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.
This article addresses what the child thinks about the divorce.
The first thing to make very, very clear to the child is
that the divorce is not his or her fault. Children,
especially younger children, think egocentrically. They
are the center of their world. They are involved with
everything (that they perceive). Children are also irrational.
They think that if something happened, they must have created it,
or at least had some part in creating the situation. This
makes little or no sense, logically, but then children usually
are not logical. Very young children are especially illogical
because they just have not developed that capacity.
This is normal. Logic does not really start to surface until
late latency (ages nine or so), even though there are some
glaring exceptions in either direction.
So, to the illogical child, if the parents divorced, the
child “must” have had something to do with it. Right away the
child feels lots of negative things, like anxiety or guilt or
sadness or depression. Right away the child associated her or
his behavior with the negativity of the divorce. The child
thinks the parents split from each other because of when the
child cried, or when the child hit his sibling or didn’t eat
their peas. Of course these behaviors probably had not such
cause and effect on the marriage. Divorces are rarely about
the children, although children do bring considerable stress to
marriages, and that stress does contribute to separations.
The child thinks s/he is the cause of that stress; “therefore”
the child must be at fault.
In the previous article of this series, the first
suggestion of things to do for kids in this situation is to
give them a vocabulary of feelings. They need tools to express
how they feel, and the right words are just that tool. In the
above example, the child needs words to describe anxiety, guilt,
worry, sadness and fear. Go to thesaurus.com and look for the
simplest versions of these words. Use them in sentences with
the child and allow the child to hear the words, while you say
them with calmness.
The next thing to do for your child in this circumstance
is to model calm behavior, using appropriate feeling words to
describe how people feel when they no longer want to be together.
It is important that the child hear words like, “love” applied to
the relationship between each parent and the child, even if
the changing superficialities, there is a stable, dependable,
“same” experience of support and security. Divorce is a huge
de-stabilizer of constancy, so parents can help their children
cope with changes by describing, in emotion-based words, the
things that stay the same.
In the next article, visitation will be discussed, as this
is one of the behaviors that most upsets constancy.