When parents get divorced or separated, there is a tremendous amount of strain put on their new relationship and many times this becomes extremely difficult to handle. In turn, the focus on the children's mental and emotional health is greatly diminished. That's why it is extremely important for the parents to transform their relationship, which I call restructuring. It is imperative that parents learn how to co-parent in their new relationship, but imagine how difficult this is for a couple deciding to end their relationship together.
One parent has moved out of the family home and the children are trying to adjust to the non-custodial/custodial parent arrangement. In addition, many times children experience hostility and violence when their parents communicate creating tension in their environment and causing anxiety a child cannot verbalize. Without proper communication from the parents or outside help, many different types of behavior issues in children manifest, such as anger, insecurity, depression and anxiety. Although there is little evidence that divorce causes clinical depression in children, there is concern that divorce leaves children feeling lonelier, less protected and more stressed-filled. Often these symptoms and behaviors effect the children in school, in social situations and in the home. When the divorce or separation occurs during the child's early development, the child exhibits behaviors that indicate an attempt to control their environment, since it has been disrupted. Young children display behaviors of opposition or use inappropriate words, despite being told not to. When schools and psychologists are not made aware of the new situation or given vital information, the child ends up with a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD and is sentenced to a label and medication, damaging self-esteem and causing medical side effects.
Children need to feel they have some consistency in their lives. Parents who have recently undergone or are going through a separation have to step-up and admit that they are responsible for their child's ill-behavior. The lack of understanding of their children's behavior issues is an acute result of both parents' emotional reaction to their deteriorating marriage. The children's behavior in this situation is the smoke alarm and often times the parents do not see or hear the smoke alarm because they are caught up in their own dilemma and trying to stabilize themselves after the loss of their relationship. It may be too much for them to find the professional support the family needs to preserve its basic foundation amidst the rubble. When a marriage dissolves and there are children involved no one ever gets away unscathed. This does not mean all children suffer irreparable damage, because some children develop resiliency. However, you never know until years later how this situation affects the children and this is why parents need to pay close attention to any cues, while adjusting to a new living situation. Many parents do not want to accept the pain their child is going through and are in denial. There can be tremendous feelings of guilt, bitterness, non-communication, extended family pressure, and financial strain. It is not enough to keep children, jobs and life normal while undergoing dramatic changes in the household.
As a child of divorced parents at the age of ten, I often felt worried and anxious when they were in the same room. When my father would pick us up for visitation I felt very uncomfortable because they were visibly hostile to each other and as a child it was very depressing. In addition, my own parents would talk ill of each other in front of me and this was very confusing and was a enormous burden on me. Parents don't realize how their emotions effect their children. Children also don't know how adult relationships work and are trying to manage from a child's experience and perspective. It became so stressful that as a child I would pray that one of my parents would mysteriously disappear so I didn't have to feel so bad. It's confusing for a child to witness such indifference and hostility among the parents who conceived them. As I got older, I delayed any possible committed relationship because the thought of both my parents at my wedding caused heart palpations. My sister eloped denying herself the possibility of a special celebration. This was unfortunate for those of us who wanted to be there for her, but I understood. If only there had been post-divorce counseling to address the issues that caused so much unnecessary stress in my life. As a society with almost a 75% divorce rate, it seems to me post-divorce co-parenting skills should be a goal in the stipulation. If my parents and many divorced parents with children had been strongly encouraged or even court-mandated to parenting classes, I believe the children of divorce would have an easier time in their own relationships as adults and had a more secure stress free childhood.
Dana Greco is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and family psychotherapist in NYC. She is affiliated with The Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy, specializing in family systems She is a member of the Mental Health Professionals Panel for the Appellate Division of The Supreme and Family Courts in New York City. She is the author of "Please Don't Buy Me Ice cream... A child's rules for priceless parenting." Dana also works closely with a mediator, Don Desroches, during the process of separation as a family counselor.
Don has several years experience in small, medium and large size organizations negotiating and mediating. He knows communication is essential when identifying each parties' needs in order for the facilitation and mediation process to resolve to a win/win situation. For many years, Don has helped people come to the realization that mediation instead of litigation is a much more reasonable route. He has saved clients thousands of dollars in legal fees, by reducing the emotional strain and increasing their ability to communicate amicably for future interactions.