ROBERT M. NEWELL, PH.D.
FORENSIC AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY
Specializing in Behavioral Healthcare for Children &
Adolescents, Families, Couples, and Adults.
WHAT EVERY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT
CHILDREN AND DIVORCE
In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “good divorce.” Some divorces are better than others, and some divorces are worse than others, but the fact remains that divorce can be a devastating thing for everyone involved—and especially for children. So that’s the bad news. The good news is that parents who are in the process of divorcing have a great deal of influence on the extent to which their children are negatively impacted by the changes their family is going through. Although there may be no such thing as a “good divorce,” there is such as thing as a “responsible divorce.”
What is a “responsible divorce”? A responsible divorce is one in which both parents acting work to insulate their children from the conflict of their divorce. A parent’s duty is to act in the best interest of his/her child, and to minimize a child’s exposure to conflict. Thus, parents are responsible for acting in the best interest of their children, even when it may not be in their own best interest.
Research suggests that children undergo various stages of grief when their parents divorce. Just as each adult reacts differently to grief, each child reacts differently, too. There are several stages of grief that your child may go through, and it is important that you are prepared to work with your child during these stages, which may occur in any order and may reoccur during the process.
Your children may deny that the separation/divorce is really happening. They may continue to harbor the fantasy that the other parent will come through the door and the family will be "whole" again. Discussions with your children during this stage may be met with silence and a "closed mind". It is important to not push your children into acceptance at this stage, but rather just be there for them emotionally and continue to try to communicate with them.
Your children may become angry with you, the other parent, siblings, themselves, and may, in fact, be angry at the whole world. It is very important to reassure your child during this stage that, while it is okay to be angry, it is important to direct this anger in an appropriate way. Hitting a pillow is acceptable, while hitting a sibling is not. During this stage, children often try to assign blame for the end of the family that they know and may try to place the blame on the "missing" parent. While this may give you a twinge of satisfaction, it is extremely important that you not allow your children to do this. Constant reminders that both parents love them are necessary to overcome this part of the grief process.
Another part of the grief process is bargaining. "If you come back home, Daddy, I promise I’ll be good" or "I will keep my room clean, Mommy, if you just come back and live with us." It is important to understand that your children may feel incredibly helpless in the face of all these changes. These feelings coupled with the feelings that they did something to bring about the divorce often cause children to try to bargain their lives back to the way they were. It is especially important during this stage to continue to reassure your children that they had nothing to do with the separation/divorce and to gently remind them that things have changed and that you are there to help them get through it.
Of all the emotions during the grief process, this is the one that is the most healing. It is important for your children to be able to grieve while letting go of their "old" lives and accepting that things will never be the same. While there are no "timelines" as to how long this stage lasts, it is important to be aware that this stage can also lead into depression. Be aware of your children's actions during this stage. Sadness can be overcome for a while with some "fun time" while depression will usually result in not wanting to play.
If it looks like your children might be experiencing emotions beyond sadness, be sure to schedule a complete physical for them and let your family doctor know what is going on. If everything checks out physically, your doctor may be able to refer you to a child therapist that can help your children learn to process all the emotions they are feeling. Early intervention is the key to dealing with any issues, especially when it comes to your children.
Warning Signs That Your Child Is Experiencing Emotional Distress
Research shows it takes most children and adolescents about a year to adjust to the changes in their family caused by divorce. Although children will continue to experience negative emotions such as sadness or anger, within about a year’s time they should be coping well with the situation. So, by the end of the first year after the divorce, your children should have:
· Resolved their feelings of loss due to the divorce
· Resolved any feelings that they were rejected or deserted by one of their parents
· Accepted that the family will no longer be living together
· Accepted that you will not be reuniting with their other parent
· Returned to a normal interest in themselves and their activities
· Stopped blaming themselves for the divorce. If you moved as a result of the divorce, they should have adjusted to your new home and their new school, and made some new friends.
When To Seek Help
One bad grade on an exam doesn't mean that you need to make an appointment with a child psychologist. Not all of your child’s problems are going to be a result of a divorce, so a single episode of a fight at school, an incident of bedwetting, or one bad grade on a report card isn't necessarily linked directly to the divorce. These kinds of things happen to any child in any family situation.
Discipline problems are usually what cause parents to seek professional help for their children. Discipline problems can stem from your child's inability to sort out his or her feelings about, or to adjust to, the divorce. However, it could also mean that your child is lacking sufficient coping skills for dealing with emotional stress. Any extreme departure from a child's normal course of behavior is a sign that he or she has been affected by the divorce. Parents should look for deviations in behavior in either direction such as aggressive behavior in a usually quiet child, or withdrawn behavior in a usually active child. So, you should be concerned if your child is suddenly acting out violently; regressing to an earlier stage such as bedwetting; having problems playing with friends; developing academic problems; or even experiencing physical problems such as developing stomach or head aches, sleep problems, or eating disorders.
A Final Thought
Above all, give your children permission, verbally, to have their own feelings about the divorce and the loss of their family unit. Reassure your children that you are there for them, and that you are sorry they have to go through this ordeal. Make sure your children know that they can talk to you at any time, and make sure that you give your children additional physical and verbal affection. Children are incredibly resilient psychologically, and with some loving guidance they can more quickly overcome feelings of helplessness and insecurity when dealing with the issues of divorce.
► CONTACT ME with any concerns you have about your child or about your family’s situation.
DR. ROBERT M. NEWELL
Copyright © 2004-2007 Robert M. Newell, Ph.D. All rights reserved.