Couples going through a divorce face extraordinary challenges (and so do their children). You aren’t just losing the person with whom you envisioned spending the rest of your life, but you may feel like you’re losing a parenting partner in the process. One of our Child and Adolescent psychiatrists, Dr. Mark Novitsky, advises families who are separating or already divorced on how to prevent this stress from trickling down to their children, and recently gave an interview on this subject for Philadelphia Family Magazine set to be published in either the July 2016 “The Best for Families” edition or the January 2017 “Health and Wellness” edition. When Dr. Novitsky joined our practice, he told us, “As a parent myself, I can appreciate both the rewards and challenges that come with raising children. We are given a vital responsibility in supporting our children physically, emotionally, socially, financially, and intellectually on their pathway to future success. With this in mind, I also understand that when our children do need assistance beyond our own capabilities, there is nothing more comforting than knowing that an issue can be ameliorated with the assistance of a trained professional. ” How do you know when your “own capabilities” are not working and you need a more robust intervention to maintain stability for your child?
During a divorce, parents can ask themselves four questions to determine whether they are creating a positive environment for their children:
1. How am I doing mentally with the separation? Am I taking care of myself so that I can be emotionally available for my child?
First, parents should be getting their own adequate emotional support, and perhaps even individual psychotherapy, because a parent’s response to stressors has the greatest impact on how a child will adjust to this breakup of the family unit. If a parent is panicking and showing a lack of control, a child appropriately thinks, “Well what will happen to me? I have experienced a loss too and my parents are falling apart, so who will take care of me?” If you are feeling overwhelmed by the loss of your marital relationship, or the legal and financial struggles are taking a toll on your ability to cope, you may need to seek individual counseling and get evaluated for prescription medication.
2. Have my partner and I been able to separate the best interests of our child from our own conflicts?
It is essential to maintain a consistent and positive dialogue with your ex partner about what is in your child’s best interests, even more so during such a challenging period. You need to ask yourself if you are bringing negative feelings toward your ex into your relationship with your child. Efforts should be made not to criticize the other parent, because it could create a “loyalty battle” in a child’s mind where they feel the urge to choose one parent over the other. Some children may use this to their advantage by pitting parents against each other to avoid discipline, or even creating a loyalty battle for the parent with a new romantic relationship, where your child may ask you to choose her over your significant other or alternatively idealize this new person.
If instead the conflict is that you are considering staying in your marriage for the sake of your child, studies have shown that even when parents wait to separate until their kids go to college it still has a dramatic impact on a child at this later point in life. Children can sense when their parents are unhappy, and in some cases can feel a sense of relief when a constantly conflictual relationship ends. Even worse, children repeatedly exposed to an unhealthy parental conflict may come to expect that this is part of a typical relationship and thereby set up a pattern of themselves choosing unhealthy relationships as adults.
3. Have I sat down with my child and answered questions that he or she may have about why the family dynamic is changing?
Fear of the unknown is often worse than the situation itself. This is no different for children during a divorce, which makes it critical for parents to sit down with their child and address the topic openly. Don’t make any assumptions that your child understands what is happening to the family because often children put pieces of the bigger picture together falsely. Dr. Novitsky tells parents that “You are the world’s expert on your child.” You may already know ways of talking with your children that work best for them given their temperament, and should do what is familiar during trying times. But if you are having trouble knowing where to begin, an effective approach is to establish boundaries regarding how many of the details of the parental conflict are appropriate to share. If your child asks questions, don’t lie to them—children model expected behaviors and if they catch us lying, it teaches them that conditional lying (meaning lying in specific situations) is an appropriate emotional response to stress. Younger children in particular tend to have a fantasy that their parents will get back together. For this reason, it is helpful to have both parents present for the initial conversation to avoid the fantasy that the non-present parent may be holding onto a wish to get back together.
Once it is certain that you will not reconcile with your spouse, it is ok to tell your child the truth in terms that they can understand. For example, an older child may understand how feelings for another person can change over time, but for a younger child it may be helpful to keep the conversation concrete: “Mom and Dad are going to live in different houses now so that we don’t argue as much but we both love you very much.” For younger children, one should reinforce that parents and kids don’t stop loving each other. It is very common for a child to blame themselves and parents should repeatedly reassure them that what happened between the parents was not their child’s fault. Finally, avoid venturing into the “adult” details such as discussing infidelities or your court case, because your child may misinterpret your motive and it could add to the guilt and burden she or he already feels.
4. Am I noticing any changes in my child’s behavior or demeanor that are concerning, either academically or socially?
If after an extended period of time your child is dwelling on the separation or you notice a dramatic regression in behaviors where they are isolating themselves socially or falling behind with school, these may be signs that professional help would be warranted. In conjunction with this would be to work together as parents in an effort to maintain the child’s ecosystem as much as possible by keeping children enrolled in the same activities, even if a separation changes the structure of the family’s life (such as selling a home or moving to another state). Routines are comforting because it is something your children can rely on when everything else is changing. If your son plays soccer every Wednesday, or you take your daughter to visit with her grandparents each month, try to keep that consistent or recreate it in your new environment.
If you have asked yourself these questions and remain confused about where you and your ex spouse stand, check back in with us for another post on how to approach psychotherapy for your child. I will be discussing how cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can empower your children to combat their negative thoughts and learn that even if their family is changing shape, they will remain solid at their core.