Friday, July 10, 2009

Sue Scheff: Children, Tweens and Teens - Recovering from Divorce

Recovering from Divorce

“You can give that child a sense of, ‘we may not be doing this perfect, obviously things didn’t work well, but we’re always looking for a better way and you’re still our child. We care about you, we care about each other and we want you to be happy and healthy’.”

– Winny Rush, M.Ed., Intervention Specialist

A new university study following thousands of kids for 20 years reports that children of divorced parents are more likely to become school drop-outs than kids whose parents stick together. The study confirms the hardship of divorce on kids, but how kids cope depends a lot on the parents.

Devon’s parents divorced when he was 13.

“You really lose your grip so easily when things aren’t alright at home,” says Devon.
He says the constant fighting between his parents took its toll. “I found that most of the time, like I was acting out in school, I’d be kind of the violent angry kid.”

Today -- six years later -- Devon says he’s worked through the anger and the pain. And looking back, he says the divorce provided a new beginning for him.

“It’s more positive,” he says. “You can be with somebody you love -- I love my mom and she loves me -- I can be with my dad another time -- I love him, he loves me, you know. But when it all comes together, it just doesn’t get along.”

Experts say the paradox of divorce is that it’s hard on children, especially young kids, and often leaves them feeling angry and alienated. But it is also a way to end the war between parents.

“It’s like there’s no more fighting, there’s no more fear … it’s a completion,” says Intervention Specialist Winny Rush, M.Ed. “And then you can go on to a sense of understanding and acceptance.”

Experts say these research results challenge a common assumption: that divorce leaves children emotionally scarred for life.

“They’re resilient and we do learn to adapt, especially children who are given no choice,” says Rush.

She adds that how well a child adapts depends in part on the parents. “If the children see their parents healthy and happy after the divorce, I think it’s probably not as bad as they thought it was,” says Rush.

For children whose parents are going through a divorce, Devon says it may be painful now, but he adds, “Know that you can deal with it. It’s not the end. It’s just a different path to take.”

Tips for Parents
The debate continues as to how divorce affects children, but one thing remains certain – they are affected. Children will typically experience certain feelings and emotions; the magnitude of those feelings largely depends on the child’s relationship with the parents before the divorce, the intensity and duration of any disagreements, and whether or not the parents put the child’s feelings above their own throughout the divorce. The most common emotions children feel are listed below, organized by Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran, of e-Mediation Information and Resource Center.

■Denial – This occurs particularly in young children and often surfaces as story-telling. For instance, a child may say, “Mommy and Daddy and me are going to Disneyland,” or “We're moving into a duplex and Daddy will live next door.” Children in denial will also have reconciliation fantasies.
■Abandonment – When parents separate, children worry about who will take care of them. They are afraid that they, too, are “divorceable” and will be abandoned by one or both of their parents. This problem is made worse if parents take the children into their confidence and/or talk negatively about the other parent in front of the children. Parents need to avoid using language such as, "Daddy is divorcing us." Parents should also avoid being late for school or carpool pick-up, or abducting the children, as these actions increase children’s insecurities. Children who are feeling insecure say things that are intended to evoke a “mama bear/papa bear” response (a demonstration of protectiveness). If children do not have "permission" to have a good relationship with the other parent, or if they think they need to "take care of" one of their parents in the divorce, they are likely to have feelings of divided loyalties between their parents. In extreme cases, they may become triangulated with one parent against the other.
■Preoccupation with information – Children will want details of what is happening and how it affects them. Communication from the parents needs to be unified and age-appropriate.
■Anger and hostility – Children may express anger and hostility with peers, siblings or parents. School performance may be impaired. A child’s hostility is often directed at the parent that he/she perceives is at fault. Hostility turned inward looks like depression in children.
■Depression – Symptoms can include lethargy, sleep and eating disturbances, acting out, social withdrawal and/or physical injury (more common in adolescents).
■Immaturity/hyper-maturity – Children may regress to an earlier developmental stage when they felt assured of both parents' love. They may "baby-talk" or wet their beds. Or, children may become "parentified" by what they perceive to be the emotional and physical needs of their parents.
■Preoccupation with reconciliation – The more conflict there is between the parents, the longer children hold onto the notion of their parents' reconciliation. To the child, conflict shows that the parents are not "getting on" with their lives. Children will often act out in ways that force their parents to interact (negatively or positively). Children whose parents were very confrontational during the marriage often mistake the strong emotions of conflict with intimacy. They see the parents as engaged in an intimate relationship.
■Blame and guilt – Because so much marital conflict may be related to the stress of parenting, children often feel responsible for their parents' divorce; they feel that somehow their behavior contributed to it. This is especially true when parents fight during exchanges about the children or in negotiating schedules – children see this as their parents “fighting over them.” Children may try to bargain their parents back together by promises of good behavior; they may have difficulty with transitions or refuse to go with the other parent.
■Acting out – Children will often act out their own anger and their parents' anger. In an attempt to survive in a hostile environment, children will often take the side of the parent they are presently with. This may manifest in refusals to talk to the other parent on the phone or reluctance to share time with the other parent. Adolescents will typically act out in ways similar to how the parents are acting out.
For parents going through divorce, it is easy to become overwhelmed if your child is exhibiting the behaviors listed above.

According to Dr. Rex Forehand, from the Institute of Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia, “many parents of divorce believe they have done irreversible damage to their children because of the parents’ permanent separation. However, many of the problems children experience following parental divorce are not due merely to the separation from one parent. Recent research indicates that children’s adjustment following parental divorce is dependent, to a large extent, on the situation existing after the divorce.”

It is important for parents to keep in mind that it’s not too late – they still can play a huge role in their child’s positive development and attitude. Dr. Forehand suggests the following tips to help minimize the negative effects of divorce:

■Both parents should work to maintain a positive relationship with their child. This serves as a buffer against the stresses of divorce, and assures the child of the parents’ continued love.
■Parents should subject the child to as few environmental and structural changes as possible (e.g. have the child attend the same school, continue to live in the same home, etc.). It is particularly important to maintain consistency regarding the child’s standard of living. For this reason, regular child support payments are often critical.
■Ex-spouses should not argue or fight in the child’s presence. This is perhaps the most important issue related to a child’s adjustment following parental divorce. The amount of parental conflict that the child sees (e.g. regarding visitation, custody, child support, etc.) is directly related to their level of adjustment.
■Consistent discipline is very important. Both parents should use similar age-appropriate discipline techniques with their children. Limits on what is and is not acceptable behavior for their children should also be consistent between the two homes.
■The child should not be used as a messenger in parental communications. He/she should never be asked to communicate messages such as “tell your dad that he is late with the child support payment.”
■Likewise, the child should never be used as a spy. Parents should not ask their child questions about the other parent’s life (e.g. questions about whom the parent is dating).
■Parents should not use the child as an ally in parental battles, and in fact, should avoid bringing the child into battles. Trying to get the child to take sides usually results in damaging the child’s relationship with both parents.
■The parents should never put down the other spouse in front of their child. It is important to remember the ex-spouse is still the child’s parent (no matter how much anger or resentment there is).
■The child should not be burdened with the parents’ personal fears and concerns. Unfortunately, many divorced parents turn to their children for support. This almost always has a negative impact on children and adolescents because they are rarely capable of handling such stress. Children have enough difficulty with their own adjustment without the added burden of their parents’ problems.
■It is usually in the child’s best interest to have a consistent pattern of frequent visits with the non-custodial parent. Frequent cancellations, long periods of no contact, and sporadic visitation schedules often have a detrimental effect on the child.
■Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
■The Mediation Information and Resource Center
■The University of Georgia – Institute for Behavioral Research

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