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’ 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.