Helping Children Cope With Heartbreak

The Need to Advocate For Children of Divorce.

Introduction

With the recent publication of Mike Mastracci’s excellent book Stop Fighting Over the Kids; Resolving Day-to-Day Custody Conflict in Divorce Situations, I found myself focused on the overwhelming struggles that divorcing children must face. Children do not understand the changes that are occurring around them. They are afraid of what is going to happen to them and, almost invariably, they are consumed with worry about their parents’ well-being. Can they reasonably expect their parents, who are faced with their own personal distress, to be able to reassure them? Or is this the time for the attorneys to step in and to advocate objectively on their behalf?

Divorce attorneys have a lot on their plates. In addition to the many legal challenges they must successfully resolve, they are faced with the daunting task of skilfully working through their clients’ emotional roller coasters without becoming passengers on that ride themselves. They must find the balance needed to maintain their professional boundaries while simultaneously empathizing with their clients’ needs. In making decisions about what is in the best interests of their clients’ children, this may mean guiding the client in a direction that conflicts with his/her personal custody and parenting preferences.

I am writing this newsletter on behalf of the children of divorce. My intention is to offer some insights and guidance about the losses and anxieties that divorcing children face so that attorneys who are making determinations about their futures are better equipped to do so.

When Children Grieve

Children are affected by divorce as strongly as the divorcing parents are. Age can make a difference, helping or harming depending upon the family structure and the child’s emotional maturity level. For any child, however, a divorce between his or her parents is a deeply stressful event. Pain comes from several sources; a sense of vulnerability as the family fragments, grief over the loss of the intact family, grief over the loss of the non-custodial parent, intense anger in response to the family disruption , and strong feelings of powerlessness. Imagine all the emotions adult go through in divorce. Children go through every single one of them as well.

Children caught in a divorce are experiencing multiple losses. Any one of these losses is enough to break a child’s heart. Taken together, they are overwhelming. Among the losses for the child are:

…Loss of the expectation that the family would remain as a unit.

…Loss of familiarity and routines.

…Loss if safety.

…Loss of home or change to dual addresses.

…Loss of childhood and innocence.

…Loss of trust.

Children are taught to love, trust, and honor their parents. They learn conflict resolution from their parents. Imagine how disturbing and confusing it must be to children when their parents abandon their pledge to love, trust and honor each other and fail at the very conflict resolution techniques they have taught their children. How do parents teach their children about love and divorce simultaneously?

Fear of abandonment exists in all children. These normal fears of abandonment and loss are markedly intensified by parental divorce. The primary conflict children see in divorce boils down to the fear of losing both of their parents. They fear that parental love won’t be there when they need it and that their parents may even leave or abandon them.

Effects Of Divorce On Clients’ Ability To Parent

The role of parent should not stop after divorce. Yes, the newly divorced parents may still be grieving, but they must not ignore the children’s grief. Not only have their entire lives been turned upside down, but so too have their children’s.

The ability of some divorcing parents to separate their needs from their children’s and effectively parent may be so diminished that they are capable of completely overlooking their children’s grief. While compromised parenting is an expected short-term consequence, there is serious potential for these changes in parenting style to become chronic if the parents do not focus on the relationship with their child.

There are other factors that make it easy for parents to disregard their children’s grief. Children often mask their grief with other emotions – most notably anger. Depending on their ages, and personalities, some children may not even be aware of the loss while others may be devastated by it. Some children deny their grief due to embarrassment, their own anger or a desire to hurt (or protect) their parents.

In her article, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal” (The Psychiatric Times: Medicine and Behaviour. 8: 8-11, 1989), Judith Wallerstein notes that in the wake of divorce, most custodial parents exhibit varying degrees of disorganization, anger, decreased expectations for appropriate social behaviour of their children, and a reduction of the ability of parents to separate the child’s needs and actions from those of the adult. This kind of parental behaviour can so overburden children that they may find themselves feeling responsible for their parents’ psychological well-being.

Tips For Attorneys To Assist Their Clients Separating Their Grief From Their Childrens

A good proportion of divorcing parents will be in a highly emotional state as they attempt to work with their attorneys in creating parenting arrangements and strategies. The parents’ focus is likely on themselves and not on the children. They will need to be reminded that the process is about the children’s welfare and not about theirs. In considering the needs of children, attorneys must separate their clients’ complicated emotional factors from the legal ones. Failure to do so can bias their ability to make objective determinations about the children’s welfare.

The following are pragmatic suggestions for helping clients better understand and meet the needs of their children during and after the divorce:

  1. The “best interests of the children” does not mean the immediate gratification of the client and his/her need for me-me-me. Over and over again, the focus should be pro-child and centered on building a safety net for the children.
  2. Children must be kept out of the middle – not just during the divorce proceedings but every day. No matter how old the child, how challenging the circumstance, or how much the soon-to-be former spouse is despised.
  3. Parents must learn to put aside their stresses, to compartmentalize their adult conflicts and to remain present and available to the children.
  4. Raising a healthy child is a team sport that requires active contribution and collaboration from both parents. Success or failure depends largely on the cooperation, communication and coordination of mother and father.
  5. Some of the emotional hurdles that clients have to overcome include; unresolved grief over the failed marriage, resentment and competitiveness, and territoriality over the children.
  6. Children are not unaware of their surroundings. They easily pick up on their parents’ expressions and actions, often more so than their words. It is natural for parents to not want their children to feel bad. However, children feeling badly is not a bad thing. Dismissing children’s feelings is dangerous.
  7. Parents need to reassure their children early on and often that the divorce is not their fault.
  8. Arguing with one’s former spouse or criticizing them in front of the children is never acceptable.
  9. Children should never be forced to take sides in any dispute between their parents.
  10. Let children be children. It is easy, but wrong, to make adolescent or adult children confidants in dealing with parents’ recovery and fears. Even if children seem capable of handling these concerns, they rarely are.

Conclusion

In a perfect world, there would be no divorce. However, in the real world there is divorce. The collateral damage to children of divorce can be monumental. The consequences of divorce impact almost all aspects of a child’s life, including the parent-child relationship, emotions and behavior, psychological development, and coping skills. Therefore, there is a significant need for divorce attorneys to be cognizant of the broad spectrum of possible fall-out from a divorce so that they can provide sufficient representation for the children.