Divorce can be an emotionally traumatic experience that undermines children’s feelings of safety, security and stability. As psychologists who work with children that have experienced divorce we attempt to minimize its negative effects. We work directly with children to resolve their distress and improve their coping skills. Additionally, we assist parents to decrease the hostility and conflict to which children are exposed.
There are three basic goals to achieve when working with children who have experienced a parental divorce: the first is to provide the child or adolescent with the opportunity to discuss thoughts and feelings and to communicate their concerns; the second is to normalize divorce as a common occurrence that is experienced by other children; and the third is to assist the child in developing an appropriate understanding of their position in the process of divorce.
Communication often breaks down in a family as parents try to protect children by not involving them directly in discussions about the divorce. Children, however, are painfully aware of the breakup of the family. They frequently have questions, concerns, fears, and wishes as the divorce process moves forward. Young children, for example, are easily confused by words that get tossed around by their parents. They may not know what a divorce is or may fear the “judge” who they heard is going to make one parent leave the house. A basic discussion of what a divorce involves and how it proceeds can greatly reduce a child’s fears and make a scary situation more tolerable.
Older children and adolescents typically understand what it means that their parents are divorcing. However, they may be reluctant to voice opinions about parenting time and how they would like their lives to be organized. In particular, children tend to be concerned that expressing feelings and preferences might result in one of two unwanted outcomes: reduced contact with the non-custodial parent or decreased nurturing and support from the custodial parent.
In addition to allowing children to communicate concerns, it is important to normalize their situation. It is useful for children to understand that divorce is a common occurrence and that the myriad of feelings they are experiencing is normal. It can be quite helpful to discuss ways that other children have coped with similar situations, realistically anticipating common problems, while also conveying a sense of hope and knowledge that children survive family breakups and go on to have enjoyable, satisfying lives.
A third focus with children involves identifying their role within, and their beliefs about, the parent’s divorce. It is an all too common misperception among children that they are to blame for their parent’s breakup. Additionally, children often harbor other unrealistic ideas, including that they are responsible for resolving parental conflicts, that they have the power or ability to reunite their parents, or that they are responsible for caring for a parent if reconciliation is not possible. These distorted beliefs can lead to a disruption in development, as is seen in children who take on the role of caretaker or parental confidant. In other situations, children misbehave in the hope that their parents will come together to solve their problem and will remain together as a family.
In addition to working directly with children, another means of addressing divorce-related problems involves helping a mom or dad adjust to the realities of becoming a single parent. As with children, moms and dads need time to discuss their painful feelings and to learn techniques that can reduce conflict with a former spouse. It is important for newly divorced parents to emotionally disengage from each other in order to make new lives for themselves and to move beyond their anger and hostility and focus on their child’s needs.
As parents emotionally disengage from one another, treatment can focus on developing a cooperative co-parenting relationship where the child’s needs are primary. For example, parents are encouraged to acknowledge and support a child’s right to love and be loved by the other parent, without interference from the mother or father.
A vital part of co-parenting is the development of a parenting plan. Well-constructed parenting plans are designed to minimize hostile contact between parents and to facilitate a safe and secure transition for the child to move from one parental residence to the other. Parenting plans are best established in writing and address, for example, how parents will communicate (i.e., through e-mail, text message or journals), how children will be exchanged (i.e., at each parent’s residence or at public locations), and how the child’s possessions will be handled (i.e., brought back and forth by the child or remain in one household). Good parenting plans also include a means of dispute resolution, such as using mediation to resolve serious disagreements.
Although divorce is a common occurrence in today’s society, the means of establishing a functional binuclear family is not always evident to newly divorced parents. Newly divorced families are in transition and often need guidance and direction. It is important that professionals provide the necessary direction and support to decrease parental conflict and to enable children to adjust to their new circumstances.
To successfully complete the process of divorce there must be resolution of parental conflict, protection of children from parental disputes, and the establishment of a primary focus on the children’s needs. Our role as psychologists is to assess the needs of family members in the divorce process, to offer support, guidance and direction where it is needed and to facilitate the development of stable, satisfying and functional post-divorce relationships.
For more information or to make an appointment, please call Swerdlow-Freed Psychology at (248) 539-7777. Our offices are conveniently located at 30600 Northwestern Highway, Suite 210, Farmington Hills, Michigan 48334, and 55 North Pond Drive, Suite 6, Walled Lake, Michigan 48390.