by Veronica Brodsky, Psy.D.
As mentioned in the first part of this series, divorce and/or separation, for better or for worse, has a substantial impact on most children. Depending on the child, in terms of his/her age and individual characteristics, their reaction varies. Some children “clam up” while others “act out.” In my clinical experience, children who “clam up” tend to withdraw, show lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy, exhibit low energy or fatigue and often display somatic complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches. Often this child is seen as having difficulty focusing and “being in his/her own world,” almost detached from daily aspects of life. The “acting out” child displays more of an aggressive behavior by either becoming more verbally aggressive or, in some cases, physically. This child indicates low frustration tolerance and gets easily irritated or annoyed. Mood swings are also observed in these children. Clingy and attention seeking behavior is also reported. In both types of children, significant decline can be seen in social and academic functioning, low self-esteem, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness with frequent crying. Clearly no one child falls strictly into one or the other category and many children display symptoms of both.
Once the decision to separate has been made, it is important for parents to think about how to make this difficult transition less challenging for their children. How well children will adapt depends on several factors which was outlined by Hetherington et. al. (1998) such as:
- Individual characteristics of parents (e.g. personality, education, psychological problems)
- Mental transitions: divorce and remarriage.
- Stressful life experiences/economic change
- Family composition
- Social support
- Parental distress
- Family process
- Individual characteristics of child (e.g. age, gender, temperament, intelligence)
- Do keep consistency in your own and your children’s schedule. As mentioned earlier, children do not have control over many decisions relating to separation. It is important for them to have some level of predictability especially when it comes to a schedule.
- Do make the “second” home their home as much as possible. Whether they take part in helping to choose the color to paint the room or choosing furniture, any gesture giving kids some power in decision making can be very helpful.
- Do make sure that the second home has sufficient school supplies, even if the base home already has them. It is stressful enough to remember to bring books needed for homework and projects; there should be no added stress for kids to remember to bring needed supplies from one home to the next, if possible.
- Don’t bad-mouth another parent or complain about your ex to your children. If you need to talk about your frustrations, it should be done with adults in your life that you trust.
- Don’t’ ask your child about your ex’s social and/or daily life. For example: Did daddy have dinner plans? Who did he go with? What time did your mother came home? Did she pay or give you money? No matter how delicate or well intended your questions are about your ex, children often feel guilty and needing to protect parents, fearing that they may say too much or too little. If you have any questions relating to your ex, you need to ask him/her directly without putting your children in the middle.
- Don’t shower your kids with excessive gifts as a way to make them feel better and, for some, to reduce their own feelings of guilt. Spending QUALITY time with your child is the most important gift. Ask your child how they would like to spend time. Give them several options that you know they will enjoy.
Most importantly, remember to reassure your child that things are going to be OK and that you are going to get through this, even though it is difficult. When you are not sure how to respond to some situations, stop and think: if you were a child what would you want? And when you are inadvertently placing your child in the middle, stop for a minute and think is this truly the best thing for my child or is this about my own pain and anger.
Hetherington, E.M., Bridges, M., & Insabella, G.M. (1998). What matters? What does not? Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children’s adjustment. American Psychologist, 53, 167-184.