioning if God was good because I was in the middle of this family crisis. And not many of the families I were around knew the Lord. And so my family was supposed to be this pinnacle of faith and yet it was the one that was falling apart. And that really is where that shame, I think entered my story and I wasn’t willing to let what I stood for, for faith, be taken down by my parents’ choice.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Lauren: So I remember saying, you know, my parents are struggling or they’re taking some time apart, but it- it took a long time for me to actually say I live in a home where my parents are divorced.

Jim: Yeah. Um, you mentioned in the book that in junior high, your response wasn’t anger or to be sad, uh, but you wanted to kind of put the best foot forward, get into that a little more. I know it’s that shame factor, but how did high school unfold then? I mean, I remember playing football and we had dad’s night and there was no dad in my life. I mean, I lived with my brother at that time in high school and I was only one of two players out of probably 40, 45 that didn’t have a dad show up.

Lauren: Right.

Jim: You know, and that was a little awkward. I wasn’t jealous of the dads that were there. I thought that was great but for me it was just dad’s not present.

Lauren: Yeah. I mean that, those daddy daughter dances that happened in elementary school, move on to, you know, dad’s coming to cheer you on and the sidelines you- you asked about performance. And I actually, one of the things I did in- in high school and continue to do recreationally is play golf. And it’s not necessarily because I love the sport, but my dad is a golfer. He’s a great golfer. He, I remember one of my favorite lifetime memories was sinking an eagle from 160 yards out-

Jim: (laughs).

Lauren: … and my dad was there with me. It’s so, and I- I could have stopped playing golf forever just to celebrate that moment. And so I actually pressed into golf, uh, in high school and to, I played varsity freshman through-

Jim: Wow.

Lauren: … senior year at a really big high school. And I- I didn’t even know that I had the capacity to, you know, succeed at certain things like that. But grades that were also really important to me and, uh, my parents are both incredibly smart and driven and wanted us to be our best. And so I thought here’s how I can heal. Here’s how I can mend this wound. I can create a world around me where I’m even better than I was before the divorce, and that can manifest in celebration and my parents will want to be around for it. And so I think, I don’t know if it worked out how I planned it to, ’cause it was a little bit anxiety driven and I didn’t-

Jim: Oh, yeah.

Lauren: … really spend a lot of time, uh, processing and- and being authentic and vulnerable in that, that season. But I really was okay. At least on the outside because I was, I was kicked into full- full gear and, uh, coveting the attention that came from either one of my parents who were in the midst of a very heavy, emotional self-care season-

John: Yeah.

Lauren: … I just wanted attention. So if that was gonna be positive attention, I-

Jim: Right.

Lauren: … I tried to press in-

Jim: You know-

Lauren: … to performance.

Jim: … in that way, something that I have observed is kind of God’s hand on the pendulum. I see a lot of, um, you know, young people that come out of the homes of divorced parents and it’s almost this deep conviction that they wanna do better. And I call that the pendulum, right?

Lauren: Mm-hmm.

Jim: It’s like the Lord allows us as children to experience the things we experience and then we can compensate for that. It’s good when it’s coming from a healthy place and not just a performance-based place.

Lauren: Yes.

Jim: But you’re doing it for all the right reasons. Let me, let me tidy this up before John lets people know how they can get ahold of the book, but uh, in that regard, by the time you get to college, it’s kind of falling apart. The, um, the performance orientation of this it’s not working, college kind of changed your emotional makeup regarding your parents’ divorce, what happened and what was the outcome of the college years?

Lauren: Uh, yeah, I felt like my- my heart and my exterior was so hard that it was really hard for people to see the soft side, for people to see my emotions, for people to get that intimate part of me that relationships need to thrive. And I had this one mentor who I just love to this day who challenged me to really express and feel almost for the first time what I was guarding in all these hyper performance things. And I- I feel like that started what I called a s- season of tears because I felt like the saline of salt in my eyes was truly bringing life to parts of my emotional capacity that I had shut off for almost a decade.

Jim: But the beautiful thing in that is how God allows that, orchestrates that, so that it begins the healing, right?

Lauren: He set it all up and I think it was so gracious because I don’t think I would’ve pursued it on my own.

Jim: Right.

John: Well, thank the Lord for a good mentor and that, uh, place of honesty. And, uh, today on Focus on the Family, we’re talking with Lauren Reitsema and uh, she’s captured her experiences and some great help for parents as we look at divorce through the eyes of a child. Uh, her book is called In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce and you can get your copy when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: Lauren let’s- let’s kind of talk in more general terms to help parents better understand how to communicate with their kids. Um, going through the stages of divorce when a parent starts dating, for example, and how the child might push back. It- it’s easy for us as the adult to try to reprimand or try to correct or what, whatever alley you’re taking there with your child, but it’s natural for a child to push back. I mean, they don’t want this. They don’t like it. They don’t understand it. They don’t know what happened to dad or what happened to mom. So you really do need to place yourself in the position of that child and try to see it through a child’s heart and a child’s eyes, right?

Lauren: I think that’s an important perspective and empathy always helps connect regardless of where you are. I think timing is really important too, because every child that I’ve talked to and myself included, we don’t desire that our parents are lonely and that they don’t get a second chance at love. But there is this interesting shift of prioritization that happens right after the divorce, where this, you get this almost cocooned intimacy with your parent, just you, it’s just you and me, right. We, we’re grieving together and then when that season ends and some healing has taken place and maybe when, or both of your parents are s- are ready to start dating again, there’s of a sudden this new priority of the person that’s an adult and that you’re not the first person they come to anymore. You’re not the first person they think about. They get all starry-eyed over some person and it’s not you. And as a kid, that’s natural that the order of a family is you’re supposed to, you know, put your spouse first and then your children and you live in this wonderful family structure, but in a divorce family structure, that child comes first after the divorce happens and then dating happens. And it’s now an adult, again, that feels first in the heart of- of the parent. And that’s hard it’s especially for a kid who wants to be in the spotlight. It’s just feels like, wait, what happened to me here? All- all of a sudden, I’m- I’m s- in the shadow and I was used to being in the sun.

Jim: Right, that’s interesting. In your case, both your parents remarried.

Lauren: They did.

Jim: And so you- you refer to it kind of as cheering for two opposing football teams, which is kind of interesting.

John: Mm-hmm.

Lauren: I could not figure out.

Jim: Um, I’m not sure how to do that, (laughs).

Lauren: I couldn’t either, it was such, I could not figure out how to communicate this principle in a way that people could understand until my sports fanatic heart came to the pages. And I thought, this is the metaphor. And because I, if you’ve ever tried it, if you care about two sides of the football and you just really want both of them to win, but you realize they can’t, that’s not how the sport works. You can’t have two Ws at the end of the game, there’s a winner and a loser. And so you kind of have to pick your loyalties and I’m a Colorado girl, mine will always be with orange and blue, no matter how bad they are.

Jim: (laughs).

Lauren: I am a Denver Broncos fan, and I can’t root against them. And I remember feeling like, oh my gosh, my parents now have two different jerseys on, and now they have two different last names on the back of those jerseys because of the- the remarriage, the blending experience. They have two different cultural norms that go with those. And I’m stuck in the middle as a fan who wants to be on both sides, but doesn’t somebody have to win. And that’s a really divided and really stressful place that I remember being. And- and still am sometimes because you feel like you have to equalize everything for people.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Yeah. And some of that came out in some humorous ways. I mean, there often can be that you have to look for it, but in the midst of all that pain and all this rooting for two teams that are opposing each other, seemingly, you said that you came home from your mom’s house, your sophomore year in college, and the house looked very different, this one kind of made me go, hmm, that’s odd, (laughs) but what happened?

Lauren: So my mom’s side of the family is of Italian origin, and she married a Scotsman and he I’m used to, you know, floral pillows. It was an all-female led environment,

Jim: Kind of Tuscan look.

Lauren: Tuscan, you know, winery, you know, neutral colors and I came home and I, they had gone to, I- I think a custom tartan place that had taken the- the tartan of his-

Jim: The family cress.

Lauren: … plan and created pillows that were now on all the couches and on this special chair in their home office. And I just thought, we’re not Scottish. There was this little terrier walking around a Scotty terrier, dog, and,

Jim: (laughs).

Lauren: and I just, I felt like, oh my goodness, are- are there gonna be bagpipes playing from the radio? I don’t know what’s happening next, but I it’s not that I loathe Scotland or that I didn’t like my stepdad or that I had disrespect for the culture, it just was, it was so unorthodox in our home. It was not what I was used to. And so that revelation of, wow, something’s taken over here and it’s- it’s not my family lineage was- was really a moment in time.

Jim: Yeah. It’s one of those shockers. But for the advice to the stepparent, if you could have rewound that clock, not that your stepfather and mother would’ve done it differently, but what are the recommendations you have for the stepparent to connect with the child or the adult child in that case?

Lauren: That’s a great question. I think asking about legacy tradition, heritage and sharing yours as a part of who you are, but not necessarily expecting or anticipating that they’ll embrace that, it’s really not even, I can’t even pretend to be Scottish (laughs). I just don’t. I mean, I’d like to play golf on a Scottish-

Jim: There you go, there’s your connection.

Lauren: … course. And I- I did sing in some choral music and got to go to some Scottish castles in high, in high school. I have an admiration for it, but we’re staying on- on that surface level of humor for a purpose here, but sometimes it can go too far. And that identity that- that blended family position brings into the home really uproots the child’s persona and perception of themselves.

Jim: Well you’re outside of it.

Lauren: Because they want-

Jim: Yeah.

Lauren: … to bring you in. But at- at some point it just can’t happen. So limiting your expectations, not lowering them, but limiting them to realistic and attainable, I think goals, is a helpful piece of wisdom for stepparents is-

Jim: Yeah, that is good.

Lauren: Don’t try and create a family identity that is forced.

Jim: One of the things you mentioned in the book, um, is to, for the stepparent to stay at their post, which is interesting, good military metaphor, but I think it related to your stepmom who was a steady, good influence in your life, but you really didn’t feel like you reciprocated at the time ’cause of your emotional status. But speak to that tension and what she was obviously trying to do, which was very positive, but you really weren’t receiving it well.

Lauren: Yeah. I- I refer to this as kind of position versus person and it was hard for me to see the personal grief that my stepmom carried because she really wanted us to see that she cared, and she really did care and she worked really hard to give us space and be kind. And at one point, I just remember watching her countenance just become sad and I became sad because that was never my intention, but the timeline wasn’t right. I was in college. My parents got married my senior year of high school, my- my dad and stepmom so it was really fresh after the divorce. There was stuff going on in my life that was very self-focused and independent as a college bound student should be. And the expectations I think that she wanted was this really warm, open, connected relationship. And I was at that point, isolating myself from everyone, but especially her, because I felt like she didn’t deserve to know me and love me. And she was just came into my life and I was 18. And-

Jim: Uh, let me ask you at the core of that, what, where’s that coming from though, I mean that attitude?

Lauren: That attitude comes from-

Jim: Is that the-

Lauren: … the pride of family lineage in my case of just-

Jim: Or what you lost.

Lauren: … and what I lost and- and feeling like this was, it was a last-ditch effort to pout maybe, (laughs) in- in a way that protected something that was in my past and I wasn’t willing to receive what was in my present.

Jim: And, you know, I think a good place to end this is with your husband. And when I think you were before, just before marriage or already into marriage, uh, you had some concerns, I think. And- and he helped you reorient your view of your blended family by saying something to you, that was pretty powerful.

Lauren: So first of all, I want to just take this opportunity to share that I was not afraid of getting married, especially to Josh and I always and continue to have a really positive, a hopeful view of marriage. And so it wasn’t a fear of marrying him. It was a fear of what he was marrying into because I was nervous that his legacy being intact and not having a lot of the divorce narrative would be somehow tainted by my story, because two becoming one, he would take on all of my pain and all of the things that were going on with juggling schedules and- and blending families. And I- I felt bad about that. And so I think I- I expressed to him with- with words of- of just fear and saying, I’m just, I’m worried that, you know, my family’s story is- is gonna temper your expectations for what you always dreamed of in- in a family legacy, ’cause you’re marrying, not just me, but a family.  And you know, he’s just said, “Lauren, I’ve watched you process this and become the woman that I love because of the divorce, not in spite of the divorce. And I just, it’s not- not even gonna be an issue.” And he was so affirming in that moment that we got to be a part of a legacy breaking cycle. And I- I believe that to this day, I feel like my parents aren’t the only divorce story in my extended family. I have a lot of divorce in my family, and I don’t think it’s because anyone wants to be divorced. I think it’s the patterns of relationship were never changed. And I- I feel like that branch of Jesse with he actually broke the root and started a new family tree to break a cycle. And that’s what I tell Josh is you are my- my root of Jesse, (laughs). You break a legacy that didn’t know any better and we get to be a couple that learns what went wrong and works every day to try and set our kids up for a divorce list legacy.

Jim: When it’s a good place to add that God takes what is broken and what is, you know, fragile and makes it whole again. And that’s the hope we have in Christ in our hearts, in our relationships, in our marriages, in our parenting, right?

Lauren: Always.

Jim: And we just have to apply it correctly and live it every day. Uh, Lauren, this has been great. And what a wonderful resource and I- I thank you for your courage. I know your parents are still alive and they’re probably gonna listen to this too so to mom and dad, you know, you did well. Lauren is a wonderful woman. And even in the pain of all that, you’ve learned some incredible things and applied ’em to your marriage with Josh. He sounds like an amazing man.

Lauren: He’s the best.

Jim: I’d like to meet him, (laughs). And, uh, again, I just want to encourage people to get a copy of this, uh, great book In Their Shoes. And you can do that and be part of the ministry if you make a gift for any amount, uh, we’ll send you Lauren’s book as our way of saying thank you for participating in ministry. That’s a good way to do it.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: If you need it and can’t afford it, just get ahold of us. Uh we’ll trust others will cover the cost of that. It’s one of those resources if you’re living through a divorce and, or already divorced, and you have children in the picture, um, I’m sure I’m 100% confident that Lauren’s advice will help you do a better job than you’re gonna do on your own.

John: So please get in touch and donate as you can. Uh, your gift also makes it possible for us to have caring Christian counselors here. And if you need something more than this great book, then give us a call and let us help you, uh, unpack some of that pain and move forward. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459 or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: Lauren, thanks for being with us, really good content for people that- that have a hole and need to know how to better work with their children. Thanks for being here.

Lauren: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

John: And thank you for joining us today for Focus on the Family. Uh, plan to be with us on Monday, when we’ll encourage you to discover God’s purpose for your marriage.

Preview:

Danielle Taylor: As marriage coaches, we could give people tips and, you know, a- activities and exercises and things to do to help their relationship. But none of that is going to work if you don’t really, truly invite God into the marriage.

 End of Preview

Today's Guests

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In Their Shoes: Helping Parents Better Understand and Connect with Children of Divorce

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