Those of us who practice family law witness a lot of heartache. While the actual study of the law is dry and tedious, the practice of dealing with disintegrating family units is often harrowing. Handling lengthy phone calls and face-to-face sessions with distraught clients is a major part of what we do. There are concerns about custody and support orders as well as the division of possessions. In many case, the process can become bogged down by ego and resentments.
Sadly, the emotional damage from these experiences is plainly evident in the faces of our clients’ children. Although most of us family lawyers aren’t formally trained as psychologists (a few exceptionally ambitious outliers aside), it’s inevitable that many of us in the practice will at one time or another need to consider the mental health of the people we represent.
Mental health issues continue to resonate, particularly with children, long after a judge’s order has been made final and the dust settles. And while there is no easy fix when it comes to getting back on track after a family’s separation, there are suggestions families can consider, and hope that the children will grow to have a happy healthy future.
If you or a loved one has a child who is struggling with a divorce, consider a few of the below topics.
If you have a child who’s acting out, there’s a reason
A child who rebels or acts out in the wake of a divorce can be challenging for several reasons. Not the least of these, the parent is often exhausted and shell shocked from the divorce process as well. This type of stressful family dynamic can create a positive feedback loop in which the frustrated parent reacts to the child’s frustration, which leads to more acting out.
While it might be necessary to seek the assistance of a mental health professional to help interrupt this cycle, it’s important to remember that the child is reacting to a life- altering experience.
A December 2011 article published in Psychology Today notes that the age of the child at the time of a divorce can often impact behavior.
For instance, a young child who is more dependent on his or her parents for emotional and physical support might be dealing with a loss of trust in the parents who now appear to be acting in such an undependable way. Questions arise in the child’s mind about what the future holds—the result of sudden uncertainty. This can lead to tantrums, whining, clinging, and other behaviors, which “compel parental attention.”
Older children, or adolescents might react more aggressively. The Psychology Today article states,
“Where the [younger] child may have tried to get parents back, the adolescent may try to get back at parents.”
Aggressive outbursts represent an effort by the adolescent to take back control of his or her life.
Whatever difficulty your child is having after a divorce, it’s important to remember that, like you, they’ve been through a difficult experience. However, they don’t have the same coping mechanisms as an adult. Even if it takes the help of a professional, the goal should be to reestablish a routine with your kids, and give them plenty of reassurance.
Every child will react differently to a divorce situation
This may seem like a no brainer. But there’s something important to consider —particularly if you have one child who seems to be struggling more than other family members — everybody reacts to stressful situations differently.
It’s not uncommon for one child to act out and struggle with school and other social situations, while another sibling buckles down and excels academically. It’s important to remember that the studious child isn’t necessarily struggling with the divorce any less than the child who is acting out.
Unresolved emotional trauma can cause problems later in life, leading to relationship difficulties, anxiety issues and even substance abuse.
Don’t let a difficult child’s problems distract from your own
The overriding message here is that no one in the family unit is an island unto themselves. You may have a child (or children) struggling with a divorce situation, you may be occupied with and worried about them, but this doesn’t mean that you should avoid taking care of yourself. In fact, just the opposite is true.
A helpful analogy might be the example of an airplane safety demonstration, in which adult passengers are instructed in the event of an emergency to affix their own oxygen mask before helping a child.
In other words, if you as a parent are overwhelmed with stress and are having angry outbursts, you won’t be as effective in getting your family back on track. Ask yourself if counseling might be in order for you. Or if perhaps you need to take a moment to decompress.
While a troubled child will draw a lot of attention in a post-divorce situation, if it becomes necessary to seek mental health counseling, it might be wise to seek counseling for the whole family.
While this may present a challenge, particularly when the family struggles to make ends meet, effective treatment in times of stress will pay dividends down the road in terms of improved self esteem, confidence and productivity.
In many cases counseling is covered by health plans through a parent’s place of employment. Some counselors will also take a family’s ability to pay under consideration and adjust fees accordingly. Don’t be afraid to be up front about your financial situation.
Don’t forget to let your children know that you love them.
No doubt, this sounds like another no brainer. But as mentioned earlier, a divorce can shake a child’s view of the world significantly leading to trust and self-confidence issues. It’s important that you provide reassurance to your children both verbally and in deed.
In many cases, the recovery process can be a long road to travel. But with effort, and time, families can heal.