In many divorces, children often keep their true emotions hidden. Gary sat down with each one of the girls to find out what they were really feeling. MaRyah says she remembers hearing her parents argue but never told anyone. Onaleah says the worst thing about the divorce is not getting to see her dad and missing out on things like the father-daughter dance at school. Mikennah says she's never told anyone at school that her parents are really divorced. "They'll think that I don't have a dad," Mikennah says. Kaylah says she has a quick temper and can get so angry that she feels almost like a different person.
Gary has come up with five steps that every parent can use to help their children open up.
Choose an informal setting. Try to avoid having a big, family meeting. "One of the ways to shut down a kid is to say, 'Tell me how you feel about the divorce.' That's it. You'll never hear from them again," he says. "It's about going to the pizza shop, having dinner together, it's the long drive in the car, it's the cuddling in bed. Those are the times that are relaxing and not threatening to kids."
Don't be a conversation killer. "This is the number one thing that loving parents do. The children do come to you and they do talk, but they learn not to talk to you because you really don't listen to their feelings," Gary says. "Recently I had someone say that a kid came to them and said, 'I can't believe Dad is marrying that woman.' She said back to her daughter, 'Honey, listen. Dad loves you. He's a good man and he's allowed to get married.' Good answer? Wrong answer! Because what you've just said to your child is, 'That's not a good feeling. You're not supposed to feel sad or mad.' … When you do that you're basically saying to your child there's nothing more for me as a kid to say to you. I'm done. You've told me my feeling is wrong.'"
Put yourself in their shoes. "It's so important to lose yourself when you're talking with your child. Meaning, it's not about how I feel about the child or how I am worried about them, it's really just trying to hear what it's like to be them in that moment," Gary says. "If you really do that in your heart, you will always say the right thing. And you will say things like, 'It sounds like you feel really sad, kind of mad that Dad's not around' and 'when you say things like that, it sounds like you feel, kinda, maybe, a little sad or mad'—and just stop. They'll say, 'Wow, yeah, I do feel that way,' and they'll continue, and they'll start talking to you."
Initiate the conversation. Gary says too many parents avoid bringing up certain subjects because they're afraid they'll make their kids feel sad. "If they're not sad or you get the feeling wrong, they'll correct you. You're not going to make them feel that way. So if they are not talking or if they've had a conversation and you need to talk about it again, just bring it up. You can even say, 'Listen, I know you must be feeling kind of sad. If I were you, I'd feel that way.' Let them know it's okay and we're going to keep talking about it and eventually they'll open up."
Welcome tears and emotion. "The hardest thing as a parent is to really see your child in pain, especially when you think that somehow you have contributed to that pain," he says. "I'm here to say as a father of five, we've all screwed up. We've all made mistakes. We've all contributed to the problems of our children as well as the wonderful things of our children. Don't feel guilty, because that guilt sometimes stops you from wanting to see it, and it's so much better to just be able to see it. Be welcome to it. And I'm telling you understanding and getting your child is the greatest gift you can ever give to your child. … They will heal through love and connection.