The Top Three Things Children Must Know Post-Divorce
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's behavior. It is very helpful for the parents to know their children's experiences, especially after a divorce. This article addresses what every child needs to know after their parents divorced.
It is important to tell children about our feelings as parents, keeping in mind that our communications to the child have to be delivered at the same level as the child's maturity. Do not give kids too much information or you will see that "glazed-over" look, or worse an increase in acting out. Give the child too little information and you get follow-up questions. The process tends to self-correct as long as the parent is sensitive to the child's capacity and reactions to information. Do not overdo it.
The point is to model and at the same time give kids the verbal skills to express themselves without getting into trouble. This approach gives the parents a more reliable way to more deeply communicate with children, hence gives parents more control over the child's behavior without having to resort to punishment. When the verbal connection is established, it is time to talk. Three areas need to be addressed as soon as possible, and as often as needed. In the beginning, these three "issues" will surface a lot, so be prepared to address and re-address them, especially right after the separation and/or divorce.
1) I hope that parents will make it very, very clear that the divorce is not the child's fault. Children, especially younger children, think egocentrically. From their perspective, they are the center of the world. They are involved with everything they perceive. Unfortunately, children are also irrational. The younger the child, the less logical they are. Very young children are especially illogical because they have not developed that capacity. This is normal. Logic does not really start to surface until later in latency (ages nine or so). Children think that if something happened, they must have created it, or at least have had some part in creating the situation. This can still be the case even if the child is a teenager. Regardless of their age, children usually feel some negativity in these situations (guilt, anxiety, depression), because from their point of view, the divorce was at least partially their fault. Divorce is not their fault and usually is not about the children.
2) It is also equally important to tell children that the parents are not divorcing them. Yes, children often feel that the vacating parent is not just leaving a soon-to-be-ex behind. Children often feel abandoned as a by-product of the separation. As above, it is very important that children air these feelings--using words. Most kids do not have that skill. Therefore, sometimes parents have to prompt children's ideas, and the above two concepts are essential to discuss with the child.
3) Children also fantasize that they can do something to stop it or fix the separation. They may hate the parents for disrupting their life, for making the other parent leave, for changing things that seemed just fine to them. Children are prone to overuse the "undo" defense mechanism. That is the stuff in fairy tales when some magic happens to "make it all better." Kids will fantasize that they can get the parents back together. They may even try to engineer it. Kids may try hard to be extra, extra "good" so that parents will want to reunite and be a family again. Remember the old movie, "The Parent Trap?" Kids still try to manipulate situations so that the parents have to get together and talk. The down side of this is that children then have to take on extra roles, other than just being children. Now they see themselves as family engineers, rescuers, enablers or conflict-avoiders. All of this is dysfunctional and leads to problem relationships later.
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