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Picking Up the Pieces For Children of Divorce
[9:00 AM] The stepmother shrugs as she leaves my office, apparently stepping aside for an hour from her duties as the child’s counselor.
Briefly observing the girl to assess her status; I noticed that the eleven-year-old, slumped in her seat, would not return my appearance. I can’t tell if she no longer has bandages on her wrists, hands or neck since last week. She probably cuts herself in the same places. Or maybe she’s finally found a better way to vent her anger.
[1:30 PM] I wonder if this is becoming an exercise in futility. Every time a mother leaves her five-year-old daughter with me, the girl just throws up – just like this! They must hear her crying throughout the building. And there’s her mom coming back and bawling too.
We need to find another way to meet, but she has become so insecure since her parents’ divorce.
[4:00 PM] I watch as he looks at the book titles on my shelf. Perhaps he is becoming interested in child psychology. He is definitely getting first-hand experience. However, I notice that his gaze is focused only on the picture of my son.
“Yours?” he asks.
When I say yes, he turns to me only to say, “How long are you holding him?”
These three examples from Counseling Days give the reader a look at some of the effects of divorce when divorce is not handled well for children.
While it is generally believed that about half of all marriages end in divorce, a lesser known number would be how many children are affected. Newsweek recently reported that 1 million American children experience parental divorce each year. Additionally, “these children are twice as likely as their peers to experience divorce themselves and are more likely to experience mental health problems” (April 21, 2008, pp. 48, 49).
Assessing the impact more clearly, the National Institute of Mental Health, in the book “Post-Divorce Prevention Sessions Protect Teens,” says that while most children are able to cope with divorce, a quarter of teens have serious difficulties adjusting to their new relationship. (www.nimh.nih.gov). In the book “The Struggle with Divorce”, the author makes parents understand that “Your attitude shapes the attitude of your children.” Parents’ “words and actions” have a powerful effect on a child’s development during the trauma of divorce (www.helpguide.org/mental/children_divorce).
The beginning of the solution for children of divorce is best found in the answer of Barbara Cochran, a consultant at the Community Counseling Service. “Parents do not separate from their children.” she claims.
For example, parents may mistakenly associate their children with a failed marriage. In such cases, the father or mother only builds walls that make the relationship with the children difficult or even impossible. Cochran explains, “I tell parents, if they’re still having problems with each other, try to keep the kids out of it.”
In the case of divorce, the relationship between adults is radically changed, starting from a marital relationship to a parent-partner relationship. Therefore, the lines of communication must also change. The couple should no longer talk about old mutual disagreements and problems. Such an exchange is based on what went wrong in their marriage. After the divorce, their conversations should focus on the children. Each parent talks to their children, and either parent can talk to the other parent, but only about matters directly related to the children and their care. There must be cooperation for the benefit of the children.
Cochran described children who reacted very differently to conflict during parental divorce. Some engage in criminal or violent behavior and uncontrollable anger; others simply withdraw and sink into depression, drug addiction, or frequent headaches, accidents, or injuries. She also showed how children in high-conflict homes interact poorly with others or have problems at school. “The bottom line,” says Cochran, “kids need both parents.”
“All children have problems adjusting to divorce. Many children are afraid of being abandoned or replaced, guilty of being somehow responsible, and very worried about what will happen,” she adds.
Children of divorce need someone they can talk to, and it may not be their parents. From the children’s perspective, they may avoid sharing everything with their parents simply because they don’t want to add to their parents’ problems.
However, “one of the most powerful pieces of advice is to set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day for each child,” since the main cause of behavior problems is a lack of communication between parents and their children (Parents Are Forever, 30).
Community Counseling Services is a United Way agency supported by the ADAMH Crawford and Marion County Council.
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