You're Getting Divorced. Do Your Children Need Therapy?
For many people, one of the most painful and anxiety-producing aspects of their decision to divorce is concern about the impact on their children. Will the children feel abandoned? Betrayed? Angry? Grief-stricken? Will they feel stigmatized in their community? Will they be tortured by a life disrupted by frequent transitions between houses? Will their capacity to form loving relationships in the future be compromised? While these are natural questions, the research is clear: your divorce will always be a sad memory for your children and a pivotal event in their lives, but it need not be a bad developmental turning point. If you can protect your children from conflict between you and your ex, and if the two of you can mutually support your children in having a full, rich relationship with both of you, your kids can do fine.
Still, divorce inevitably brings with it a massive change in the status quo-- disruptions to known routines, losses, and a plethora of attendant feelings-- including sadness, anger, confusion, grief, and (sometimes) relief. In many ways, life as your family has known it is gone-- and it takes time for everyone to settle into a “new normal.” You’ll inevitably notice that, like you, your children are on an emotional roller coaster. Some acting out, regressive behaviors and enhanced emotional sensitivity are to be expected in the wake of their parents’ separation. So how do you know when your child’s difficulties are of the ordinary sort (and likely to settle down on their own) and when your child could benefit from psychotherapy? Here are some clues that it’s time to get a consultation:
- Problems with eating or sleeping (including nightmares that don’t go away)
- Excessive difficulties with separation
- A consistently sad or melancholy mood
- Physical complaints with no distinguishable cause (such as headaches or stomach aches) that don’t go away with reassurance
- Disinterest in friends or trouble getting along with peers
- Bullying/ being bullied
- Deteriorating school performance
- Difficulty concentrating
- The new appearance of agitation or fidgetiness
- Extreme or unrealistic fears/phobias
- Excessive or public masturbation
- Accident proneness
- Decrease in self-esteem
- Fatigue or apathy
- Excessive weight loss or weight gain
- Aggressive behaviors toward self or others (such as biting, hitting, or scratching)
- Cruel behaviors (such as torturing animals)
- Risky or acting out behaviors (such as lighting fires)
- Constant rudeness and “talking back”
- Defiance of authority (such as disregard for schools rules, skipping school, or ignoring curfew)
- Heavy drinking
- Drug use
- Excessive lying
- The appearance of obsessive or compulsive rituals (such as hand-washing or pulling out hair)
- Preoccupation with death
- The wish to die (IMPORTANT NOTE: IF YOUR CHILD EXPRESSES A FEELING THAT LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING GET HELP RIGHT AWAY-- DO NOT TAKE IT UPON YOURSELF TO DETERMINE IF THIS IS A “REAL” OR “SERIOUS” PROBLEM)
Finally, here are some tips for helping to prepare your child to see a therapist for the first time, as well as some ways you can support your child in having a successful therapeutic experience.
PREPARING YOUR CHILD FOR THERAPY: THE 5 KEY ELEMENTS:
1) Wait for a calm moment. Don’t raise the issue of therapy when either of you is angry or upset, especially following an argument or crisis (such as a child running away). If she’s riled up, your daughter won’t be able to take in what you’re saying. And if you’re angry, she’s likely to think of therapy as a punishment.
2) Identify the problem. Tell your child what you see that has you worried for him. You might say, “Honey, I know you’ve been getting into a lot of fights at school.” Or: Daddy and I have noticed that you’ve been having a lot of nightmares lately.
3) Offer compassion. Tell your child you know he’s been unhappy and you want to help. For example, say “It must be really hard to have the other kids angry at you.” Or: “Nightmares can be really scary. No one likes to be scared.”
4) Explain therapy. Once you’ve identified the problem and offered compassion, tell your child you’ve been to see someone who can help. You might say something like: “Sometimes when children like you feel scared a lot of the time, it helps to go to a person whose job it is to help kids understand their feelings and worries by talking and playing about them. Daddy and I went to meet a person like that last week. Her name is Dr. Kelly and she’s really nice. She’s a kind of doctor for feelings, not for your body. We think if you met with her a few times, it might help you to understand why you’ve been having those nightmares. Then you won’t have to feel scared anymore.”
5) Don’t get discouraged. No matter how gentle you are, your child may become angry or defensive. He may say, “There’s nothing wrong with me,” or “I don’t get nightmares anymore.” Remain calm and stay the course. Just say, “Ok, well if you and Dr. Kelly decide that you’re not scared anymore, Daddy and I will be very happy. But we love you, and for now this is what we think is best.”
TIPS FOR HELPING YOUR CHILD SUCCEED IN THERAPY:
1) Don’t “grill” your child after sessions. It’s a tall order, but try to resist the urge to ask your child for reports on his therapy. Questions like “What did you and Dr. Kelly talk about today?” are likely to meet with either silence or an answer designed to please you. It’s much better to let your child’s therapy be a private place, and to use your meetings with the therapist to get the information you need.
2) Remind your child that she has therapy as a resource, but don’t harp on it. When issues or difficulties come up for your child, there’s nothing wrong with gently suggesting that she talk about them in therapy. For example, if your daughter gets in a fight at school, you could say “You know, honey, if you feel like talking with Dr. Kelly about what happened, she might be able to help you with the problems you’re having on the playground.” But try not to bring therapy up too often, or your child will feel you’re intruding. If there’s something you want your child’s therapist to know, the best bet may be to call her yourself. It’s best to inform your child beforehand, though, so he won’t feel the adults are conspiring.
3) Don’t use therapy as a threat or form of discipline. A comment like “If you don’t start cooperating I’m going to tell Dr. Kelly” is counterproductive. A better one would be: “Lately it’s been really hard for you to cooperate with me and Mommy. I think it would be a good idea for us to talk to Dr. Kelly about ways we can all get along better.”
Ms. Scharff is a child, adult, and family psychotherapist, divorce consultant, mediator, and Collaborative Practitioner/trainer. She is the President of the DC Academy of Collaborative Professionals, a founder and Principal of the Collaborative Practice Center of Greater Washington, and the author of two books: “Therapy Demystified: An Insider’s Guide to Getting the Right Help,” and “Navigating Emotional Currents in Collaborative Divorce: A Guide to Enlightened Team Practice.”