As a family therapist, I oftentimes see children who have been labeled by their schools, parents, or other professional parties involved in their life with behavioral disturbances. What is not seen, or is oftentimes overlooked by these parties is the effects family stress has on the development of emotional conflicts that underlie their problematic behaviors. While divorce is a common occurrence in our country, and children are ultimately left to make sense of the fallout from a family divided, their interests are oftentimes overlooked by the loved ones and professionals who are charged to keep their best interest in mind as their burgeoning minds develops key understanding about what it means to relate with others, find love of self within, accept one’s emerging emotional landscape, develop an autonomous and independent identity, and ultimately learn how to love others in the fruitful garden we call life.
While divorce is common, our children’s reactions to it may be very different. Some factors that may increase problematic behaviors include their temperament, their personality, and whether pre-existing mental health conditions are present. While children are each unique, as a parent, it is key that you understand your child’s emotional state pre-separation, so that you can help them to identify and work through the emotions that underlie any problematic behaviors that arise. Ultimately, you will teach your child to grieve the death of their parents relationship, work through, and accept the emotions they have about your separation, and develop new, healthy relationships with both you and your ex as independent, yet co-parents in your child’s journey to become a healthy adult. Although this may sound like common sense, most often, it is all but common practice, as parents who are attempting to make sense of their own emotional state and grieving process oftentimes forget to tend to the garden of their child’s emotional grief.
If you are undergoing divorce, child custody litigation, or are thinking about ways to break the news to your child, there are some things you can prepare for to help both yourself and your child deal with the onslaught of stress caused by an impending separation. Realize, you child will be loosing contact with a major influence in his or her life. While custody arrangements may dictate what parent has their child legal and physical interests as a primary responsibility, this does nothing to negate the fact that a child has lost a parent, the psychological equivalent of undertaking a death in the family. While not an excuse, children are not capable of expressing themselves in a manner equivalent to adults, who at times during the divorce process may be as conflicted as their children are in handling the emotional distress caused by separation and divorce.
What can you Do?
1. Create an active and empathic communication between yourself and your child(ren), as it relates to your emotional state.
Children learn emotions and emotional reaction through watching your reactions to emotional distress. Through communication, you can both learn and teach your children effective ways to handle stress.
2. Be firm, fair, and consistent in your rules and expectations.
Children undergoing divorce may have emotional and behavioral outbursts. Expect crying, yelling, swearing, or possibly more volatile behaviors that will need to be addressed professionally. They have lost a parent, and are undergoing highly conflicted emotional states as they learn to adapt to two, not one home environment.
3. When in doubt, seek professional help.
Children who undergo divorce can have severe emotional reactions, sometimes leading to sexual promiscuity, use of drugs or alcohol, or face significant school related deficits, as they learn to handle the emotional stress present in adapting to a family divided.
Stay tuned for more on Childhood, Divorce, and the Emotional reactions common to a family divided.
Dr. Thomas Maples