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D-I-V-O-R-C-E — a family affair

Posted: July 25, 2008 1:40 a.m.
Updated: September 25, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Years ago country western signer Tammy Wynette belted out the words to the song “D-I-
V-O-R-C-E” and tugged at American heartstrings.   
Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
Like T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tears the heart right out of me
Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today
Me and little J-O-E will be goin’ away
I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

—By Putman, C. Braddock

At the time the song was written and recorded, it took the nation by storm because the act of divorce was a societal secret and an embarrassment. It was then — and often is now — the death of the family unit. And there are no ifs, ands, and buts about it, divorce is the hardest on children.

It is hard to imagine a more difficult transition for a child than to be a party to his or her parents’ divorce. I have watched this closely the last few months because some very good friends of ours, have been separated and preparing for divorce. Despite attempts at reconciliation through family counseling, the children have suffered.

As a high-risk teen counselor, the divorce wars are carried into my counseling chambers on a weekly basis and the ACTION 1-800-FOR-TEENS crisis line is frequently called when parents or children are having a hard time with the D-I-V-O-R-C-E situation. Callers are seeking answers to how to move through the grief and the rules of engagement, which were established by hurting husbands and wives going through the divorce.

Which are often mean-spirited and down right nasty! While these actions are often designed to get back at the adults divorcing, children are often swept into the muck, mire, and anger of a marriage gone bad. 
There have been thousands of studies focusing on the effects of divorce on children. Not surprising are the findings common among all of the studies. Some fathers and mothers see divorce as “their” issue. “We just can’t get along anymore” or “She or he has been unfaithful.” In fact, the demise of the marital relationship has far-reaching ramifications for children, extended families, friends, and others.

Q: What are children thinking and feeling when moms and dads are divorcing?

A: Children fear change. Children in a divorcing family know that nothing will ever be the same again. Their previously secure world is rapidly changing. It’s not that just mom or dad won’t be around any more, they may loose contact with extended family on one side or the other. Bedtime, mealtime and after school routines may change as well.

n Imagine feeling abandoned. The concept of being alone in the world is very frightening for a child. When moms and dads are at odds and are separated or considering separation, children have a real fear that if they lose one parent, they may lose the other.    

n Loss of security and attachment. Children are born with a natural attachment to their parents. When that attachment is disrupted children also fear losing other secure relationships — siblings, pets, friends, neighbors. Children are attached to their surroundings and moves under the best of conditions for children are often devastating. Imagine the loss they feel when they have to leave their home and move to another when it is a forced move, 4especially one they haven’t been consulted about.  

n Learning to cope with parental tension. Tensions between divorcing husbands and wives typically increases during and shortly after the divorce. In some cases that tension may be evident for years. Parents often create an unwanted tension by trying to turn their children against the spouse. Unknowingly parents create an impossible situation for that child.  

Q: When the divorce happens, what do children do?

A: The desire to bring parents back together. There are danger signals when children are not handling their parents’ divorce well. Often children have the mistaken notion that the breakup of the family is somehow their fault. These children will act out in a negative way or try to be perfect in hopes that they are being “so good” that their parents won’t want to divorce. No matter how often you tell children the divorce is not their fault, they believe it is and will for years to come, well into their adult years.     
n Defiance. Are your children more angry and uncooperative than usual? Some will think this is just normal behavior, the part that comes with growing up. However, it’s important to watch for uncharacteristic aggression in your children. Are they more angry and uncooperative than usual? Should there be consequences for behavior or a deeper discussion about what is really going with them. What are they thinking and feeling? What kind of help and coping skills do they need to develop?

n Depression and withdrawal. Many children in a family under stress will withdraw or show signs of depression. Initially withdrawal or depression is a reaction to the divorce situation, however long-term withdrawal or depression is serious and children need treatment.

Q: How do parents mitigate the impact of divorce?

A: First, they need to understand that as parents they can’t make the effects of divorce go away. However, they can and should do everything they can to make the situation more tolerable and secure for a child. 

Both parents must be involved. Reassurance must come from both parents. It does very little good for one parent to work on reassurance alone. The perception is “he or she” has custody of the children so it’s there job to provide reassurance. Often divorcing parents use children as the battleground and are willing to take no responsibility in the reassurance process.

Q: What should both parents make sure the children understand?
   They need to know that both mom and dad will:
n Still be their parents
n Will act like parents
n Will discipline them when needed
n Will protect them from harm
n Will follow consistent rules
n Will not lean on the child for support but will provide support for the child, and
n Will both love the child and will remain in the child’s life.

Divorcing parents must respect one another. Research suggests that children do best when their divorcing parents treat each other respectfully. No matter how angry or how wronged you feel in the divorce process, parents, should never communicate this anger to their children. Venting to friends and counselors is acceptable, but never to your children. 

Routines are important. Children feel more secure when there is a routine. Stick with bedtimes, dinner times, play times, and chore times, no matter in whose home the children are in. A consistent hug time and talk time with your children is important as well. Make it a sacred time.

Get help when help is needed. Divorce is devastating and it takes its toll on the entire household. If you sense that your child needs professional help or therapy, don’t hesitate to get started. Sometimes there will be issues that a parent is just not able to deal with effectively.

People fall in and out of love all of the time and it is unhealthy to be in a relationship where tough issues can’t be resolved with the help marriage counseling. Children are often the innocent bystanders in a divorce situation. And no matter how justified the reason for the divorce, parents need to understand their responsibility is to minimize the impact on them and make this major change in their lives as easy as is humanly possible.

Cary Quashen is a high-risk teen counselor, a certified addiction specialist and the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group Programs and ACTION Family Counseling Centers. Quashen can be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group Meeting meets at Saugus High School, Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. in the Q building, 21900 Centurion Way.


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