By Nicole Howell, Ph.D.
One of the hardest and most important jobs a parent has is to be able to tolerate the disappointment their children have in them and to do it with grace, understanding, and acceptance. Children have valid complaints and legitimate reasons for their disappointment. It’s important for parents to hear it without objecting, debating or arguing. When it comes to feelings, there is no right or wrong. It is not helpful to say “But, wait! That’s not true. I did this and that, don’t you remember?” “What about the time when we…?” It is often said, “the receiver determines the meaning of the message.”
An 8 year old or a 10 year old experiences and interprets events differently than a 30 or 40 year old. A child needs to hear “I see, I understand this is painful for you. It must really hurt. We will work on this to try to fix it. I’m glad you told me how you feel, and I am sorry this has hurt you.” And at no time is this process more important to remember than during separation and divorce. The more I think about children and divorce and wonder what is happening in today’s treatment of this issue, the more the words, “very little” come to mind.
There are custody laws and evaluations, regulations involving the courts and visitation, and procedures to keep custody agreements in place, but that’s not what I’m talking about. My question is, “What are today’s kids feeling about their families breaking up, and who is listening?” Let’s look at what these children are likely to be feeling and experiencing. Here are some examples: shock, abandonment, fear of losing the love of their parents, self-blame, feeling unwanted, shame, a change in status as compared to their friends, wondering why this is happening to them, constant worry about their parents and their feelings, being careful of what to say so their parents won’t be angry or hurt, the stress of being a confidant at too young an age, feeling like they are betraying one parent if they love the other, trying to remember what they were told not to say, going back and forth from house to house and often forgetting items they need, getting less attention, hoping that someday (someway) their parents will get back together, feeling forced to be where they may not want to be, exposure to new dating partners and their children, and being told “You have to go to Mommy’s (or Daddy’s)” instead of being asked, etc, etc…. and feeling very alone in all of it……. WHAT AN ASSORTMENT OF COMPLEX ISSUES FOR A YOUNG MIND TO CONTEMPLATE.
Who is monitoring the expressions on the faces of these children, and what happens to all the fear and anxiety they have on a daily basis during divorce? What does it feel like being dragged through the mud without anyone saying, “Is this ok with you?,” “Would you like us to do it differently?,” “How can we make it easier?,” “I will love you no matter what you say, and I won’t be hurt if you want to spend more time with…because I know you love them, too.” AND in the middle of all of it, there is the demanding routine a child is expected to successfully manage, i.e., school and homework, soccer, karate, dance, music, etc. and not to mention the “Playground Politics,” (Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D.), that exist for every child.
And when changes come, and they will; such as grades dropping, acting out or irritability, more crying, clinging more to their parents, moodiness, lack of appreciation and happiness at gifts and events, and changes in sleep and appetite, etc., parents will often ask why. When children have needs that go unmet, they begin to feel shame about those needs. They think they are bad for having them or the people near them would meet and fulfill them. So they try to turn off and deny their needs and even sometimes turn against themselves. This can follow them into adulthood where they begin to settle for less in various areas of their life and especially in their relationships. There is no question most parents love their children and would never want to hurt them. The problem is divorce taxes parents in unfamiliar ways that “knock them off their feet.” Their own sense of betrayal, abandonment, anger and loss consumes their time and energy.
Children can be expected to just “do what has to be done.” We need to stop and take a very serious look at our children during this time, and talk things over with them again and again. When there is “mystery,” children will fill in the blanks and most likely it will be with negative assumptions about themselves and the situation. Their conclusions are often far from the truth, yet without anyone to dispute them, become a part of that child’s belief system which follows him (or her) into adulthood where these ideas begin to live a life of their own. I believe EVERY child going through divorce should have some therapy or be part of a divorce support group for children. Such an experience will help them understand and process their feelings. They will be able to express themselves and come to fully realize they are still lovable and not to blame. If in a group, they will share with others who are going through the same things, and begin to feel like they are not alone. And eventually they will return to doing what they are supposed to be doing… just being a kid.