Monday, January 24, 2011

When Divorce Happens

By Gariane Gunter, M.D. 

A recent study was published in Health Day that discusses the mental health of children of divorced parents. While I am not in the position to support or deny the findings, the topic of divorce when children are involved is often a difficult one. Every family is different, but the following are some general tips for divorcing parents that can be helpful.

1. Attempt to keep a positive attitude during the point of separation. This is often a very trying time for the family. Stick to a routine and embrace the activities your children have always enjoyed.

2. Don’t forget to nurture yourself. Going for a walk, having coffee with a friend, or reading a good book are ways to rest and regain energy. It’s normal to feel exhausted when separating; and possibly for many months to follow.

3. Encourage kids to openly discuss their feelings, positive or negative, about what's happening.

It's important for divorcing, as well as already divorced parents, to sit down with their kids and encourage them to say what they're thinking and feeling. But you'll need to keep this separate from your own feelings. Most often, children experience a sense of loss of family and may blame you, the other parent, or both of you for what is going on in their lives. You really need to be prepared to answer questions your kids might raise. They might feel guilty and imagine that they "caused" the problem. Kids and teenagers may feel angry or frightened, or worried about their future. Counselors can assist with this difficult conversation and provide a safe environment if safety is a concern.

4. Although very tempting, try not to speak negatively about your former spouse when your children are present. This issue, often called “parental alienation” can be a problem. Doing things such as putting your child in the middle, saying negative things about the other parent, and using your child as a messenger puts your child in a “no win” situation and creates lifelong relationship issues for all involved. The reasons include the following:

• The comments may confuse and frighten children.
• Many of your concerns about your former spouse are difficult for you to express. It is very important that you keep these concerns to yourself. Children just do not have the emotional maturity to withstand information/situations that adults find stressful.
• Your child’s identity and self concept is based on parental behavior. Even if it is next to impossible to say anything good about your former spouse, try to do so. If this is impossible then don’t say anything.
• Children love to eavesdrop. Telephone conversations are their favorite snooping ground. Make all effort to not discuss your divorce-related difficulties on the telephone when your children are around.

5. During the crisis point of separation try to remember that your children need you both parents more than ever. This is not a time to deny access unless a professional deems it necessary to do so for safety related reasons.

6. It is important to accept the fact that a separation involves feelings of loss for children. Try not to panic if the following behaviors occur during the first few months of separation:

• Sleep difficulties like disrupted sleep, an inability to sleep, exhaustion etc.

• Social isolation

• Anger, intolerance, grumpiness

• Avoidance of divorce related conversations

• Obsessing about the divorce

• Appetite changes

• Feelings of worthlessness

• Tears and feelings of overwhelming sadness

7. Although many children do not ask to see a counselor when their parents separate, they usually find counseling very helpful.
8. It is important to acknowledge that children are very loyal and protective of their parents. If children are placed in loyalty binds they can experience anxiety. Try to alleviate their anxiety if they decided to “pick a side.” This is a coping skill which teens in particular use. If your child engages in “picking a side” try not to feel rejected.

9. Think of yourself as a survivor not a victim. And be patient. Everyone takes different times to heal.

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