Little People, Big Anxieties Helping Children Through Divorce

Divorce can be consuming for those suffering through its emotional rollercoaster of an uncertain future. It’s not uncommon for the most civilized of people to behave badly during this process as they battle with grief and anger. While divorce may make adults weak in the knees, it is devastating to children. Children experience a different set of concerns that may seem trivial to adults battling over the division of pensions and home equity but that are nonetheless equally devastating. With whom will they spend their birthdays? What happens when they miss one parent or the other? How will their little lives change after their parents split?

There are numerous resources available to families to help children through the divorce. While some parents are able to navigate the courts and their divorce with dignity and respect for each other, other parents need assistance. The parent’s interactions have a direct impact on the emotional health of their child.

With high conflict parents, parenting issues may arise with greater frequency that continue to bring parents back to court for resolution. Children are often aware of this conflict causing greater anxiety on the children. An alternate strategy to manage such disputes as they arise is through the use of a Parenting Coordinator. Parenting Coordination is a problem-solving service offered to parents raising children between homes who seek professional assistance in working together to keep their children free from the parents’ conflicts. It is a child-centered dispute resolution service that assists parents in developing and implementing workable parenting plans when they are unable to do so on their own. When parents decrease their conflict, it reduces the conflict on their child. The costs associated with the Parenting Coordinator are typically divided equally unless there is a prior agreement to do otherwise. The matter of distribution of costs should be determined by the parents, lawyers or Courts, prior to referral.

Art therapy provides an alternative way for children to process ideas, thoughts, and feelings in a way that does not rely on verbal communication. Therapy of this nature can be less confrontational, judgmental, and less intimidating than talk therapy. Sarah Kuchta, Director of Creative Healing Services located in Milford, Connecticut stated, “When families are going through divorce, there is a great deal of discussion that takes place, which can be very overwhelming- especially for children. Unfortunately, kids are generally not comfortable talking about the confusing things going on with their parents. Providing kids with a nonverbal means with which to process what is happening with their parents can be very beneficial. Art therapy is a safe, familiar, and fun activity which can feel less intimidating than talking. From a neurological standpoint, art therapy can help children understand divorce because feelings and imagery are both processed on the right side of the brain, whereas talking and logical thought is on the left side. Therefore, when kids are very upset, they mainly are using the right side of their brains to deal with the world, which in turn makes talking about things difficult. Art therapy can more easily and comfortably access children's feelings in a way that makes sense to them in their distressed state”.

In high-conflict divorces, there is sometimes the possibility that the children could become distant from one or both parents. Reunification therapy is designed to reintroduce a parent back into a child’s life in a safe, controlled, and therapeutic manner. The process of reunification therapy can be a very long one, but it is intended to ensure a safe environment for the children and parents involved to create a new and secure bond with one another under the close supervision of a clinician. The most important idea of reunification therapy is the long-term goal of reconnecting the parent and child for a long-lasting bond. Therapeutic visitation is also sometimes very helpful. This type of visitation is supervised by a mental health clinician. A Therapeutic Supervisor will facilitate the visit and may become more interactive as needed. Sometimes parent coaching is helpful; other times, simple observation and documentation is all that is necessary. The level of the therapist's interaction will depend on the needs as identified by the parties involved.

Many schools also have programs for children of divorced families. Banana Splits Resource Center is a school-based children's group program for students who have experienced divorce. Established in 1978 by social worker Liz McGonagle, the group is intended to normalize a divorced family structure in a supportive environment. According to the Banana Splits website, the purpose of this organization is to provide a safe place to express feelings, to normalize feelings through sharing, to train children in problem solving and coping skills, to increase self-esteem through mutual help, to support parents and school staff in working with children of divorce, and to increase communication among children, parents, and the school. This program, often run by school counselors, psychologists, nurses, or teachers, is an alternative to private counseling that may obstruct a child’s crowded schedule or a parent’s inflexible work schedule. Not every school district offers a program of this nature but it appears this or a similar program is offered at many schools with large enrollment.

There are also children’s books that specifically discuss divorce. I was disappointed to discover that most books expound on the fear and anxiety that children feel. Children do not know what the word divorce means but they do know how it makes the feel. In 2014 I wrote a children’s book to fill the void I found in this area. Percy’s Imperfectly Perfect Family (Archway Publishing) helps children understand what the word “divorce” means. Clients often inquire how to tell their children about the divorce. This book is meant to start a conversation with children so they can openly talk about their anxieties with their parents. Percy is a penguin on paper but he is every child whose parents tell them they are divorcing. Percy’s world is turned upside down when he learns his parents are no longer going to live together and thus a conversation can begin.

Regardless of how it transpires, starting a conversation with your children about their fears and anxieties and keeping the lines of communication open are essential to helping your child adjust to their newly defined family.

Attorney Renée C. Bauer is the founder and principal of the Bauer Law Group that specializes in matrimonial law in Hamden, CT. Attorney Bauer is being honored as the 2015 Connecticut Law Tribune’s Litigator of the Year- Solo Practitioner. She is the author of Divorce in Connecticut (Addicus Books) and the children’s book, Percy’s Imperfectly Perfect Family (Archway Publishing).

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