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Children Need Help to Deal with Divorce

Eleven-year old Laura came to see me for problems related to aggressive and defiant behavior.  Her mother, tapped out of ideas for helping her daughter, believed Laura’s struggles to stem from her parents’ recent divorce.  She worried about Laura’s declining grades, sudden increase in yelling and hitting, refusal to do as she was told, and tendency to pull away from friends.  She said she had found Laura crying herself to sleep at night on several occasions.

Laura wasn’t terribly excited about going to counseling but, once in my office, was willing to draw a picture for me.  Responding to my request to draw a picture of what her parents’ divorce was like for her, Laura drew a picture of a person’s head, with a hypodermic needle poised for injection and a dagger next to it.

Beside the picture she wrote the words: “People are usually happy about a marriage and smile and listen to their spouses.  Then they don’t get along.  An imaginary needle injects hate into their minds. A dagger cuts them apart.  They separate.”

The parents of eight-year old Austin had been divorced for nearly 18 months when he came to see me.  In the interim both parents had remarried but the relationship between the four spouses was tense, at best.  Austin was complaining of persistent stomachaches and nightmares, as well as exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety.

In response to my request for a picture of divorce, Austin chose a war scene.  He placed his mother in a fighter jet, heading directly towards his step-mother, and facing him was the step-father, who was commandeering a tank.  Bombs, missiles, and a hail of bullets dotted the page, and the commotion was punctuated by explosions.  Poignantly, Austin drew himself parachuting directly in to the middle of the conflict.

The innocent victims of divorce, children like Laura and Austin often harbor cynical, angry views and feel helpless in the face of their parents’ separation.  Such children are distressed by the profound sense of loss and confusion they feel.  Some blame themselves (in spite of parental reassurance) and feel they could and should have done more to prevent the outcome. In an effort to assuage their guilt, they may cling to a fantasy of parental reconciliation and believe that they can somehow bring it about.

While the mood and behavior of some children will actually improve as a result of divorce, most kids struggle to some degree.  This is not to say that all children of divorce need professional help; indeed, the vast majority will, with support from parents, relatives, and friends, find the necessary strength to deal with the pain.  They will effectively navigate through the grief, loyalty conflicts, and changes due to divorce because their parents support one another and work to keep their children from getting “caught in the middle.”

Some children, however, will have a harder time making sense of their parents’ separation.  For these kids the pain will not subside after a reasonable period of mourning.  They may become sad and withdrawn, losing the exuberance and zest for life they previously had.  Or they may lash out in anger and frustration, becoming easily irritated and blowing things out of proportion.

A child’s ability to adjust to divorce depends on a number of factors, including his/her relationship with both parents before the divorce, the degree of economic and social (particularly if the child has to move) upheaval that occurs, the child’s personality and resilience in dealing with stress, and resources (e.g., parents, trusted adults, friends, etc.) available to the child for support and guidance.

Perhaps the most critical factor of all, however, is how well parents communicate and cooperate with one another after the divorce.  While the divorce means two individuals have not found ways to come together as spouses, they must be able to set aside personal agendas and come together as parents.  To act in the best interests of the children means parents will avoid using the children in power struggles.  Working together means that mom and dad will learn to deposit negative feelings for each other with a close friend or therapist instead of confiding them with a child.

Seeing one’s parents separate can shatter a child’s world; having mom and dad continue to bicker in front of the child, criticize each other in a “backstabbing” fashion, or withhold support from each other only prolongs the child’s agony.  I find that the oldest child often bears the brunt of parental stress, and is typically a barometer of how well the parents are working together.

As divorce becomes more common, so too will the fallout on the children.  While people do not intend to divorce when they get married, research shows that divorce is preferable to continued conflict in the home.  By setting aside difference, subverting bitter feelings and retaliatory impulses, and generally learning to get along, parents lessen their children’s struggles.  Such efforts reflect love and genuine concern, and prove that parents divorce each other…not their children.

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