By: Dr. Jeremy Fink, LCSW, Psy.D. | February, 18th, 2017
The divorce is not yet finalized. One of you is living in the house and the other is renting something large enough for the children. What you’ve been through during the past few months, past few years, has been devastating. It’s impossible not to be preoccupied, but also there is some relief in the finality of your decision. You’re no longer frightened and confused by the threat of losing the security of your relationship, you’ve developed acceptance. The hurt and overwhelmed has certainly dissipated and you’re beginning to move on; however you worry,
"how are the children handling all of this?"
With so little left in your emotional reserves, it is common to turn to your children for comfort or direction during this time.
Search your feelings. Do you feel guilt and worry about what is happening to your children? Certainly it’s only natural that you would worry about the effect this has on them, that you feel remorse about the breakup of the family. But, too much guilt, too much worry, and your children will absorb it like a sponge, often attempting in some way to care for you or the other parent in response. Even if you don’t ask them for it.
“It (divorce) happened so long ago, like when I was a baby...I don’t even remember it.”
This is a statement made by many children that I work with, and some adults. Children have a remarkable ability to forget, to remember selectively, to use their imaginations to change the narrative of their stories, and to seemingly move on with their lives. The caveat to this is that children remember absolutely everything. They don’t have very reliable recall of these memories, they’re not conscious. But, every minor trauma, every emotional blow is pressed into their implicit memory like the grooves in a vinyl record. After all, it is when we are very young that we learn how the world works, and it is from this foundation that we build the rest of our knowledge upon.
What should you do?
- Talk to your children using good judgment about what to share.
- Be truthful, but censor appropriately and don’t overshare.
- Listen to your child’s questions, try to put yourself in their shoes, and provide straightforward answers that they will understand.
- Reassure them that the divorce is not their fault and that you love them.
What else can you do?
Divorce is a trauma, a trauma for the adult couple (and likely a reliving of the past trauma of their own dysfunctional parents) and a trauma for the children. Vulnerability to mental illness can originate in the traumatic loss of one or both parents through divorce. This trauma threatens your children’s sense of security. You will generally see it in their behavior, sometimes they will act out or become withdrawn and reticent. Attachment research shows that the most impactful way to help your child with their sense of security is for you, as parent, to attend an attachment based psychotherapy yourself. Were you to do nothing else but attend regular psychotherapy, your children will reap the benefits.
“But I’m very good with emotions. I talk to my children about them all the time.”
This is a statement I have heard by many parents that I work with. However, the experience in psychotherapy, especially a psychotherapy that focuses on attachment bonds will be invaluable to you as parent, helping you to be assured and clear about your parenting skills no matter your level of emotional intelligence. A common mistake made by parents is to try to undo the negative experience for their child. Of course you would want to. However, too often the message you are inadvertently communicating to your child is that you, as parent, can not tolerate certain negative feelings and experiences (so that you must dismiss them) and in response your children become fearful, anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed implicitly feeling the need to take care of you. The irony is that this is the last thing you want.
Attending regular psychotherapy will help to keep you and your family steady during times of upheaval. Believing that you can do it alone may be another way of dismissing the problem, the effects of which will show up in your children’s behavior.
Dr. Jeremy Fink provides psychotherapy for couples, individual adults, children, and adolescents in Malibu, CA.