Fear of Doctors or Dentists

Some babies, kids and teens have fears of medical professionals. This is highly inconvenient because all people need to see doctors and dentists at least occasionally. Moreover, some people require acute medical or dental attention – being terrified of the helping professional only adds stress to the already intense stress of injury or illness.

If your child has a fear of doctors or dentists, consider the following tips:

Babies are Smarter Than They Look
A baby often figures out rather quickly that the doctor gives – ouch – needles. If your baby develops “attitude” about doctor’s visits, it means that he or she is smart. Even though the doctor smiles and seems so friendly, he or she pokes and prods and pricks during those first-year visits. You can validate your baby’s feelings by saying things like, “I know you don’t like the doctor. It isn’t fun to get that needle!” Even if your baby doesn’t understand your speech, your validation of his or her experience is good practice for the validation that you’ll need to be doing for many years to come. Moreover, the baby can feel your sympathy and understanding even if he doesn’t understand your words. This helps establish a strong parent-child bond that builds trust while also helps to soothe and calm your baby. Once the doctor’s visits become more pleasant, the baby will usually develop a warm relationship with the doctor. In other words, in most cases, the problem will go away by itself within some months or, in more difficult cases, in a couple of years. Just wait it out. Alternatively, it may help a little if you can pair a doctor’s visit with a treat or privilege of some kind. Don’t bribe the child; simply give the child a treat or privilege when you leave the doctor’s office. This can help the child associate the doctor with pleasure and this can reduce his upset, despite the pain.

Persistent Fear Requires Intervention
If your baby doesn’t grow out of the fear of a white coat or the smell of the doctor’s office by toddlerhood, you’ll definitely want to help him along. Young kids can benefit from “bibliotherapy” – the use of picture books to help reduce anxiety. Your local library may have a selection of picture books for young children that focus on what exactly happens at a medical or dental office. Reading such books can help prepare and calm the youngster before a visit for a check-up or treatment. Older children – those beyond the picture-book stage of life – may benefit from specific stress-reduction strategies. If you know some, teach them to your child or teen. If you don’t, one or two visits to a mental health professional may be all that your child needs in order to learn some coping tools for fear. If the child has a true phobia, full treatment can take a number of weeks or even some months. One thing that you might teach a child is how to focus on his breath while the doctor or dentist performs an examination. Tell your child to pay attention to the breath going in and out of his nostrils, or pay attention to his chest rising and falling as he breathes. Alternatively, teach the child to “daydream” effectively – to use visualization to take himself to a safe, fun place while the doctor is performing his examination. A different kind of tool is “mindfulness meditation.” In this technique you teach your child to name his thoughts and feelings and physical sensations as they are occurring during the examination or treatment. For instance, the child might say (silently), “scared, nervous, don’t like this, don’t want to be here, cold, uncomfortable, want to go home, relaxed, sore, sad, upset, mad, happy to be going home now,” and so on, throughout the medical or dental visit. Even though the child is naming negative thoughts and feelings, he will actually feel more in-control and calmer by doing this exercise. Try it yourself first to see how it feels. Another tool that helps many children and teens is EFT – emotional freedom technique. You can learn about this self-help tool online. It is excellent for removing or minimizing feelings of fear.

Try Bach Flower Therapy
On the day of the medical visit, and right beforehand, try giving your child Rescue Remedy. This pre-mixed Bach Flower Remedy is available at health food stores and on-line. Rescue Remedy helps to calm feelings of overwhelming fear and panic and can be taken right before, during and right after a very frightening experience. It comes in liquid (drop 4 drops in water or any other beverage) as well as spray and candy form. In order to help ease the fearful tendency out of the child and thereby prevent on-going fear of medical professionals, use Bach Flowers regularly for some months. Try the remedies Mimulus (for fears) and Rock Rose (for panic). You can speak to a Bach Flower Therapist to get a specially designed formulation for your child or you can look up the remedy descriptions online and select up to 7 remedies to put all together in one dropper bottle. There are online resources to learn how to prepare the remedies for use.

Seek Professional Help
If you’ve tried everything and your child is still afraid of medical or dental professionals, enlist the help of a professional therapist. Do this as soon as possible to make healing easier and to save your child many years of unnecessary pain and distress.

Sexual Disease

As a parent, advice you might feel queasy, troche even embarrassed, talking about sexual matters with your teenager. You might have grown up in a home when sex was not even mentioned, much less discussed in detail. Or you might be worried that talking about sex with your child will make him or her more likely to engage in it. But given the risks associated with irresponsible sexual behavior today, this is not a talk you want to miss.

Here are some important details about sexual disease and protective practices to cover in your talk, just in case you’re not up to date:

What is a Sexually Transmitted Disease?
As the term implies, sexually transmitted diseases or STDs are illnesses that can be passed through sexual contact; through vaginal intercourse, oral sex or anal sex. These illnesses can range from manageable fungal infections to debilitating and terminal diseases such as HIV-AIDS. STDs is the category used for diseases that used to be called VDs or venereal diseases.

Below are just some of the many STDs identified today:

  • Genital warts. Genital warts are caused by HPV, human papillomavirus. This virus lead to warts in the genital area as well as cervical cancer and cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. It is spread through skin contact in vaginal or anal sex.  Eruption of warts can be painful both physically and psychologically and, since they are part of a viral process that can lead to more deadly disease, they are also a matter of serious concern. There are currently HPV vaccines available that are effective for people who have never been infected with this virus. Therefore, teens are urged to have the vaccine before engaging in their first sexual experience.
  • Gonorrhea. Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection characterized by a yellowish discharge in the sexual organ and difficulty in urination. Untreated gonorrhea can spread to other parts of the body, such as the joints or the heart.
  • Herpes. This STD lives in the nerves and once contracted, is a permanent condition.  Herpes simplex type-1 produces cold sores around the mouth, while Herpes simplex type-2 produces sores in the genital area. The sores take the form of painful, itchy blisters. Break-outs can be prevented or minimized with daily doses of anti-viral drugs. Pregnant women can pass the virus to their babies, so they need to inform their doctor of their condition immediately. Herpes is contracted by skin-to-skin contact whether or not sores are visible to the eye at the time of contact.
  • Syphilis. Another bacterial infection, syphilis has three stages, with symptoms getting more serious as one proceeds to a later stage. Primary syphilis is characterized by a painless red sore in the genital area called a chancre. In the secondary stage of the infection, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and cause many symptoms like fever, rashes, weight loss, muscle aches and joint pain. In its later stage, syphilis can damage vital organs like the heart and parts of the central nervous system.
  • Candidiasis. Also called thrush, this STD is caused by a fungus called Candida or what is commonly known as yeast. The infection may be minimal, causing merely irritation and itching, or it can result to more systemic health problems. Cheese-like discharge in the sexual organs, redness and a smell similar to bread are some of the common symptoms of Candidiasis.
  • HIV. HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the main culprit behind the fatal disease Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS. AIDS is a pandemic in many countries, and has caused the lost of whole communities in some areas of Africa. It’s a disease that causes a steady decline of the body’s immune system, causing susceptibility to different kinds of opportunistic illnesses. As of present, HIV has no cure, although there are drugs that can boost the immune system and improve quality of life.

How can Kids Protect Themselves from Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
It’s important that parents emphasize to their children that they can protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

The most foolproof method of avoiding STDs is sexual abstinence. While the age of first sexual experience tends to become younger and younger every year (NBC Today’s latest survey has it at 15 years old!), it doesn’t necessarily mean that the teenage years is the recommended age to start having sex. While the physical maturity may already be present by the time kids hit the teenage years, it also takes mental and emotional maturity to engage in a sexually active relationship or a sexually active lifestyle. There is nothing to be lost by waiting until one feels more ready, or until marriage, to begin having sex.

But if your child does decide that he or she is ready, and you concur, there are ways to practice safer sex. Start by making sure that you and your partner have undergone a medical exam and have a clean bill of health before engaging in any sexual activity. While the practice of asking when a partner’s last check up was may sound unromantic, it is always better to be safe than very, very sorry.  Regular tests and visits to a gynecologist should occur as long as one is sexually active.

Opt to use contraception. As of now, it’s only the condom that is recommended for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Birth control pills and intra-uterine devices may protect a couple from unwanted pregnancy but they do not protect against STDs. Note though that a condom is not 100% foolproof; some STDs may be passed through oral sex and there are reports of condoms breaking during intercourse.

If one suspects an infection, it’s best to consult a doctor immediately. With the exception of HIV, most STDs are treatable by medicines such as some antibiotics. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.

Unprotected Sex

Today’s world is highly sexualized. Children are no longer sheltered from “adult” material and in fact, are encouraged to express their own sexuality at younger and younger ages. These days, it is hard to find a primetime TV show that doesn’t have a sexually explicit scene — and many of these shows are explicity marketed to teenagers and young adults. Contraceptives are sold in the nearby convenience store, right alongside soap and shampoo. And many teen celebrities — some barely out of puberty —sport a sexy image; some even find themselves as tabloid fodder because of irresponsible real-life sexual behavior.

Given that sex seems to be in the very air we breathe, it’s important that parents take an active role in promoting responsible sexual behavior in children. The cost of poor choices when it comes to sexuality can be very high, from sexually transmitted diseases or STDs to unwanted pregnancies, to early, often inappropriate, marriages. There’s also the psychological cost of premature sexuality: kids having unwanted sex due to peer pressure or partner pressure, finding out the hard way that love and respect doesn’t always accompany the sexual act, regretting being intimate with the wrong person and experiencing deeper levels of hurt and/or betrayal when intimate relationships are disrupted.

What can parents do to encourage responsible sexual behavior in their children? Consider the following:

Communicate Your Values Early
Different parents have different definitions of what “responsible sex” means. Some families do not believe in sex before marriage, for practical or religious reasons. Other parents are more liberal; they allow sexual behavior before marriage, as long as a child is at the right age and safe sex practices are being followed. Whatever your family’s belief system is, it’s best that you share it with your child, especially if they are already in the teenage years. The public library also offers an array of books for young people that cover all aspects of teen sexuality and romance – you can bring them home for your kids to read and you can also use them as a starting point for discussions about the topic.

Explain the Risks
Not all teenagers are aware of the risks involved in irresponsible sexual behavior. Or some kids are aware but they do not take the threats seriously. As parents, it’s your job to educate your child about the serious negative consequences that come with irresponsible sex, particularly unprotected sex. Unprotected sex refers to sexual intercourse without any intervention designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy and/or sexually-transmitted diseases. Two common methods of protection are common: condoms and birth control pills.

Parents must make sure kids know facts from fiction. For example, there’s a myth that goes “if you only do it once, you will not get pregnant.” This simply isn’t true. While having sex only once does lessen the risk of a pregnancy, it doesn’t eliminate it. Similarly, a child can contract a life-long sexually transmitted disease from having intercourse only one time.

Kids Must be Educated about the Limits of Their “Protection” of Choice
Condoms, for example doesn’t protect against HIV virus passed from the saliva or sperm of an infected person to an open wound in the mouth. HIV-AIDS remain without a cure until today, and causes much pain to the person who has it. Birth control pills (if used properly!) only protect against unwanted pregnancy, they don’t protect against most sexually-transmitted diseases. They also have known side effects. The emergency contraceptive or the morning after pill doesn’t 100% eliminate the risk of pregnancy after unprotected sex, it merely lessens it.

Kids should see a medical doctor for examination and preparation for responsible sexuality. The doctor can explain how to reduce or prevent disease and pregnancy and the youngster who wants to act like an adult in the bedroom can take the adult steps of preventative care.

Tell Them That There’s Nothing Wrong with Waiting
The best protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases remains one thing: abstinence. Tell your children that there is nothing wrong with waiting to become sexually active until they are ready. They need not give in to peer or partner pressure; they always have a right to say “no.” Friends may chide you for being a virgin, but sexual activeness is not a race — you don’t lose points for starting late. Waiting does not necessarily mean until marriage. It can mean waiting for a serious committed relationship or waiting until one is closer to the age of marriage – simply to reduce the number of sexual partners one will have and thereby reduce the risk of sexual disease.

Work at Your Marriage
Research has consistently shown that the best way to teach a child about responsible sexual behavior is to for parents to model what a respectful and loving relationship is like. If kids know the standard that they should aspire to, and how beautiful this standard is, they are less likely to settle for less than what they deserve.

Unsettled After Death, Divorce or Other Trauma

Although most of us wish that children could be sheltered from the pain in life, the reality is that many youngsters endure real trauma during their developmental years. One of the more common forms of modern trauma is the breakup of the family. Divorce is certainly hard for the adults who go through it but it can actually be traumatic for children – because of the loss of contact with a beloved parent, because of conflict that accompanies it, or because of life changes such as moving away from friends and family, acquiring a “step family” and so on. Death of a parent is another, usually traumatizing, experience that many children endure. But many children endure all kinds of other traumas that are less spoken about such as the serious illness and/or death of a sibling, family violence or chronic, intense conflict, addictions or mental illness within the family and much, much more. Children react to these kinds of intense stresses differently from adults. In fact, parents may not even realize that the child is suffering, since one of the common ways that kids handle overwhelming stress is to “act normal!”

If there has been intense stress in your child’s life, consider the following tips:

No Reaction is a Reaction
Suppose your friend was a passenger in a car that experienced a serious collision. The driver and two other passengers were instantly killed. The car was demolished, blood was everywhere, four firetrucks, 3 ambulances and 5 police vehicles were on the scene within minutes. Your friend miraculously escaped unharmed. Over the next days, weeks and months, this friend went about his or her business as if nothing at all had happened. He or she ate well, continued to joke around and enjoy life, never spoke about the accident and just went on very much “as normal.” Wouldn’t you find that a bit strange?

This is exactly the way many children respond to traumatic events in their lives. Instead of registering the pain and acting it out, they appear on the outside to be completely fine. What has probably happened, however, is that the overwhelming pain has been dissociated – cut off from the child’s conscious awareness. It is stored somewhere where the child can’t feel it just yet. It may surface years or even decades later, as more life stress builds up and eventually triggers it. Sometimes, it remains mentally dissociated for a lifetime, but expresses itself through the body in various forms of physical disease. The reason that children dissociate in this way is that they don’t have the emotional or intellectual resources to assimilate the experience. In other words, they just can’t handle it at the time it is happening.

If it appears that your child is not affected by a traumatic event, in reality he is quite likely affected! However, you can help. First of all, make sure that YOU are talking about the events. Some parents think, “why rock the boat? If my kid isn’t bothered by the tragedy, I’m sure not going to mention it!” Or, parents think to themselves, “the child is too young to understand or care about what is happening. There is no need to discuss it with him or her.” This is exactly the opposite of a helpful response. The child is likely to assume that the incident or events CANNOT be spoken about because they are way too terrible. On the other hand, when parents talk about what is happening and name their own feelings about it, they help children to take in the experience as a legitimate part of life and they help the child learn that his or her feelings about it are normal, expected, healthy and welcome. For instance, suppose a family suffers a crib death of their new baby. The mother can approach their children aged 4 and 6 and say something like, “It is so sad for all of us that our baby died. Daddy and I are so sad right now. You might be feeling that way too. We’re also confused. It’s hard to understand how this happened so suddenly; the baby was healthy just yesterday! You must also be feeling confused. We will all be thinking about this for quite awhile. Eventually, the pain will go away and we’ll all be happy again.” Parents can include any spiritual beliefs that they hold and want to provide their kids with at times of tremendous stress and upheaval.

Physical Reactions
While children may not be able to express their shock and pain in words, they may be able to feel it in their bodies. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu’s can all increase as an aftermath of intense stress. Play therapy can help children who are “somatizing” (sending emotions through their physical bodies) and talking therapies can help older kids and teens in the same way. Once emotions are acknowledged, physical complaints often subside.

Sleep Issues May be a Reaction
A child may have trouble sleeping through the night or sleeping alone in his or her bed. Or, the child may have trouble falling asleep or may suffer from nightmares. This may be part of a larger syndrome of Acute Stress Disorder (that happens as a trauma is occurring or within the month following) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (that happens more than a month after traumatic events have ended) or Chronic Stress Disorder (the effects of ongoing stress such as living with family violence or addiction or other deeply disturbing issues).

Psychotherapy will help the child clear out the feelings of stress. This will allow him or her to have restful, normal sleep.

Anxiety and Mood Issues may be a Reaction
A child or teen may experience panic attacks, separation anxiety (always wanting to be in the presence of loved ones), increased irritability or chronic sadness. Again, when parents are able to talk about what is happening in the family, children experience fewer emotional symptoms. Sometimes, however, the child or teen may benefit most from personal counseling in order to process the events and lift the burden of stress from the mind oand body.

Misbehavior or “Acting Out” may be a Reaction
Sometimes children become rebellious, disrespectful, impulsive or otherwise poorly behaved at home and/or school in response to stress that is happening at home. Particularly if the poor behavior is a change from previous functioning, parents should consider the possibility of this being a reaction to stress. Counseling for the parents may help reduce the stress in the home and the child’s behavior may simply improve by itself as a consequence. However, some of the stress that may trigger poor behavior are not remediable by parent counseling (for instance, the death of a family member). Nonetheless, parents may benefit from counseling that can address specific behavior and emotional interventions that THEY can provide for their child at home. If these are insufficient, the child him or herself, may need some sort of counseling or behavior therapy.

Finding the Right Professional Support During Divorce or Separation

Ending a marriage is a painful process. There are many losses to accept: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a promise and the loss of the dream and vision of an enduring, intact family. If the divorce or separation is less than amicable, then the tension of overt and hidden conflict adds even more stress and pain.

Because divorce and separation are difficult times — for any family — it’s recommended that families seek professional help along the way. Even when there are no unmanageable challenges, professional support can help reduce the pain and trauma involved in breaking up a family. Keep in mind that difficult divorces can leave their mark for years or even decades. Counseling can facilitate personal adjustment, as well as the re-defining and re-building of relationships within the family after divorce.

What are the types of professional support available for families going through divorce and separation?

Marriage/Family Counselors and Therapists
The help of a licensed marriage/family counselor or therapist can be invaluable. These highly trained mental health professionals can provide psychological help to individual family members, and to the family as a whole, as parents and children adjust to their new situations, grieve losses and begin life anew within a changed family structure. Often, counselors and therapists are holders of post-graduate degrees in Psychology, Counseling or Social Work, with specialization in marriage and family dynamics.

Counselors can assist before, during and after a divorce or separation. Knowing that a mental health professional can be of help even before marital dissolution is contemplated is important — many marriages can still be saved when couples seek early intervention. Indeed, even when the idea of separation or divorce has been raised, reconciliation is still possible if willingness and open-mindedness to rebuild a relationship is present in both members of the couple. Counseling during divorce can help reduce the chances of increasing hostilities and smooth the way for every member of the family. After divorce, counseling helps family members deal with their new lives with a minimum of stress, confusion, disorientation and pain.

Support Groups
Joining support groups can also be a big help to families undergoing divorce or separation. Support groups are formal or informal organizations of individuals undergoing the same experience. A support group for divorced parents for example, can provide assistance on issues like self-care, co-parenting and even going back to the dating world. A support group for children survivors of separation also exists, to help kids cope. There are also support groups for survivors of abusive relationships.

Support groups effectively send the message to families undergoing divorce or separation that they are not alone, and that the issues that they are undergoing are expected and normal for people within their unique situation. For many, talking to fellow support group members is less threatening than talking to a mental health professional one-on-one. This is because of the feeling that one is not talking to a stranger, but to someone who they can truly relate to.

One can usually find support groups within community centers, social service centers, churches, schools, and offices of special interest organizations. Online support groups are also available.

Legal Mediators
There are situations when divorce or separation will require the assistance of a lawyer or a legal consultant. Child custody, property division and alimony arrangement can be sensitive issues for a divorced or separated couple to navigate, and may even be the cause of many a heated discussion and debate. At present, there are professional divorce and separation legal mediators that can help families come up with amicable agreements within having to go to court. If these issues can be sorted out without a messy legal battle, then families undergoing divorce or separation can move on to their new lives more smoothly. Parenting Co-ordinators are empowered by law to help parents work out the details of daily life after divorce. They can help with schedules of visitation as well as the nitty-gritty details such as how the children’s belongings get from one location to the next, who takes the child to after-school lessons, which lessons the child should be taking, and so on. Parenting Co-ordinators are especially important in high conflict divorce where ex-spouses cannot or will not talk to each other. Obviously, sharing parenting responsibilities requires a great deal of communication and negotiation – if the parents can’t do this on their own, Parenting Co-ordinators will do it for them.

Other Professionals that May Help
Social workers, school guidance counselors, as well as rabbis/pastors/priests or can also help families cope with the stresses of divorce and separation.

Child is Angry After Divorce or Separation

Anger is a natural reaction to loss, threat or helplessness. When we feel that something is being taken away from us, we feel anger; it’s an instinct born out of protecting what we consider to be ours. When we feel insecure, uncertain or attacked, we get mad. And when we feel like we don’t have any control over what is going on in our life, when we feel victimized but incapable of fighting back, we can feel enraged.

It’s understandable then for children whose parents are separating or divorcing, to feel anger. When a marriage falls apart, all three “anger triggers” are present: loss, threat and helplessness. In many cases, children are simply caught in the cross-fire of fighting spouses. The spouses will go their separate ways and the children will be the ones who have to live with the short-term and long-term consequences of the broken marriage.

If you’re a parent experiencing divorce or separation, the following are some tips to help you deal with your children’s anger:

Acknowledge That They Have a Right to Be Angry
As mentioned, anger is a normal and expected reaction during divorce or separation. It’s an appropriate feeling; that is, the situation is really anger-provoking. Do not devalue your children’s anger in any way, nor ignore it or “pass it over.” The worst thing that a loved one can do during this difficult time is to make a child feel guilty for feeling whatever he or she feels. Instead, both parents must strive to communicate that they know their kids are angry, and that they respect their right to that emotion. It is often hard for parents to acknowledge and accept their child’s anger; they want to believe that the children will be as “happy” and relieved about the divorce as they are. They tell themselves that it’s better for the children this way. Few parents can stand the guilt they would feel if they acknowledged to themselves that their children might be truly hurt by the divorce. For all these reasons, it takes a brave parent to allow a child to express his or her anger and upset. And yet, allowing it is one of the biggest favors a parent can do for his or her child at this time.

Help Them Find Ways to Deal with their Anger
Anger is not black or white; instead it’s a complex emotion that has many nuances, shades and colors. It is important that you provide you child with the opportunity to look at their anger, and see (a) where is it coming from, (b) how strong it is, and (c) where is it directed. When a person can break down his or her feelings into its component parts, the feeling becomes less of a vague consuming monster and more of a state that’s tolerable inside and can be discussed and shared outside.

This step is important as different kids experience divorce and separation differently. In fact, even siblings have different reasons for their anger. One can be upset because he or she wasn’t consulted in the decision-making; another sibling can be upset because he or she blames herself for not noticing the problem and saving the marriage. A parent must be able to take a personalized approach to their children’s anger, so that specific issues can be responded to effectively.

Give Them an Avenue to Express their Anger
Anger is an emotion that is best released; otherwise it can eat a person up and even cause mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Art therapy may be suitable for some children, giving them a safe way to release the darkness of their inner world. Professional art therapists are trained to help people of all ages release negative emotions in a healthy way. Some children may do better by talking about their feeling. They may be able to talk to a parent when the parent is skilled in  “Emotional Coaching” (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Emotional Coaching involves welcoming, accepting and naming a child’s feelings without judgment or correction of any kind. In this way, the emotion is safely released and healed. For instance, if a child says, “I hate you for leaving Mommy” the father can respond, “You’re really really mad at me for breaking up this family. I can understand that. This is not something you ever wanted. You want us all to be together.” By saying all this, the father allows the child to express his rage and let it turn into the sadness that is really under the surface. If the child starts to cry after hearing his father reflect his feelings, the father can say, “I know this makes you so sad. It’s so painful not to have us all together anymore.” And then the child will cry some more and the father can just sit silently near the child, allowing all the pain to move freely. This approach is very healing. It is very different from the “cheerleader” approach in which a parent says things like, “Don’t worry – it will all be great! You’ll have two homes and lots of fun going back and forth and all your friends will be jealous, etc.” This kind of response can actually make a child furious, because the parent is rejecting the child’s pain instead of facing it head on. Child psychologists are trained listeners who know how to help kids express and release their pain. If your child isn’t opening up to you or is inconsolable or is having problems at school or misbehaving excessively at home, do try to arrange for professional therapy – it can really help.

Child Experiences Grief and Loss after Divorce or Separation

It’s normal for children to grieve after the separation or divorce of their parents. Children need and usually love both parents. They usually want both of them at home with them every night. Even when parents are living in an intact marriage, children complain about missing a parent who works nights or who travels a lot and so on. It’s just the way it is – children want their parents at home. People understand the truth of this when it comes to the death of a parent – everyone knows that a child will go through tremendous grief and trauma. However, many underestimate the trauma of a child’s loss when it comes to marital separation and divorce, thinking that since the parent is still alive, the child hasn’t really lost that much. In fact, many parents actually abandon their children completely following the dissolution of the marriage. But even those who are consistently present through the mechanism of the visitation schedule and agreed-upon living arrangements, are now absent for some portion of the child’s life, whether that is 30% of the time or 50% per cent of the time. Even having telephone access during separations from a parent is not sufficient to make up for the absence of the physical presence of the parent so much of the time. The child has really lost something and so the child really grieves. How can parents help kids through their grief and loss?

Your Relief, Your Grief and Your Child
It is important to separate your own feelings and needs from your child’s feelings and needs. After separation or divorce, you, yourself, might be traumatized and/or actively going through crisis, grief and loss. However, what you have lost and what your child has lost are two separate things and require two separate interventions. You may need your own support – both personal and professional. The child needs YOUR support (and possibly professional support as well), as if you have no investment in the issue. In other words, the child needs you to be there for him as if you yourself have not been affected by the separation or divorce. There can be no “we” in the discussion (as in, “we’re all hurting”). The child needs to be free to be a child, to worry only about his own pain and NOT have to even know about your pain, let alone have any role in comforting YOU! The child needs you to help him through his pain as if you were a dispassionate professional counselor. Any sadness you might feel for the child’s plight or any guilt you may be bearing for inflicting this on him, must be put aside so that you can be there for him. Any desire you have for the child to cheer up, toughen up or move on, must also be put aside. You only have one task  – that is to listen emphatically and say YES (nodding your head, saying “yes” slowly and softly) to the child’s grief. Some children can actually express their grief in words. In that case, a conversation might sound something like this:

  • child: “I’m sad that Daddy isn’t here at home with us.
  • you: “You’re sad that Daddy isn’t here now…. Yes.”
  • child: “I don’t like going to his house. I just want him to come home.”
  • you: “You don’t want to go there; you just want him here….. Yes.”
  • child: “You shouldn’t have got divorced.”
  • you: “You feel that we shouldn’t have gotten divorce….. Yes.”

By allowing your child to just state his feelings and by saying “Yes” to each feeling, you help the child to release his pain, one sentence at a time.

Of course, there are many children who do not TALK about their grief and loss at all. Some specifically refuse to discuss the changes the family has gone through. Instead, they show their grief by looking sad, showing a lack of interest in things that used to interest them, developing problems like over-eating or under-eating, having excessive temper tantrums, getting into trouble at school or at home and so on. Parents can help the non-verbal child by talking about their own feelings (and thereby modeling the process of connecting to and expressing one’s own feelings). For instance, the parent can just muse out loud, “You know, I sometimes really miss the way our family used to be when we were all together” or “It’s going to take some time to get used to the new house.” The parent should NOT express intense grief, sadness or anger at the situation or at the ex-spouse. The parent can also name the child’s feelings for him, making educated guesses about how he might feel in various circumstances. For instance, when the family is having its first holiday or birthday celebration without the other parent at the table, the parent can say, “It’s a bit strange today without Mom/Dad being here with us, isn’t it?” Or, when the other parent isn’t around at bedtime anymore, the parent can say, “I bet you miss Mom/Dad tucking you in every night.” These statements are not meant to upset the child – they are meant to help the child have words for experiences that he is no doubt going through. When the parent can talk about it casually and easily, it demonstrates for the child that no experience is too painful to be translated into language. Moreover, putting emotions into words helps to lighten the effect of the emotion by “containing” it. Until a feeling has words to it, it can be a big, vague, monstrous, dark thing. When it is put into words, it shrinks to the size of the word. For instance, the word “devastating” is smaller than the feeling of devastation intself. Therefore, by giving words to the child’s experience, the parent is both teaching and healing the child at the same time.

When children’s physical health, mental health, social or academic performance is suffering and self-help tools are not remediating the situation, it’s time to call in a mental health professional. Giving the child this help early on can prevent more serious behavioral and emotional problems later.

Child Insecure after Divorce or Separation

It’s only natural for children to develop fears after a major transition, such as a parental divorce or separation. After all, the break-up of a marriage is a period of instability in a family, and many things become uncertain about the future. If this is the first time that your child has experienced a major loss, he or she may not yet have the coping skills needed to deal with the emotional trauma.

What fears can children experience after parental divorce or separation? Consider the following:

Living Arrangements and Day-to-Day Needs
Kids worry about practical details too. After a divorce or separation, kids may wonder where they will live, if the family has to move, and whether or not their custodial parent can provide for all their basic needs. These fears are not exactly unfounded; single parents and co-parents usually have to deal with lesser financial resources that they did when they were married, simply because they end up providing for two homes instead of one.

Fear of Losing their Parent’s Presence and Love
Naturally, children fear that divorce or separation will mean not just lesser contact with a parent, but also fewer opportunities to be together in a natural way and build a relationship. Kids may fear that after divorce, their parents will not love them anymore. Even really young children feel this fear, which may result in age-inappropriate separation anxiety.

Fear of Remarriage and What it Means for Them
Kids also have anxieties regarding the emergence of a new family structure. If one or both parents are already in a relationship after the divorce or separation, it’s only reasonable to worry about having to adjust to a step-parent and step-siblings. Kids may also have to accept that a remarriage means that all hope for their parents reconciling is gone. This realization can be difficult for a child who may still be in denial that his or her parents’ marriage is already over.

Fear That It’s Their Fault
Children, especially younger kids, can end up thinking that parents’ divorce or separation is their fault, either because of something they did wrong, or because they are not good enough reasons for parents to stay together. This self-blame can turn into a debilitating anxiety if not addressed early on.

What can Parents Do to Help their Children?
Below are some tips parents may wish to consider:

Provide Constant Reassurance, Love and Protection
Kids need to know that even if a parent will no longer be in the same residence as they are, they are always available — in fact, they will be visiting regularly. Kids also need to be reassured that the divorce is not their fault, and there’s nothing they could have done to prevent it from happening.

Inform Your Child About Future Changes
Keeping kids informed regarding future living arrangements and living standards can help children wrap their minds around the change. Being informed also stops kids from imagining the worst, helping to alleviate their fears.

Avoid Making Promises that Cannot be Kept
As much as possible, give your children realistic hope. If kids expect something and end up being disappointed, their fears will be reinforced. Therefore, only promise what you are truly capapble of delivering. Don’t talk about arrangements that have yet to be established in law or through mediation. Don’t even use the word “hope” to describe what you think might occur in the future (i.e. “I hope that I’ll be able to see you every weekend”). Instead, say only what you know to be true and what you are capable of doing. “Mommy/Daddy and I are working everything out with the lawyers and soon we will have a regular schedule.”

Help Your Child Access Proper Social Support in this Critical Time
Friends and loved ones can go a long way in helping a child manage fears associated with divorce or separation. If a child feels that he or she is not alone, instability can become manageable. Try to continue visits with extended family members, keep up the child’s playdates and even join new parent-child groups in the community in order to keep your child feeling part of a larger world of relationships. Isolation is not advisable during times of stress. It will be good for you too, as you take your child to be with people. Even one regular outing of this kind each week can make a big difference.

Children’s Emotions After Divorce or Separation

Parental divorce or separation is a painful process — for everyone concerned. No amount of careful preparation, heart-to-heart talk, and therapy can make it less agonizing— just more manageable. After all, a loved one is technically saying goodbye. Even if everyone remains be a part of each other’s lives after the marital dissolution, the reality is: nothing will ever be the same.

In order to help children deal with the impact of divorce or separation, it’s important that parents know the roller-coaster of emotions kids go through during the process. The following are some of what children feel after divorce or separation:

Shock
“I knew the situation was bad, but I wasn’t aware it was that bad.”

Kids are often blindsided by their parent’s decision to divorce or separate. To protect children from family problems, parents tend to keep their kids out of the loop. Consequently, the news of finally ending the marriage comes as a big shock. And even if some outward sign of fighting exists, kids being naturally optimistic often think that the fighting is temporary and can be resolved. Even in homes where divorce is threatened openly and frequently, children often “get used” to the threat as just a common part of fighting – they can still be shocked when parents finally act on their words. Children who may not be so shocked are those who have experienced parental divorce before, and have some idea of what is going on.

Anger
Anger is a normal emotion felt by children undergoing parental divorce and separation. The anger can be directed towards one particular parent, the parent whom the child feels is to blame for the marriage not working out. The anger can also be directed to both parents; kids may feel that mom and dad didn’t try hard enough to save their family. In some cases, children may just be angry at the situation. They empathize with their parents well enough, but they would understandably rather that they don’t suffer such a major loss.

Self-blame
Children do blame themselves for parental divorce or separation. Because of the old philosophy of “staying married for the children’s sake,” kids may have the idea that parental love of kids should be enough to keep a couple together. Thus, when a marriage breaks down, kids feel like they failed in providing their parents a reason to try harder. Older children may blame themselves for not doing enough to save the marriage — maybe they’ve already noticed that something is wrong but didn’t say anything about it. Younger children may think that the divorce or separation is directly or indirectly caused by their behavior. It’s not unusual, for example, for a pre-schooler to irrationally conclude that the divorce or separation pushed through because parents are always fighting about their performance in school.

Fear
The source of security in a family is the parents’ stable marriage. A divorce or separation, therefore, can be quite unsettling for a child. Where would the family live? How will they earn enough income to support everyone? Would we have to live with somebody new? And are there any more jarring changes coming our way? There are so many question marks after a divorce or separation that being afraid is just an expected reaction.

Sadness
And of course, kids feel sadness and even depression during this stressful time. There are many losses that come after a divorce or separation, some of which can never be recovered. Understandably a new living arrangement has to be negotiated, and it’s possible that a child will have to give up proximity to a parent once all the legalities are finalized. Siblings may even end up living in different residences. There are also intangible losses, like the loss of dreams about the family. Sadness is a natural part of grieving for a loss, and is a normal reaction among children during parental divorce or separation.

Dealing with Children’s Feelings
The key to helping children with their feelings about divorce is to let them have their feelings. Don’t try to cheer them up or talk them out of their negative emotions. Doing so may cause the feelings to go underground where they might fester, show up as depression or anxiety later, re-route to physical aches and pains or manifest in various types of behavioral challenges. Letting kids be appropriately upset is the healthiest way to help them feel better faster. This is NOT the time to show sympathy by letting them know that YOU also feel scared, mad and sad. Save your feelings for your meeting with your therapist or for discussion with your adult friends. Your kids have already lost one parent; they must not lose another. They really need you now and even though you yourself may be going through intense emotional challenges, it is unfair to unload that onto your children. They will feel that they have to be strong and help YOU or they will feel that they don’t want to add to your burdens by sharing their real misery. What they need from you now is a listening ear and a good model of coping. When they see that you are NOT falling apart, it will give them hope that they will get through this too. If you are, in fact, having a very hard time, seeking professional counseling will help both you and your kids.

Preparing Children for Separation and Divorce

You and your spouse have decided that it’s time to end your marriage. Now it’s time for “the talk.” What can parents tell their children about divorce or separation that will make the situation easier for them to accept? The news will certainly be painful to hear – even if everyone “has seen it coming” for some time.  The breakup of a family is a true trauma in a child’s life no matter how “well” it goes. But there are things parents can do to help their kids adjust better.

Consider the following:

Do Have That Talk
First, it’s important that parents communicate to their children what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. Some couples fear that by raising the issue of divorce or separation to their children, they will just cause panic and pain. However, children – even the really young ones – are very sensitive. They may not say it, but they can always sense if something is not right. It’s actually better to keep kids in the loop, rather than leaving things to their imagination.

So set a date for that heartfelt family conversation. Have the meeting in a quiet, private and conducive place, at a time when the kids are not tired, sleepy or stressed from other activities. As much as possible, both you and your (ex) spouse should be present; it helps if parents present a united front when they deliver the news.

Talk to Your Children About the Divorce or Separation in a Manner Appropriate to their Age
It’s your children’s right to know what is happening in the family. In fact, ideally, they should be consulted as soon as the decision to divorce or separate has been finalized, and certainly several weeks before anyone has to leave the family home. This is not a conversation that should happen “the night of” or even “the night before.” You’ve had a long time to work this through; children also need time to adjust to the idea. Knowing about it a few weeks before anything happens does not add more pain; the situation is usually painful from the child’s point of view no matter how it is accomplished (except in cases where the separation/divorce will put an end to terrifying situations such as violence in the home).

What You Tell Your Children Depends on How Old They Are
The younger the children are, the more difficult it is for them to understand abstract concepts like irreconcilable differences, marital problems or even difficulties getting along. In fact, children under six can barely understand anything about marriage. Tell this group the truth: “You are too young to understand why Mommy and Daddy can’t live together anymore. You just have to understand that we have decided that this is the best choice for our family and we will both still take care of all of you.”

For children old enough to understand a little bit about relationships (the 6 – 10 year old crowd) you can add a little more detail: “Mommy and Daddy have had marriage problems for quite awhile now. We have tried to work them out in many ways. Nothing is helping. We have decided that the best thing for us to do is live apart. We will both still take care of you but at different times and in our different houses.”

For tweens and teens, even more information can be provided but keep in mind that children of any age do not understand adult marital problems. Moreover, you have no obligation to tell them the details that have led to your decision to divorce. Whether your partner’s verbal abuse, internet addiction, alcohol problem or boring personality has contributed to the end of your marriage, it is not your child’s business. Instead, you can tell this age group that “Mommy and Daddy have been dealing with many difficult issues for a long time and have decided that it is best to live apart from now on. Our relationship has become strained to the point where we can no longer live our lives together. We need to move on. We will continue to be your parents forever, and look after you as usual, except in our own separate homes.” If one parent is already in a relationship with another person, this information should be shared at this time since discovering it later could be a serious betrayal of trust between parent and child. In addition, if the divorce is the result of something the child already knows a lot about such as a parent’s violence or addiction, this can be mentioned at this time as well (“As you know, we have been dealing with Daddy’s drinking problem for a long time and both Daddy and I understand that it is no longer possible to continue the marriage this way…”). However, if the child does not know about “the fatal flaw” (i.e. the father’s pornography addiction), there is absolutely no need to divulge it. When the divorce is a shock – as when the parents have been getting along very well but an affair is discovered or some sort of illicit behavior has been discovered), parents can say “Although Mommy and I get along very well as you know, there are sometimes things that happen in marriages that cannot be fixed and we have been dealing with issues like that; unfortunately, we have to go our separate ways.” Just because a child wants to know the reason does not mean that parents have to provide it. Some sorts of information can actually scar developing human beings. If the positive image of each parent can remain intact, the child will fare much better after divorce. It is bad enough to lose a family. It is even worse if a child has to also lose a parent due to a new, negative picture of the person. Keep in mind that adults can be good parents even when they are poor marriage partners. Try hard not to tarnish the reputation of your spouse so that you do not rob your child of the opportunity to have two parents.

It’s best NOT to tell your child that you and your spouse have “fallen out of love.” Marriage is about commitment, compromise, learning to live together, growing and much more. Love is only one part of it – a part that waxes and wanes throughout the years and decades. While people are usually “in love” at the time of marriage, the nature of their love changes throughout the marriage. In long term marriages, they can be many loveless years inbetween many love-filled decades. There can be disappointments and betrayals. However, enduring marriages continue to pick up the thread of love and weave it in. If everyone divorced when feeling “not in love” there would not be a marriage left standing! Help your children to understand that marriage is a complex relationship in which people learn to care for each other and work together and always try to work out difficulties and differences. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to solve marital problems – something that you can’t explain to them now, but they’ll understand when they are much older.

Emphasize That the Divorce is Not Their Fault and Do Not Speak Badly of Your Spouse
This is very important: regardless of how old you children are, always emphasize that the divorce is not their fault. Kids have been known to blame themselves for a marital dissolution, either directly (“If I had only encouraged them to talk more…”) or indirectly (“Am I not a good enough reason for them to stay married?”). Stress that some situations are beyond anyone’s control, and need not be anyone’s fault.

Provide Them the Opportunity to Express Their Feelings
Give your children time to adjust to the news. Talking to your children about divorce or separation is not a one-way street. The family meeting is also an avenue to let your children express how they feel about the situation. Reactions can vary; some children will have a more difficult time than others. Expect anger, sadness, panic and rage. Don’t dispute these feelings; your children have a right to feel them. Instead acknowledge all feelings, and affirm that it’s normal for them to feel that way. Don’t offer false reasurrances of how wonderful life will be. Let time heal. Let the new life speak for itself. And be prepared to provide your children with professional counseling if they are having severe or enduring reactions to the loss of the family unit.

Note that navigating through any loss always takes time; so don’t expect your children to accept your decision right away. Neither should you compel them to agree with you. Denial and rebellion are also normal. Just emphasize the firmness of the decision, and your continued support if they need your help to cope.

Orient Them About the Changes That are to Come
Divorce and separation are periods of intense instability. It’s helpful for children to know beforehand what to expect, so that they can anticipate the changes that are coming. These changes may include new living arrangements, new parenting arrangements, and possibly some lifestyle changes as the family budget gets cut. Let them know that although there will be changes, you and their other parent will be there for them through everything. If this isn’t true (because the other parent has abandoned the family), then just let me know that YOU will be there through everything. Again, welcome their feelings and allow them to vent.

Remember that all change is hard. Be easy on yourself and your kids as you negotiate the changes that separation and divorce will bring.

For young children, read picture books on the subject of divorce – your local librarian can suggest numerous titles. There are also excellent books written for teenagers and these can be a big help for older kids.