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Does My Child Need Therapy?

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You are getting a divorce and suddenly your child is withdrawn, hostile, sucking his thumb, bed-wetting and exhibiting worrisome changes of behavior.

Bobby, who used to be so outgoing, goes off into a corner when there is company. The teacher reports that Janey refuses to share her toys in nursery school. You find your your child crying at the least provocation -- throwing tantrums, developing nervous habits such as nail biting or hair twisting, eating compulsively or rejecting food. Of course, these changes in personality can be both distressing and alarming. But before running off to the therapist, familiarize yourself with some facts about the predictable reactions kids have to divorce and family disruption.

Like you, your child may have a sea of emotions while adjusting to all the changes: sadness, depression, anxiety, confusion, fear, guilt and anger. Expect a certain amount of grieving even if your child seems relieved that the fighting is over and the parents have parted ways. Bereavement counselors tell us that children cannot sustain long periods of grief and that their grief patterns are different than adults'. Children's grief capacity is limited and because of this, their grief resurfaces at irregular intervals. There are bound to be flashbacks on a trip to the park where Daddy once cheered your son's winning baseball team, or a family gathering where Mommy's absence is all the more visible because the other cousins have both parents sitting at the table. If it's tough for adults to make these connections or understand why they feel the way they do, imagine how difficult it must be for your child who is personally experiencing these flip-flops in mood and behavior.

Adults and children react differenty to loss. Adults experience shock, disappointment and anger. Children, on the other hand, are more likely to experience feelings of abandonment. Research psychologists E.M. Hetherington and J. Kelly interviewed more than a hundred children of divorced families in their 1980 longitudinal study and learned that children who find out their parents are separating ask such questions as: Who will take care of me? Where will I live, go to school? Will the other parent leave, too?

What to Expect

There are certain reactions that are age appropriate and have to do with your child's developmental stage. Here is a brief list you can use as a guideline for evaluating behaviors you notice in your child. This, of course, is only a partial list, and since children move at different rates in their development, the ages in each category are approximate. The list is based on information from Claudia M. Fetterman's "Participant's Guide Putting Children First - Skills for Parents in Transition" (1999) available from the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies.

  • At birth to 18 months, children may be nervous, fretful, and exhibit some delays in development. They need cuddle time, consistent routines and a feeling of security. Warning signs are failure to gain weight, diminished growth, or unresponsiveness.
  • Toddlers (18 months to three years) may appear moody, withdrawn, fearful and become even more attention-seeking. They may exhibit unusual changes in sleeping and eating patterns. Toddlers need verbal and physical assurance, routines and consistency. Obvious signs of regression are bed-wetting and tantrums.
  • Preschool (three to five years) children do not understand the concept of divorce and may feel responsible for the situation. They may express fears unrelated to the divorce and will not want to separate from parents, fearing that one or both will not return. Again, they need reassurance the parent will return. You can read age-appropriate books to them about divorce and help them verbalize their feelings.
  • Elementary school-age children (five to eleven years) will feel torn between parents, may take sides, and engage in magical thinking believing they can control the outcome and bring their parents back together if they behave a certain way. At this age, children will experience feelings of loss, anger, guilt, rejection and sadness. They may have difficulty sharing possessions and try to control situations. Adults should allow the children to expression their feelings, not offer false hopes, set structure and routines, avoid power struggles and encourage the child's relationship with the other parent.
  • In middle and junior high school (eleven to fourteen years) children turn to peers for support. They worry how their own life will be affected, may become protective of a parent and play the role of the absentee parent. You may observe a child engage in negative acting-out behaviors, be critical of their parents' dating/social/sexual behavior. At this age, children need to express their feelings appropriately. You should encourage outlets such as exercise and sports. Children should have some input into visitation plans, and be given permission to act like a child.
  • Older children of high school age will be concerned about money, resent the fact that their lives have been disrupted, may be afraid of intimacy and be embarrassed by their parents' behavior. They can act beyond their age level and have the ability to understand and adapt with structure and guidance. Not all high school age children, while articulate, are able to reason like adults. Parents need to continue to maintain parental control, give permission for children to love both parents, and develop an adult support system so the child can be free to be his/her age.

The decision to seek professional help is yours. Often others, such as a grandparent, teacher or friend, may be more aware of these changes in your child than you are. Understandably, you are focused on trying to reassemble your life. Begin by asking for specific instances when your child acted out. Rather than wallow in guilt that you missed the signs, find comfort knowing that a change in behavior is, more than likely, temporary.

Obviously, if the change is truly dramatic, it's time to seek professional help. It's more than likely that your child will need short-term problem-centered counseling. Teachers, school guidance counselors and social workers who observe your children or grandchildren will be able to advise you and recommend resources in the community. Many public schools have workshops for children as young as kindergarteners about coping with their parents' divorces.

You know your child. Let your sense of the situation be your guide. Try not to overreact. Do not wallow in guilt that you missed the signs. And be patient with your child. Should you decide to send your child for therapy, use the resources in your community: social service agencies, your child's guidance counselor, referrals from Human Resources or Employee Assistance departments at work, counseling centers in local colleges and community centers, pediatricians, churches or synagogues, professional societies of psychologists, clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists. Check the Internet for community hotline listings in your area for professional counseling services. In my book, "Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect - What to Do" (Impact Publishers), I list resources to help you understand the importance extended family in helping you and your children heal at critical stage of your divorce.

Finally, accept the fact that your child has to blow off steam or express his or her feelings in ways that you may find difficult while you try to reassemble your own life. Granted, it's not always easy to live with a child's turbulence that, hopefully, will dissipate in time. Keep in mind that blowing off steam is a way to test you while your child affirms you are an ally.

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