How do children perceive divorce?
Content for this topic was compiled from patients I have seen from ages seven to eighteen-years-old going through a divorce or post divorce, spanning the last twenty years. Children of all ages, distort, embellish, minimize and internalize the loss they experience in divorce. For certain, despite the distortion, all their feelings are REAL. We as therapists, and parents must learn to hear not just listen to what they say. Parents frequently involve their children, by mudslinging, making angry hurtful statements about the other spouse, as well as dropping the emotional ball on what is at stake here. What is at stake? Their children’s sense of self. Their children’s view on relationships as well as how they perceive themselves in relation to their mother and father. Parents STOP with the self absorbed attitude. Yes, you are going through emotional and financial turmoil;however a child’s soul is so much more important.
A seven-year-old male, presents with wetting the bed (enuresis), waking up with night terrors, (much different than nightmares) and decreased appetite. Mother states he will not talk, and has has been putting his cars, toy soldiers, and blocks in a straight line daily. I met this child a few years ago, he appeared pleasant, sporadic eye contact; however the entire session despite my humor, goofiness, getting on the floor with him and playing with some cars he NEVER smiled. On the second session I began to be a little more assertive in questioning his parents divorce. I told him I heard his Dad does not live with him anymore. He nodded, and continued his “zoom, zoom” background noise while motoring his two inch Grand Torino with the yellow stripped wheels between the tile lines on the floor. I remembered as a child how the small details on the floor, or beneath an oak tree can be a world all it’s own. I did not pressure. but moved a bit away from him and played with a Ford Mustang racing it against a Chevy Impala. Of course my Mustang always won. By this bit of conscious ignoring I gained his interest. ” My Dad left because I was bad and my Mommy cries a lot.” We as humans with low self esteem often internalize loved one’s behavior as if we are the cause. This is so common and prevalent that it often carries into adulthood and is a foundation for many relationship issues.
1. Children blame themselves all too often for divorce and marital discord.
In the last few months I evaluated a fourteen-year-old boy who was status post one year family split up and six moths post finalized divorce. He was distant, flat affect, reluctant to talk, however would discuss his athletic ability on the football field. He was a high school quarterback and that was clearly a safe topic to discuss. He had his machismo stance about his athletic prowess, a good student and all appeared good. He was brought to see me due to frequent statement of contemplating suicide and wanting to leave this earth. When asked about his suicidal ideation, this five foot ten inch, dark haired, muscular boy began to slowly allow tears one by one to flow down each cheek which resulted in heavy sobbing, and an inability to catch his breath. * Note: I many times refuse to give one tissue to dry up their tears. The physiologic motion drying up tears, as well as the psychological action of rescue frequently stops the tears and hence stops the disclosure. We were able to discuss his suicidal thoughts, his want of desperation to have his parents together, and the stress of bouncing back and forth from home to home as well as the drastic home “rule” changes that father and mother both had. Imagine bouncing from each home and one must adapt to the smallest of rule changes. This is added stress that many, many overlook. His suicidal thoughts were normal. I felt very comfortable he was not going to act on these thoughts and we would target positive thoughts and how to problem solve.
2. Children do contemplate suicide, and many sad to say act on these thoughts.
In 1989 I had a private practice where I would see couples, individuals and do some group work. I saw a twelve-year-old girl who caught her father having sexual intercourse with another women in her home and in the child’s bedroom. She got home from school early, front door open, as she walked into her home and into her room to put her school backpack away her visual atrocity was waiting. She was threatened by her father to not tell her mother or he would physically hurt her. I got the case after the child’s mother found out a few months down the road. The child kept the secret and in turn began cutting her thighs and upper arms with razor blades. She clearly chose these locations so they would be hidden with most clothes. The divorce was the least amount stress, as she was traumatized by the affair, seeing her father naked, the threat of physical harm from a parent, and the stress of not knowing how to handle this situation. Her cutting behavior was her need, her want to “feel.” Feel anything to know she was alive. Cutters frequently dissociate and have been so traumatized they fly away to another respite in their minds just to cope. They deny, they forget, they will not want to share, and normal disclosure is more difficult than ever.
3. Children of divorce commonly hurt themselves with moderate to high risk taking behavior. Cutting, promiscuity, taking drugs and becoming involved in alcohol at an early age.
A ten-year-old girl present to my office with concerns voiced by her mother of falling grades, not participating in class, and refusing to go out on weekends. She has turned down numerous sleep overs and will not attend school functions which was a large part of her social life. She harbors herself in her room, watches television till the wee hours and struggles to get up for school. It should be noted. previous to the divorce she had a 3.8 GPA, and was active in dance, cheer leading, and school softball. In meeting her she was pleasant, engaging, gave good eye contact and was very convincing. She explained she was not depressed. Blamed her mother and father for putting too much pressure on her to to succeed and just decided she had enough. I was not buying this well put together explanation and after many sessions she finally showed emotions of sadness, tears and fear that should would never see her father again. The absence of sitting on the coach watching television, helping him in the garden, and his kisses goodnight were absent and she felt as if he might as well be dead. This loss for her is very similar to a parent dying. Parents MUST make a huge effort to be around more than ever after a divorce. We must understand the impact.
4. Children will display their symptoms in a variety of external ways. Decreasing grades, seclusive behavior, peers changing, decreased appetite, short responses, and agitation.
Imagine the consistency of dinner with both parents, the reading of a book at bedtime, the knowledge and feelings of security knowing both parents are in the home, the small warm fuzzies we get as children from mom and dad. When that is taken away, when that is ripped from our soul it has an enormous impact. Yes, there are times it is clearly in the BEST interest to go through with a divorce. This author is begging adults who have gone through a divorce to put your children first, spend time and recognize how their souls have been crushed. The only prosthetic for an injured soul is more love, more consistency and more time spent with your child. Quality time, not just watching television, or bragging about your own accomplishment but bragging about your child’s accomplishments and problem solve together. Teach your children that the divorce is a life crisis that does not have to effect the relationship with your child. As with any depression or crisis in a relationship it CAN be fixed by sacrifice of your own wants and spending time with the person you love. Spend time with your child, you parent your child ONCE and you cannot go back. You will blink someday, your child will call you wanting to bring that grandchild over, make the time and remember when you were too busy building your life up and you did not spend the time that was needed.
5. Children need, not just want time with parents. They may ask, but not all the time. Realize your child has different wants then you and they miss you damn it, they really do miss you and they just may not say for they may be too embarrassed to voice their needs. I wonder where they learned that behavior at ?