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 and the next article address what the child thinks about
the divorce and how s/he behaves during visitation. Please
read the previous two articles in this series before reading
After the divorce, kids experience a situation that is,
to them, very strange. Usually, one parent moves out, so in
order to “visit” with this parent, the child has to leave one
place and travel to another. The whole idea of visiting a
parent with whom the child probably lived with for a long time
is very awkward. “Why is Mommy/Daddy not in the same place
as always?” “What do you mean, visit? Visiting is what you
do with aunts and uncles.” Why do we have to leave where we
are to see someone we already know?” These are questions I
often hear as a child psychologist. Kids are bewildered.
And, they have very negative feelings associated with a lot of
The first big feeling is loss, followed by fear (or more
than the usual levels of anxiety), anger and frequently
depression. The family just experienced a major crash.
Kids don’t like this at all. This is especially evident
when a child is between two and four years old. In the
previous article, constancy was discussed. Constancy, when
interrupted in toddlers, is devastating. They are at critical
developmental stages that require constancy to complete.
Divorce at this time potentially is double damaging to children.
To compensate, teach them a vocabulary of their feelings, as
Again, what parents can do for their children at this
critical time is to help process the child’s feelings.
Usually the parents have strong feelings of their own, so
perhaps taking the child to a counselor would help do this
better, but sooner or later the parent will have to do some
of this at home. Allow the child to feel anything s/he wants,
because chances are there will be a variety of strong, often
negative feelings, and all of them are probably appropriate,
even though at times they will present in extreme ways.
A big mistake parents make is to paint a pretty picture of
the divorce. The child knows better and resists changes,
often acting out to show their displeasure. But if the
parents do not encourage the child to speak (using words,
not so much with behaviors), the child learns to shut up.
This is tragic and will lead to much bigger problems later.
In the moment, the child needs permission to speak, even if
negatively. Emoting out loud (vs. acting out) using the
appropriate words is to be encouraged.
Set up this standard and many of the following conflicts
can be easier to manage. One of the biggest challenges to
parents is visitation. Children don’t like going back and
forth from Mommy’s to Daddy’s house. Usually, the exiting
parent has moved to a neighborhood where there are no friends
of the children. To compensate, parents often bus their kids
back to their neighborhood-of-origin, which is counterintuitive,
even to a four year old. “Why are we going back to Mommy’s”
is a question I often hear as Daddy is driving the kids back
to their own neighborhoods to play with friends that live just
down the street.
The visitation itself will be discussed in the next article,
but first there needs to be discussed the “pre-visit” jitters.