One of the most difficult problems in the treatment of children and adolescents during the divorce of their parents is when the parents are unwilling to accept that their on-going feuding is damaging their children.

During this time, teens and youngsters are prone to a wide range of mental health disorders and behavioral problems that include; depression, anxiety, and self-injurious behaviors such as cutting or acting on suicidal ideations. There may be school problems, truancy, antisocial behavior, drugs/alcohol use and family problems that lead to running away behavior, especially with older children. If a child is prone to be anxious prior to the divorce, they are more likely to become more anxious during the divorce.

When a divorce happens, one or both parents are in a state of high anxiety and/or depression. They feel their world is being shattered by the person they have idealized and with whom they have spent a significant part of their adulthood.

Now that idealized person has turned into a monster and refuses to extend any kindness to the person they are leaving. Not only are the parents traumatized by the divorce, but so are the children because the parents seem to have abandoned all sense of concern for the family unit.

Parents will argue and make threats in front of their children and will vow to withhold the children from the other parent. In some cases parents resort to physical violence. Parents falsely believe that their arguments behind closed doors go unheard. On the contrary, children listen at key holes and talk among themselves about the behavior of their parents.

Children’s sense of security depends on the behaviors of the parents. Their home, food, clothing, school, and nurturing all comes from the stability of the parents. When this falls apart, so do the children. They become victims of the trauma their parents are experiencing.

Fear in children grows exponentially the longer and more intense the parents fight. The children may act-out or withdraw from normally enjoyable events, which may become common place. They may shed quiet tears to avoid burdening an already traumatized parent with emotional baggage which, of course, the parent interprets as the children handling the divorce rather well. Often children become parentified at this time and become the caretakers of their parents.

Children will often report or invent negative behaviors or sayings of the leaving parent in order to emotionally validate even false beliefs of the remaining parent. This occurs especially when one parent vilifies the other parent in front of the children. Then children feel a need to show allegiance to one or the other parent. However, when a divorce is complete, children don’t magically recover because divorce can be akin to the death of a parent.

Individual and family therapy can be very beneficial. The therapist must be well trained and experienced. Sometimes medication is needed, for a parent when grief turns into depression. And, it is important to remember, children come with their own set of deep-seated fears and distortions of reality. Angry words, a forced move, the loss of friends and school, and having to spend time at Dad’s house and then at Mom’s house can prove stressful for the child.

Encouraging an adolescent to write in a journal can help clarify their thoughts and fears. Likewise, drawing for children can be a good diagnostic tool. Children often blame themselves for the divorce so they need to understand it is not their fault - this will help alleviate guilt. Educating the parents in the “do’s and don’ts of parenting” can improve the children’s ability to cope.

Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.

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