The Number One Destructive Parental Behavior Post-Divorce, Part I
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's behavior. It is very helpful for the parents to know their children's experiences, especially after a divorce. This article addresses what the child thinks about the divorce. There are reasons parents separate, and after the separation, these reasons crystallize; that is, they come to the surface much more easily, if they had not already. Often these are so strong that they interfere with the parent's ability to deal with the child's feelings.
The single biggest thing that makes children's behaviors worse is parental hostility and conflict. (Read this last sentence about three times. I cannot underscore it enough....) The sooner parents accept and peacefully process the separation; the sooner the children will start to adjust. Put negatively, the longer parents fight or resist separation and/or the changes brought about by divorce, the longer their children suffer. The same can be said for the parent's continued suffering by not accepting each other and continuing the verbal warfare.
In session, one parent recently told me his child did not see or experience any negativity at his house directed to the "ex." Wrong! This parent did not hear what the child said when he was out of the room, nor did this parent appreciate any of the non-verbal indicators I saw in the child when he was in the room. Further, when asked what she thought about this situation in her parent's house, the child lied to the parent, even after telling me the truth.
Children understand much more about parent's real feelings than parents know. Parents might consider going to a counselor themselves to process their inter-relationship hostility "out of earshot" of the child. It may help a lot, not just to vent, but to learn new communication skills, practiced on a neutral adult. Or, try taking the child to a counselor for the same reasons. The counselor might be designated as the child's advocate, or the counselor's office might be designated "the safe place," separate from parental influence.
For example, during sessions, counselors probably will teach parents to allow the child to feel anything he or she wants, because chances are good there will be a variety of strong, negative feelings, and all of them are probably appropriate, even though at times they might manifest in extreme behaviors. To do this effectively for both the parent and child, the parent must be comfortable with his or her own feelings. If you are not comfortable with this level of functioning, do not expect your child to be, either. Sooner or later, the parent will have to be his or her own best psychologist and/or child psychologist, and to learn to emotionally and verbally communicate well.
A very big area of concern for children is how well their self-esteems fare in an environment of divorce. (This is so crucial that I wrote a separate ebook on just this subject. It is entitled, Child Visitation and the Formation of Self-Esteem. This ebook is FREE on this website.) Protecting a child’s self-esteem is very important. In this area, a child psychologist may be crucial.
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