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Getting divorced? When it comes to helping your children adjust appropriately: Anticipate problems and Minimize their effects [Part 1], by Susannah Gersten, M.S.W., LCSW, Psychotherapist

By September 23, 2011Blog

The decision to get separated from your spouse has no doubt been a long and agonizing road for both of you. As a concerned parent, adding to your stress will be how to help your child cope with this loss. The good news is, if you are reading this and are seeking out help for your child and your family, you are already on the right path. Anticipate that this huge change is going to have an effect on the family and also anticipate that, no matter what you do, this effect will have negative components. There is no perfect divorce. Many parents come to me for psychotherapy asking for advice about how to minimize the negative effects of the impending separation on their children and on their family as a whole. While this is no substitute for ongoing family therapy, this and future blogs will outline the most common concerns that parents bring to me. What follows are the first two issues to address. My advice is to anticipate these issues and minimize their influence as much as possible.
*note: these are general guidelines for parents in non-violent relationships. If your relationship is violent in any way and you feel that you or your children are or could be in danger, please seek professional help.

Anticipate issue #1: Your children feel that things are out of control.

This one is painful and gets expressed in many different ways. Different kids need different things from their parents in order to feel adequately taken care of and that their environment is stable. Some kids express this explicitly, from You don t love me anymore, to I am always late for school now, or You don t spend any time with us anymore, and You are always on the phone. Other kids will retreat into themselves and stop sharing their feelings with their parents, attempt to take care of their parents, or generally present with: nothing has really changed, everything s fine. Either way, it can be painful to experience these changes in your children. If they are externalizing their feelings onto you explicitly, they may constantly hurt your feelings or not give you a chance. If they internalize their feelings, you might not even notice at first and might want to believe that they really feel like everything s fine and nothing s bothering them. Although it might be easier to do this, and tempting to believe it, you are doing them a disservice by buying into that wish.
Minimize this problem:

Take care of yourself! You need help. You are probably experiencing a range of feelings that runs the gamut of the human experience from possible depression and loneliness to a sense of freedom and relief. You absolutely deserve to feel these things and need to express them. When your child is out of the house you can vent to friends, family, neighbors, religious figures, a therapist, or whoever you can trust. But when your kids are home, try as best you can to maintain a sense of confidence and normalcy. This is not to say you should not be honest about your feelings to a certain degree you can empathize with their sadness, grief, and anxiety over the change, as this is a shared family experience. Be cautious, however, not to overwhelm them. Do not rely on them for emotional support as you would another adult. While expressing sadness also simultaneously express the confidence that your lives will all be better as a result, and that it was the right decision for you and your family.

Try to maintain the old routine as much as possible. You and your kids have been through an enormous change. This is not the time to change up their morning or bedtime routines, get rid of a family pet, stop going to religious services, introduce them to new boyfriends/girlfriends, increase drinking or smoking, give them new rules, etc. Give yourselves several months to a year or more to adjust to this new change before introducing any other big changes. If you have adopted some big changes for yourself and you feel good about them, that s great, but keep them to yourselves as much as possible in the beginning. It might be hard, as the changes you are making for yourselves are positive, and you may feel that your children would want to share that with you. Although this may be true for some kids, my experience is that the vast majority of kids need proof of routine and normalcy before being able to accept more changes, either positive or negative.

Anticipate issue #2: Your children need you and your ex to be on the same team.

This is a big problem for many parents because they simply are not on the same team in many ways this usually goes along with the issues that caused the divorce in the first place. Why do children need this from you It falls under the same issue of needing to feel consistently taken care of. They have lived their lives up to this point believing to some degree that you were all in this together. If they don t feel that you are on the same team, a number of issues can arise. One common issue is that they will try hard to pick either you or your ex to agree with and defend, and stick with that person. Adding to the stress of this issue is that one child will frequently pick one parent to side with and another child will pick the other parent, causing fights between siblings as well.

Be careful with this because it is easy to get sucked in. Take this example: your child comes to you complaining about issues they are having with the other parent and you have experienced those issues first hand. You are angry at your ex, you are removed from your feelings of love for them at the moment, and you empathize with your child s experience so strongly that everything in you wants to just commiserate and talk about your ex s flaws.

Susannah is a Brooklyn based psychotherapist has experience in mental health as well as community based counseling services in Park Slope, making her invaluable in building relationships with the schools and other services in the area. In her private practice, Susannah offers play therapy with young children as well as behavior management, behavior plans and other techniques that involve both children and their family. She also offer couples and family psychotherapy in order to help the parents and family address any underlying concerns in the family system. She runs an equine assisted psychotherapy group out of Kensington stables with middle-school aged children to address anxiety, shyness and depression.

Craig Selinger

Author Craig Selinger

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