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 develop 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.
Children’s Mental Health
While divorce is common, our children’s reactions to it may differ. Some factors that may increase problematic behaviors include temperament, 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 parent’s relationship, work through it, and accept the emotions they have about your separation. Through this process, they can develop new healthy relationships with you and your ex as independent parents, both capable of guiding them to a sense of homeostasis. This is the foundation of creating a co-parenting journey for your child to become a healthy adult.
Although this may sound like common sense, it is often all but common practice as parents’ are grieving themselves. More common is a trajectory of grieving parents getting lost in their personal battles, forgetting to help their children tend to the garden of their emotional grief.
If you are undergoing a 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 yourself and your child deal with the onslaught of stress caused by an impending separation.
Realize your child will lose contact with a major influence in their life. While custody arrangements may dictate what parent has their child’s legal or physical interests as a primary responsibility, this does nothing to negate the loss of a parent, the psychological equivalent of undertaking a death in the family. While not an excuse, children cannot express themselves in a manner equivalent to adults, who, at times during the divorce process, maybe as conflicted as their children are in handling the emotional distress caused by separation and divorce.
What can you Do?
1. Create active and empathic communication between yourself and your child(ren) as it relates to your mutual emotional states (but do not communicate the affairs of the divorce or conflict/be neutral)
Children learn emotions and emotional reactions 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 them to cry, yell, swear, or possibly show even 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 home environments.
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