How Vulnerability and Grief Can Change Your Parenting: Ron Deal
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
If you show your kids vulnerability or grief, will they feel insecure? Or just the opposite? Counselor Ron Deal weighs in on hard emotions in parenting.
How Vulnerability and Grief Can Change Your Parenting: Ron Deal
Shelby: Hey, Shelby Abbott here. Before we get to today’s show, if you've ever been blessed by FamilyLife Today, did you know it's because someone else gave? Yes, FamilyLife Today is listener supported. And if you've given, let me just say thank you. Thank you for making gospel centered conversations like the one we're about to hear today possible.
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Ron: When an adult says “I just feel horrible. I can't concentrate. I'm having such a hard time figuring out life and work, and I'm sorry if I get testy with you guys a little bit. I'm just so sad about what's happened in our family,” then a child all of a sudden goes, “Oh yeah, that's me too;” “Oh, that's why I'm picking on my brother;” “Oh, that's why I'm talking back to mom all the time.” You have to help each other understand what this grieving thing looks like.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: We spent the last couple of days talking to Roland Warren about single moms raising sons of promise. In fact, the title of his book is Raising Sons of Promise: A Guide for Single Mothers of Boys. I thought it was fascinating conversation, but of course, I was raised by a single mom.
Ann: I want to hold your hand because it makes me have more compassion—
Ann: —for you and your mom.
Dave: Does that mean you're going to be really nice to me?
Ann: I'm always nice to you.
Dave: You're always nice to me. Is that how it hit you though?
Ann: One, it was good for me to recognize the need for moms that are raising kids by themselves. Like that is a hard job; that is not easy. But also, it gave us some really good things to dive into. And I'm excited today because we have Ron Deal with us and we're going to dig a little deeper.
Dave: Yes, Ron is our director of FamilyLife Blended®, as many of you know, and we've had him listening in to our conversation. Basically, we're going to the expert now and say, “Hey, what did you think?” So, Ron, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thanks for having me, guys. It’s always good to be back with you. It was a great conversation with Roland.
Dave: And as you were listening in with your ears attuned to blended issues and families and you know, your whole world, even as a therapist, where do you want to go? What do you want to talk about? Because we hit many different topics with him, and we could jump on any one of those but lead us to a great topic.
Ron: Yes; well, first of all, speaking of attunement, I want to just point out something I heard from Ann just now. You know people couldn't see what I saw. She reached over and touched your hand and just expressed some compassion for you because she learned something about you talking with him. It is sort of seeing your world through the lens of his eyes and what he experienced as a kid, that softened her heart towards you.
You know, a takeaway for all of us is the things that irritate the fire out of you about one another are often the very things that, if we saw it through a little bit of a different perspective, we would just soften immediately and go, “Oh, oh, oh, that came out of you because of pain.”
Ann: Yes, the wound.
Ron: The wound; there's something behind that that I never saw before. All I saw is what you do on the outside and that thing you do with your eyes or your face or with your hands, or how you interrupt me, that drives me crazy. But if we stop and all of a sudden, we really tune in, there's some pain behind it. And when you see that and your heart softens, and then you do what Ann did: you reach with your hands and you reach with your heart and you reach with your words and you go, “Oh my goodness, I see you differently now. I now know there's more to this story, and I guess I just want to hold that gently while we sit here and unpack it.”
You know Roland said, “There is no intimacy without vulnerability.” There will be no vulnerability in a marriage or in a parent child relationship, if the person receiving it is not a safe recipient. You know for me to get vulnerable with my wife, if she's just going to make fun of me, if she's going to cast derision my way or contempt, well, I'm going to be vulnerable once and then I'm never going back there again.
But if she attunes, if she softens, if she reaches for me and she says, “Oh, I see you now; I see you differently. I think I'm seeing you more with the eyes of the Heavenly Father” and all of a sudden, I'm moving towards you in this moment, then I'm more likely to be vulnerable at an even greater capacity and more often. You know what's happening there is your usness is really getting stronger and safer and my goodness, that was a nice moment that we all need to capture.
Dave: And you know, it's interesting, Ron, when you point that out, it's a nice moment for me as well - to be the one that is “I felt seen. I felt heard.” It's like, “Oh, she's seeing something.” We’ve been married 42 years and you never stop.
Ron: That’s right.
Dave: There's still things to be seen. There's still pain that maybe hasn't been processed. I think what you just said—I've/we've said it at the Weekend to Remember® if your spouse—and I've often said if your husband gets vulnerable with you, says something that he's afraid of or he has a weakness and he's just-he verbalizes that to you, I've said to wives—and you would know better than me as a therapist—I said, “Man, that moment right there is so critical how you respond.”
Ron: Yes, that’s right.
Dave: If you make a comment like “That's what you think. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard,” instead of like, carefully receiving it as a scary moment for your man to go vulnerable like that. If you don't respond gently, you're going to lose him. He's not going to go there again and you're going to be like, “My man never talks.” Well, guess what? He did and you sort of shut him down, and you maybe didn't even know it. I think it probably goes both ways, but that moment is pregnant with “Handle this carefully.”
Ron: You're exactly right. I have to confess that, you know, I've not always attuned well to Nan. She's bringing something forward from the past, and I don't recognize the significance of this moment. I'm kind of like what Dave was saying a minute ago; I missed the opportunity to bring grace to my wife's heart. When I discover that, “Oh man, did I blow it,” well, you know, I need to try to work on it. I need to go to her, and I need to talk about it and even say to her, “Look, I'm going to try even better, because I know you're thinking twice about ever sharing that with me.” There's a little bit that has to be undone because we missed that opportunity, but it's not the end of the world. I think it's God's grace on us that we get to continue to grow as we move.
Here's a case in point. Roland talked a lot about loss. He talked a lot about kids growing up in a single parent home, and how the single parent has losses that they have to grieve. The child has losses that they have to grieve. And he talked a little bit about—I just thought his math was really good and this, my pun, is intended here—he talked about the subtraction, addition, multiplication, and division that happens when loss breaks down a family. Let's listen to a little bit of a clip of what he had to say, and then let's talk about it.
Roland: My mother dealt with a lot of loss and really didn't have a lot of support to help her work through that. One of the insights that God gave me was that, you know, sometimes I feel like as a single mom, a mom will feel like, you know, what she thought was going to be a life of addition and multiplication, becomes a life of subtraction and division, right? So, you add the husband, and then you add the kids, and then you add the family, and there's multiplication from that. And then there's a breakdown in the relationship. There's a breakdown in the marriage, there's a subtraction of the guy, there's division within the family. And I realized, looking at my mom's life, if my mom would have talked about these losses, then I would have been able to see that there's a connection between her loss and my loss, and that would deepen our relationship.
Ron: Okay, so as I listen to him talk about that, of course I'm thinking about the blended families that are listening right now. And blended families are born out of loss but it's not just that, there's more. Now, let me just pause a second before I go on. I had a conversation with H. Norman Wright not too long ago. I don't know if you guys recognize that name.
Ron: I mean, Norm actually was one of the first authors to write about premarital counseling. That's how long he's been doing things. I asked him, “How many books have you written?” He said, “Well, I lost track at 90.” [Laughter] Okay, so he's written a lot on marriage and family. Can I just say that?—say it that way.
He's in his mid 80s and I asked him, “What do people need to do well in life?” And he said, “They need to grieve their losses really well.” Now this is a man who has two children; lost his first son when he was - when his boy was 12; lost his daughter when she was in her mid 30s; lost his first wife and is now married again much later in life himself. He has been through a significant amount of loss. He specializes in loss and grief and helping people in crisis situations. And he says to me, “People do not grieve well, and they walk around carrying the pain of the past and it interrupts everything they do, day in and day out, even their relationship with God, because they just haven't grieved.”
I see that happening a lot in single parent homes. And then guess what? Now, you're going back to addition; let's marry somebody. Alright, so you imagine this single dad and now he's marrying a woman. Kids now have a stepmom in their life. It's addition again. But if the family doesn't manage that blending process well, it adds more division, and so they're going through it again. Thought it was going to be addition and multiplication; ends up subtraction and division single parent home. Get a new marriage; now, all of a sudden, have - think you're going through addition and multiplication again but find out it ends up being subtraction and division. Not all the time. Just when the family is not merging well, right? That's what we want to prevent.
And embedded underneath all of that, for both adults and kids, is sadness. You know, it's sadness over what happened the first time. It's sadness over what's happening now and how it's coming down. We always say stepfamilies are born out of loss. And I always add, “Well, they're also born into ambiguity,” meaning uncertainty. How do we do life? How do we do family? What's this look like? How's this going to work for us? What's the role of the stepparent in this situation? All of that sort of rolls up into more loss, unless they manage the blend well—which is what we do at FamilyLife Blended®, right in our division is we help people try to manage that blend well, in which case it does become addition and multiplication.
Dave: Well, even to go back to Norman's comment, how would you coach somebody to grieve their losses well?
Ann: Well, I’m going to add this too, Dave, because I'm just imagining the pain, the loss they feel as the wife or husband having gone through, a lot of times, either painful divorce or just a really hard death of a loved one. You're struggling yourself and now I'm trying to help my kids. How do we do that?
Ron: Well, Dave, in the story you shared and what we heard from Roland, is that mom didn't share much.
Ron: Mom didn't help you grieve. She didn't grieve in front of you. You didn't grieve together. I think that's tip number one. Whether we're talking a single parent or a blended family, you’ve got to get it out and talk about it.
You guys know Nan and I lost one of our sons at the age of 12. We were absolutely adamant we are going to talk out loud about Connor. We're going to say his name on a regular basis sitting around the dinner table with our other two boys. It is not going to be a strange thing to have Connor’s name said out loud in this household. Why? Because we have to send the message to one another and to our kids: grief is something we do together. Nobody's going to be isolated in their sadness around here. There's a lot of things we did wrong in our journey since Connor's death.
But that I think is one thing we did right. Connecting creates opportunity for, again, adults and children to find somebody who feels the same thing as I do. When an adult says “I just feel horrible. I can't concentrate. I'm having such a hard time figuring out life and work, and I'm sorry if I get testy with you guys a little bit. I'm just so sad about what's happened in our family,” then a child all of a sudden goes, “Oh yeah, that's me too,” “Oh, that's why I'm picking on my brother,” “Oh, that's why I'm talking back to mom all the time.” You have to help each other understand what this grieving thing looks like.
Ann: And Ron, that's okay to say. I know as a parent we try to protect our kids. We act like we're fine, but you're saying no, go there.
Ron: You are not protecting your kids; you are isolating your children, when you don't talk about it.
Dave: My mom never mentioned my brother's death. We never celebrated his birthday. We never saw a picture. It was the untouchable and that's not helpful.
Ron: If we were saying, “Okay, what's the family rule as it relates to grief,” you would say what?
Dave: Run from it.
Ron: Run from it.
Dave: Run from your grief. If you do, it'll just go away, and it doesn't go away.
Ron: And it doesn't go away. The larger principle there is when you feel something bad, shut it down, turn away, run from it, right? I guarantee you; you carried that into your marriage.
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ron: I guarantee you; you carried that into your fatherhood and your parenting with your boys. I guarantee it. Why? Because when we start those patterns as young children, teenagers, young adults, they get locked in. And unless we do something really different than that, we'll just continue to have that same coping pattern, no matter what the circumstance is in life.
Dave: Yes; I'm hoping as we're talking about this, I'm hoping there's some parents right now going, “Okay, we need to have a conversation tonight.”
Ron: That’s right.
Dave: “Not tomorrow, not next week. As scary and as hard as this might be, I'm going to ask God to give me strength to step into something I've never stepped into.”
Ron: And you are doing it for your child and you're doing it for yourself. I mean, I can tell you, early after Connor died, I was afraid to say things out loud—like how I felt. I didn't know how it would come across. How would my other children see it? And it's sort of like there's just a pain there I don't want to have to face either. It is a great, courageous moment to just go, “I'm talking about it. I'm getting this out there. I'm not anymore going to pretend like that's not real. I'm going to face my pain and let other people join me in it.”
Ann: Ron, I have a quick question for you in regard to this. I have a friend who's - she's was married, divorced. She's going to get remarried to a man that's been married and divorced. He has three kids. She's a therapist and really healthy and really has dealt with the pain of the divorce. Is it okay for the stepparent to acknowledge the loss?
Ann: It is—like it's okay to say, “I know this could be hard.” Or it's the death of maybe their dream of their mom and dad coming back together. How could she word that?
Ron: Yes, I absolutely think that that's a wise thing. Again, you assess the situation; you know the nature of your relationship with those kids either before you get married, and then once you do marry their parent, so if something inside you, the Holy Spirit saying “Yes, hold off on that,” “That's not really - the timing's not right,” then trust that.
But I think in general the principle is anytime a stepparent steps into the painful places of their stepchild that brought about you being in the picture—I mean it's all connected right? So that may feel a little awkward and weird—but when you step in there with an authenticity about their pain and just acknowledge that, don't take for granted that you're telling them what to do or how to handle it, nothing like that, but just acknowledge their sadness, I think that actually makes you very respectable to the stepchild. Like the message there is: “I'm not in competition with your sadness for your mother.”
Here's the stepmom saying, “It's Mother's Day and your mom's not here and that's just got a stink for you guys.” That simple little acknowledgement says “I'm not competing with your relationship with your mother. You should be loyal to her. You should be missing her. It is understandable to me and I'm going to support you in this sadness over not being with your mom right now.” And the kids look at that and they go, “Okay, she's not trying to replace my mom. She's not in competition with my mom. She's actually supporting my mom and her role in our life.” That makes you respectable. That makes you safe.
Back to that word that we talked about earlier. Like now of a sudden, I don't have to hide that from you. I don't have to play games with my sadness as it relates to you. I don't have to pretend because you're going to get offended if I talk about my mother. None of that. That's all removed and now you're a safe person. That actually helps bonding.
Ann: Hmm. That's helpful.
Dave: I don't know why I'm thinking this, Ron. After listening to you and Ann talk about that, I thought you know the subtraction division math equation that Roland introduced to us really was insightful.
Ron: It really was good.
Dave: I thought that happens outside of family too. It isn't just you know, divorce or death, it's life. I think a lot of our culture even right now, feels like the last couple of years have been a lot of subtraction, a lot of division. Here's what hit me, and I'd love your thoughts on this. Often when we don't grieve our losses or process our pain well, as we just been talking about, I think we need to identify when you're going to the bottle, you need to connect the dots.
Dave: And again, I'm saying if you're drinking inappropriately or too much, you probably are not processing your pain. If you're looking at porn, if you're just choosing sins that you don't want to choose, but you find yourself going there, I think we need to go, “Okay, dude, the dots you need to connect this. You haven't processed something that's really been hurtful. Maybe it's in your marriage. Maybe it's your family. Maybe it's something in life. Maybe it's a job loss. It could be anything. Don't just think that action is an action isolated from the pain; it's connected to your pain. You've got a chance to do the right thing but it's going to have to start with ‘You're going to have to process that. You're going to have to grieve that.’” Am I right?
Ron: You're right. A great self-reflective question is, “Okay, what is this behavior telling me about me?—whatever it is that I'm doing, however it is that I'm coping. What is this telling me about my pain? Is there something here that I'm avoiding, that I'm running from, that I'm trying to numb?” You know, just ask that question and you'll start connecting the dots, I think, more often than not.
And then, you know, the next decision is: “Is this a pattern I want to keep?” You know, “Every time I feel this, I go and do that.” You know, some of those little coping patterns, honestly, are less problematic than others. If you're coping is “I maybe go fishing a little too often.” [Laughter] Okay, so I need to manage my time, but nobody's really getting hurt with that. But if I'm going to the bottle, if I'm turning to sexual sin, okay, that comes at a higher price and is more costly.
And it turns out some of those things are addictive in and of themselves. Like, yes, that's a definite no, no. That's something I need to turn away from, not only because of the condition it puts my soul in with God, but also because of the behavioral patterns it creates for me and the implication it has for the people that I love.
Shelby: You're listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. Dave's got some pretty vulnerable reflections on his relationship with his mom growing up in just a minute. You'll want to stick around for that.
But first, if you are in a blended family and want to learn more about the importance of vulnerability in your marriage, join us for Blended and Blessed®, our live event and live stream just for couples in stepfamilies. The event is coming up on April 29th and one of the great things about this event is you don't even have to leave your home to attend. You can learn more under the show notes section on FamilyLifeToday.com.
Also, while you're there, we had author Roland C. Warren on FamilyLife Today earlier this week, and he gave incredible insight into the complexities of raising kids as a single mom. He's written a book called Raising Sons of Promise: A Guide for Single Mothers of Boys. This book is remarkably helpful for you or anyone you know who might be a single mom. You can get your copy at FamilyLifeToday.com; just click on today's resources.
Okay, here's Dave with some vulnerable reflections on his relationship with his mom growing up.
Dave: Yes, obviously, one of the reasons it hit me is I watched my mom drink every night—and my dad was as well, but I didn't see it except when he came to visit. And you know I—there's a part of me as a little boy - teenage boy is like, “Wow, I wish I could have had my mom.” She was there sitting in the chair and there's a drink in her hand and it was like I got 30 percent of her, you know?
She didn't know it, but she was, she was running from the pain.
Dave: I'm guessing there's parents listening right now, and I hope you're listening going, “Is that me?” Don't miss this. You don't want to miss those days with your kids. You can change that now. Tell somebody; get some help; reach out to us. We'll help you any way we can. You can live a different life. It's going to be hard, and it's going to mean you’ve got to step right into that tunnel of chaos, but the light is at the end of that tunnel. You’ve got to walk through it with us. We'll walk through there with you.
Ann: Ron, thanks for being with us. It's always so much fun and a pleasure to have you. Thanks for your insights.
Ron: Thank you for having me.
Shelby: Relationships between birth moms and stepmoms can be kind of tricky sometimes. Make sure you join us again next week on FamilyLife Today. Dave and Ann sit down with Ron Deal as they go through a story about a stepmom and a birth mom who found healing in their relationship. It went from toxic to friendship. That's next week.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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