Parents never separate or divorce because things are going well. Children will likely have strong feelings about their parents staying together or separating. When parents keep their arguments away from the children, the children may not understand why their parents are separating. If there has been a lot of discord, the children may be “glad,” hoping that their lives will be less tumultuous. Either way, children may respond by being rude, angry, complaining they feel sick, exhibiting regressive behaviors, or experiencing separation anxiety. None of this is surprising to a therapist.
When children come into my office with issues related to parental separation/divorce, my primary objective is to provide them with a safe place, where they can talk about their thoughts and feelings. They can say they are upset with one or both parents and know I will not share that with their parents. They can tell me how much they miss their mom when they are with their dad or miss their dad when they are with their mom. They can tell me they don’t feel settled in either place because they must go back and forth. How they want to be at one house over the other because it is closer to friends or school. How they don’t like their parent’s new partner, or how uncomfortable they feel around the other person’s children. They can share frustrations that one or both parents do not have the same financial security they had prior to the separation/divorce. They may even share how they may feel pushed out and unloved.
As a therapist I will help them cope with a variety of strategies. For example, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) would help them become aware of irrational or negative thinking. We could take a thought, like “They don’t love me,” and look for evidence that “proves” that belief. If their thought is irrational, we will look for (and likely find) evidence that illustrates its inaccuracy. In this example, where the child thinks they are unloved, we will find many examples of how the parent demonstrates their love to the child. From there, we can work on shifting the thoughts and with that, their feelings change and behavior typically improves. We can work on effective communication so the child can verbally share their thoughts and feelings rather than having a tantrum or shutting down. Additionally, it is important to include parents and talk about ways they can reduce stress for the children. Perhaps posting a calendar that shows which days they are with which parent.
If you have separated/divorced and your child(ren) are not coping well, adding therapeutic support can be invaluable. Keep in mind, it may be better for your child(ren) for you to seek support for them BEFORE you’ve made it official. If you are in the early stages of making a change, a therapist can help prepare them and cope with the change as it occurs.