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 is the last article in a series of five. It focuses
on some of the more salient issues during visitations
following a divorce, and how the parents can make these
concerns easier to manage. Please read the previous four
articles in this series before reading this one.
Barring abuse or death in the family, the separation
of the parents is probably THE single, biggest trauma your
child has experienced to date. To compensate and to comply
with Family Law, usually kids are ordered to visit each parents,
then subsequently shuffled back and forth between each parent’s
home. As discussed in the previous four articles, this
presents your child with some unique and very trying challenges.
Younger children do not like being separated from either
parent, so their visits with each parent will be shorter,
accommodating their need to more quickly re-unify with the
parent they just left. As children age, they can tolerate
separation from one parent longer, thus the visits with each
becomes more extended. Older children, from about age
thirteen on usually do not enjoy being uprooted from their
friends, no matter which parent they are visiting.
To help your child tolerate the separation, try giving
them “open phone” privileges. This simply means they can
call the other parent at certain times of the day, or maybe
at any time of day to “touch base,” “check in” or whatever.
This reassures your child that the other parent is still in
the picture and diminishes your child’s anxiety about
separation. In case it is not obvious, the more anxiety your
child has or the more the divorce itself remains an unresolved
psychological issue for all parties, the more likely your child
will sooner or later act out or have other mental health
symptoms (anxiety disorders, depression, dependence problems,
It is very, very important to have the same rules in both
houses. In reality, this is never the case–but try to create
this experience as much as possible. This suggests that the
divorced parents will try to work together, which also almost
never happens. After all, as separated parents, the last thing
we usually want to do is work with our “ex.” But the irony is
that under this kind of stress, your child, more than ever,
needs the parents to work together to help her or him cope with
the divorce, separation and the usually big changes that follow.
It is a very real tragedy that at this time parents are the
least likely to work together when your child most needs them to
do just that.
One thing parents can do is to initiate post-divorce
counseling, to address this situation and the very clear and now
more intense needs of the child. The younger the child, the
more this is needed when it comes to setting rewards and other
structure in the home(s). Older children, especially teens,
will respond less well to such structure, but there is still a
very strong need to deal with acting out, as teens are more
capable of creating havoc than very young children. In all
cases, it is best for the child to have some continuity
(sameness) between homes. With very young children, there
should be a system of rewards and prizes that is the same
between households. This almost never happens, but
occasionally two separated parents actually put their
differences aside and work together in this limited way.
After all, they may be separated but the now separated adults
will always be the parents of their common children. Divorced
parents have a hard time with this concept, but it is reality.
If this is one of the stumbling blocks to working together,
then the best thing either parent can do for the child is to
get his or her own individual therapy. It is very important
to put the needs of the child first.
This is the last of five articles that summarizes some of
the more important points to remember when divorcing and then
dealing with children after the divorce. For more in-depth
ways to structure and change children’s behaviors in any
situation, but especially in difficult ones, see the author’s
ebook on How To Change Children’s Behavior (Quickly).