by Roxanne Permesly, LMHC
It is important to remember that along with the legal and financial elements of divorce there are immediate and long-term emotional elements as well. In many ways these are the more complex matters, harder to view, and more difficult to resolve. Whether it is your decision to seek the divorce or your need to accept the divorce, this is a most difficult process. While this should be another personal, private aspect of your divorce, so many others with their own experiences and interests will offer opinions and add their views while you seek your own resolution. This keeps the emotions in a state of flux. It takes a considerable amount of time to stabilize, to heal, and to move on.
A divorce brings tremendous upheaval to the entire family. Routines are disrupted, securities are threatened, and emotions run high. For the adults, logic and reasoning may be replaced by anxiety and anger. There are many unknowns. There is significant loss and need to recalibrate. And while parents are searching to find their own balance, the children may be left to find their own way… with limited understanding, reasoning skills, and life experience. This is the time the children need their parents more than ever. They seek reassurance but parents may be busily absorbed with their own adjustments to the legal, financial, and emotional process at hand.
Regardless of their age children need to be told something. This should be based on their age and level of understanding. To say nothing, leaves them to bring out their own worst fears. Children should hear clearly and directly the divorce is between the parents. A divorce between parents does not mean you may subsequently divorce a child or ask them to make a choice. Do not place blame. Do not allow them to feel they are responsible for this rupture nor responsible put the family back together by adjusting their behaviors.
Their concerns are often concrete. They need to know you are planning for them. Let them know realistically how this change will affect them in regard to their home, their school, and their time with each parent. Allow them to ask questions in their own time and in their own way. It is somewhat difficult to predict how your children will react, and each child in your family will respond in a different way. You may notice the following feelings coming to the surface.
- Sadness and loneliness: Children may be teary or isolating. They miss the daily contact with each parent which had been so predictable. A parent may be absent for periods of time.
- Depression and despair: Children may show signs of restlessness, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating. This may be evident at school as well as in the households.
- Worry and anxiety: Children may be fearful and clingy. They may regress to earlier behaviors and patterns. They are preoccupied by the parents’ emotional health and well-being.
- Avoidance and denial: Children may seek to pretend the divorce is not happening and stifle all emotional reactions, at least on the surface. They will appear disinterested.
- Angry and reactive: Children’s behavior often reflects the increased tension and fury that this is happening to them. This may be directed specifically at either parent or both parents.
- Neglected and less important: Children will note each parent’s preoccupation with the process. Time and availability may be lessened. Financial standards may change and experiences or customary routines may be limited or lost.
- Responsible and on guard: Children worry about the parents’ emotional well being and may take on the task of caretaker. They become watchful; they listen to calls, and observe facial expressions.
- Caught and confused: Children may get caught in a “loyalty bind” and try to maneuver a way to be close to each parent while not wishing to betray the other. They may seek to play sides particularly if blame has been introduced in to the process.
Your children’s adjustment is complicated by their place in the family. They are not in control but they are asked to accommodate to your plans and decisions. Children do best if you can:
- Reassure the child the break up is an adult matter and adult decision
- Maintain your adult and parental roles
- Allow the child to express negative feelings about the situation in a non-destructive way
- Provide as much stability and continuity in routine as possible
- Keep the extended family and friends involved
- Offer reassurance of safety, love, and availability
- Structure and support contact and communication with your child’s other parent
Increased conflict and discord heightens their difficulties and lengthens their inability to adapt. Children will have a less positive adjustment if you add to their own emotional struggles. Do NOT:
- Offer hopes of reconciliation
- Put the child in the middle of the conflicts or ask the child to take on the adult tasks
- Make more changes than necessary
- Include the child in adult discussions either as a participant or listener
- Use the child as your confidant or emotional caretaker
- Make negative comments about your child’s other parent and their choices
- Ask the children to pick a side… there is no right and wrong parent
Divorce is difficult. It is difficult for you, for the extended family, and for the children who seek your support and guidance. You created this family in a joint and collaborative manner. Make efforts to create this new family in a similar manner. More conflict leads to more chaos and distress for all involved. Only through mature cooperation can this be managed and limited.
A parenting plan will be based on your specific family. This plan will focus on the contact between family members, how decisions are made, how communication is structured, and how changes can be made, and how conflicts will be resolved. The plan will serve as a template for your moving forward to continue raising your children.
The mental health professional, who serves as a member of your Collaborative Team, will provide you with a variety of resources as you begin to identify what will be appropriate for you. It is suggested further you refer to the information provided on www.12JudicialCircuit.com parenting plans. Review the instructions and assessments as this will outline important considerations in looking at your family and your children.
As to the developmental needs for the children… hold on to this… parenting continues for years.