Bad Self-Image

Have you ever visited the “mirror room” in a circus? You know, the one where there are many different kinds of mirrors, each one reflecting an unreal and exaggerated version of the viewer, making the person look so much taller, smaller, fatter or skinnier than he or she really is?

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD, every day is like staring into a circus mirror. Except, people with the condition don’t realize that what they are seeing is a distortion – they believe their distorted reflection is real. They consider themselves physically flawed, although no one else would agree with this assessment. They preoccupy themselves about a perceived flaw in one or more of their features or body parts — their nose is too big, their eyes too small, their skin too light or too dark. They feel ugly — both from the inside and out.

While most people have some issues with their appearance — indeed, the beauty and fashion industry preys on our insecurities — the obsession about perceived physical flaws among those with BDD is excessive. In fact, most of their perceived flaws simply don’t exist, or if they do, they are barely noticeable. However, sufferers are absolutely convinced that they are deformed or ugly and feel shamed just by being in the presence of other people; they are often so anxious that they can’t work or enjoy life. Some are so intent on fixing their imperfections that they risk multiple surgeries and unproven treatments.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder often comes with other mental health conditions like clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse control disorders like trichotillomania, anxiety disorders and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

What causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
BDD is more common than most people realize; it is believed to affect 2 in every 100 members of the population. It is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults, mainly because it is during these times that the pressure to present a “beautiful” front is most intense.

A family history of BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorders increases the likelihood of the condition developing in a person. This implies that BDD has an organic origin, such as chemical imbalance in the part of the brain that controls emotions and habits. Traumatic experiences, like physical and sexual abuse, can also trigger Body Dysmorphic Disorder in those who have the genetic vulnerability for it.

What Are the Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
The following are some of the signs parents should look out for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive pre-occupation with physical appearance
  • A pervasive belief that one is ugly or unattractive despite assurances and evidence to the contrary
  • A feeling of shame or self-loathing related to one’s body
  • Frequent examination of the body parts they consider as flawed
  • Eating disorders
  • Use of many cosmetic products or procedures, exercise regimens, with no pleasure at results
  • Social withdrawal or social anxiety
  • Inability to function because of preoccupation about appearance

What Can Parents Do?
If you see signs that a child or teen may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. The obsessive-compulsive nature of the illness, as well as the pervasiveness of the perceptual disturbance make simple assurances ineffective. Counseling, therapy and medication are known to help. If the illness is accompanied by dysfunctional eating and exercise habits, then the help of a medical doctor, eating disorders specialists or psychiatrist will also be helpful.

Mood and Food

Are certain foods able to change your body’s chemistry enough to make you feel consistently calm, relaxed and even happy all day? The answer is a resounding yes!

Parents should know that managing their own or their child’s mood and conduct can be done not just through behavioral techniques, but also through a well-planned diet. Indeed, we can literally be what we eat!

How it Works
Mood and behavior have a biological basis; they’re usually attributed to the adequate presence of particular chemicals in the brain. Three neurotransmitters are believed to be critical to emotional well-being: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.

The exact mechanism of these 3 brain chemicals is still unknown, but having low levels of each has been associated with various psychological issues. These issues include increased susceptibility to stress, anxiety, depression, aggression, hyperactivity and attention-deficit problems.

Although we don’t yet completely understand the mechanism of the chemical-mood connection, the currently accepted medical thinking is that neurotransmitters help regulate a person’s emotions. Therefore, it is not surprising that taking neurotransmitters in pill form (in antidepressant medication, for example), can improve mood and reduce anxiety. Pills can’t keep a person from being sad or disappointed, angry or upset – but they can stop people’s emotions from going to abnormal highs and lows. They are can also provide pain and tension-relief as the body no longer has to carry and adapt to the effects of chronic negative emotions. Serotonin, in particular, is critical to the body’s ability to self-heal.

More recent research highlights the help of dopamine and norepinephrine in increasing one’s alertness. They can help one feel energized as well as attentive and focused. Increased ability to perform causes an increase in self-esteem that leads to an increase in positive mood. All of this protects against stress and stress-related conditions. Children, as well as adults, can get on the cycle of increasing wellness by attending to their brain chemistry. Parents can help by giving their youngsters a daily dose of healthy brain chemicals in the form ofnutritional supplements and foods.

What to Eat
The following are just some of the foods known to help manage mood and behavior:

  • Foods rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Fatty acids are the building blocks of protein. They are also the building blocks of many of our body’s hormones, the three mentioned neurotransmitters included. Taking adequate amounts of food with Omega 3s in the diet, helps adults and children stock up on these natural mood regulators. Foods rich in Omega 3s include oily fishes such as tuna, salmon and mackerel, nuts like walnuts and flaxseeds.
  • Foods rich in Vitamin B12. In general, the B group of vitamins is important in regulating mood. In fact, many sufferers of mood disorders are advised to take vitamin B supplements to help manage the fluctuations in their feelings. Vitamin B12 and folate, in particular, are known for helping increase the amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Foods rich in folate and B12 include green, leafy vegetables, legumes, bananas and oranges.
  • Lots of water! While not related to neurotransmitters, water is an excellent mood regulator — for many reasons! In fact, drinking a glass of water is an acceptable form of stress management and anxiety relief. Water detoxifies the system, helping get rid of pollutants in the body that cause irritability and unease. Water also regulates blood sugar. High sugar content in the blood is a culprit for symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity.

Foods to Avoid
To increase feelings of calm and relaxation, one needs to limit one’s intake of central nervous system stimulants – like coffee, tea, cola and other caffeinated foods and beverages. While the occasional boost of a stimulant can help increase temporary alertness and productivity, over time stimulants can create stress for the nervous system. Sensitive people may suffer increased nervousness, hypervigilance,and/or palpitations, as well as digestive symptoms. In some people, caffeine can increase depressive symptoms.  However, it is important to note that children with ADHD (and some teens and adults with this condition as well), can actually benefit from a regular dose of caffeine! In this population, the stimulant results in greater calm and focus and increased positive mood – just the opposite of what many non-ADHD people report. So if your child does better with an occasional soda or piece of chocolate, give it to him! And if he does worse – you know what you need to do.

Can’t Get Up in the Morning

Lots of kids have trouble waking up in the morning – especially teenagers. However, youngsters are supposed to be in school by 9 a.m. in most places. Some localities have actually changed the starting time of school to 10 a.m. for adolescents because so many kids in this age group are still groggy at 9! No matter what time school starts, many parents have to leave the house early in the morning so they can get to work on time. For this reason alone, they may need their kids to get up bright and early.

If your child has trouble getting up in the morning, consider the following tips:

Trouble Waking Up Can be Related to the Amount of Sleep Your Child Got
Unsurprisingly, if a child doesn’t get enough sleep, he or she will simply be too tired to get up when the alarm goes off. A lot of kids – and maybe ALL teenagers – go to bed too late. Nowadays, with the constant hum and beep of computers and cell phones, kids stay up to all hours. They’re always “on” and don’t know how to turn off. Of course they’re exhausted!

Getting your child to sleep on time is critical to getting him or her to wake up easily in the morning. Make firm rules about bedtime. Help your child settle down in the half hour before bed by prohibiting stimulating activities like computer games and action movies. Quiet time for bath, stories and tucking in should start long enough before the target bedtime so that the child can be closing his or her eyes at the actual bedtime. Teens, too, need limits around bedtime. Computers and cell phones can be OFF in the twenty minutes before bed. Shower, quiet reading and into bed by bedtime can be the rule for your teenager as well as for your younger child. Failure to comply can cost privileges like use of the family car (“Sorry – I can’t let you drive the car on so little sleep”), allowance, and so on. (See Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for ideas on how to design effective and appropriate negative consequences.)

Trouble Waking Up Can be Related to the Quality of Sleep Your Child Got
Some kids are in bed on time and theoretically sleeping the correct number of hours, yet they are exhausted upon awakening. They can’t drag themselves out of bed. This can happen when the quality of sleep has been impaired. Illness such as ear infections, colds, flu’s and certain chronic physical health conditions (such as sleep apnea!) can affect the quality of sleep. Medications as well as illegal drugs and alcohol may cause morning exhaustion. Chronic mental health conditions such as ADD/ADHD., Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, depression, bipolar depression, and anxiety can impair sleep. Stress and trauma can impair sleep as well.

See your pediatrician for help in addressing the physical conditions that interfere with restful sleep. Your naturopath, herbalist, Bach Flower therapist, reflexologist or other alternative practitioner might also be able to help. Similarly, have your child’s emotional health assessed and treated by a qualified mental health practitioner. You might also be able to find CD’s for children’s sleep issues to help them get a better quality of sleep.

Trouble Waking Up Can be Related to Power Struggles between Parent and Child
Many parents get pretty worked up in the morning. When their child doesn’t immediately jump out of bed, the parents feel irritated, then annoyed and finally enraged. The child accidentaly discovers a way to passively “get back” at parents. The child can see how easy it is to make Mom and/or Dad “go crazy” in the morning and it’s sort of fun to get them to disintegrate this way! The child may not consciously be trying to provoke parents, but people who are relatively powerless (like kids) do love to discover that they have some power after all!

If your child is getting enough sleep but is unresponsive in the morning, TAKE YOURSELF out of the equation. DON’T be your child’s alarm clock! Instead, get a really loud or effective alarm clock (there are many new ones on the market that do all kinds of neat things to force the child to get out of bed). Try to find a clock WITHOUT a snooze alarm. Children who use the snooze feature can often turn it off a dozen times without getting out of bed! Putting the alarm out of arm’s reach can help address this problem as well. If the child has to get out of bed and climb on a stool to turn the thing off, it is less likely that he’ll fall right back asleep. Be sure not to “help” the alarm by also trying to wake up the child. If the child senses your annoyance in the morning, chances are higher that the problem will persist for a long time. Help yourself stay relaxed by being busy in the morning with other activities. Just be too busy to notice that your child is still in bed.

A completely different approach to ending morning power struggles is to be humorous and playful in the morning with your child. Sometimes coming into the child’s room with a joke book and sitting and reading it aloud for a few minutes, is enough to encourage the child to get out of bed in a good mood, ready to start the day. Or, perhaps giving your child a foot massage (only if the child likes this sort of thing), may help him or her start the day in a relaxed and positive mood.

Trouble Waking Up can be Related to a Lack of Real Consequences
Some kids attend schools that do not immediately punish tardiness. Eventually there may be a number of “late days” marked on the quarterly report card. But who cares? On the other hand, when a school gives an immediate punishment for arriving late (like an after-school detention), children work hard to be there on time. Of course, some parents drive the child to school in order to help the child avoid the consequences of being late; such a practice encourages difficulty getting up in the morning. If the school doesn’t have a policy about immediate punishment, it may be possible to take up this isdea with the classroom teacher. The teacher may be able to let you know on a daily basis whether the child was late and you may be able to construct a punishment at home (a consequence that happens every time the child is reported to be late) or the teacher may be able to suggest a punishment that will occur in school.

Help Create a Morning Atmosphere
It may help to change the night atmosphere of the room to a day atmosphere. Open the curtains and the window – let in some fresh air. Turn on the lights. Turn on the computer if there is one, and put some music on. For younger kids (or teens if they have given you permission), pull back the top layer of blankets so that the child isn’t so warm and cuddly. Start chatting to the child in an upbeat, friendly way.

Offer Incentives
It may be possible for you to offer the child incentives for waking up independently and on time. For instance, chocolate milk may be allowed if the child got up by himself or after the first call. Or, a child might be able to earn cash prizes for each cooperative morning wake-up. Or, the child may be able to earn “points” or “stars” and after accumlating a target number, then earn a gift that he or she would not have gotten otherwise.

Teach Your Child How to Set His or Her Internal Alarm
Teach your child to set an alarm clock and then to tell his or her brain to wake up 5 minutes before the alarm goes off. All the child has to do is send this instruction to his or her mind while in a relaxed state. Tell the child to picture the time on the clock that he or she wants to get up at. The child should see the time and picture him or herself getting out of bed then. Make this a game or a challenge. Let the child know it can take some days before the brain catches on, but it WILL catch on. Right now, the child’s brain is actually programmed to get up late!

Doesn’t Sleep Well at Night

Lots of kids (and adults!) don’t sleep well at night. Of course, this affects their functioning, their behavior, their health and their mood in negative ways.

If your child has disturbed sleep, consider the following tips:

There are Many Reasons for Disturbed Sleep
Some causes of disturbed sleep are physical in nature while others are stress-related or caused by various mental health conditions. For instance, depression can cause a teenager to wake up at 2a.m. and remain awake for a couple of hours, or cause her to wake up at 4:30a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep at all. Anxiety can cause youngsters to have trouble falling asleep or cause them to have restless sleep. Stress can interfere in similar ways and yes, even children have stress! In fact, kids can be disturbed by many life events such as the condition of their parents’ marriage, starting a new grade or new school, having social problems, worrying about academic performance and on and on.

If your child is waking up many times in the night or not feeling rested in the morning, then make sure he or she is seen by a medical doctor. Before assuming stress is the culprit, rule out physical causes of sleep disturbance such as drug use, caffeine sensitivity, hormonal difficulties, health issues, sleep apnea, allergies, restless leg syndrome, nightmare disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Lyme’s Disease, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s Disorder and so on. Your doctor may refer your child to a sleep disorders clinic for further assessment. If your child is physically and mentally well and still experiencing sleep disturbances, consider having him tested for food intolerances. Also consider an assessment by a mental health professional. Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome and related disorders of stress can go undetected by parents while a child psychologist will readily be able to diagnose such conditions.

Many Times, No Reason is Discovered
Many people of all ages who suffer from various types of disturbed sleep never receive a diagnosis of any kind. If your child is fully assessed and no reason is discovered for his poor quality of sleep, do take advantage of the many types of alternative medicine that people have found useful. For instance, many people benefit from herbal medicine when it comes to sleep issues. A qualified herbalist can prepare teas and syrups for children that can help improve the quality of sleep. Also, acupuncturists, homeopaths, nutritionists, cranial sacral practitioners, chiropractors and other naturopathic healers each have something to contribute when it comes to improving sleep.

Sometimes, however, no one is able to help. If this is the case, there is still help available! Twenty minutes of deep relaxation can be equivalent to many hours of restful sleep. Have a specialist teach your child techniques for deep relaxation. This specialist may be a child psychologist, medical doctor, professional relaxationi teacher, yoga instructor, hypnotherapist or other type of practitioner. Meditation is equivalent to deep relaxation and there are many child-friendly types of meditation that can help the system calm down and discharge stress. In addition, there are many types of recordings available to help children sleep better including hypnotic-type CD’s & MP3’s, guided imagery, bilateral stimulation products and more. If the child is not getting restful sleep, he can still get deep and healing rest using these kinds of products and techniques.

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.

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.

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.

Tips for Dealing with Separation or Divorce

When parents separate, adiposity children can experience many different emotions. If separation means the end to a violent or intensely conflicted home-life, children may experience relief. In most cases, they experience sadness – especially when they are strongly attached to both parents. Often they feel confused, lost, upset. It’s not unusual for kids to feel tremendous anger as well; they are losing their home, their stability, their security. Sometimes they are resentful, feeling that they shouldn’t have to shuffle back and forth between homes or move out of their old home or otherwise deal with difficult conditions. Other common emotions include feelings of abandonment, fear, worry, depression and even trauma. Sometimes children will benefit from professional help to sort out all their feelings, but in many cases the parents themselves can provide the necessary emotional support.

If your family is going through marital separation, consider the following tips:

Welcome Your Child’s Feelings with Emotional Coaching
If your child expresses worry, anger, depression, abandonment or any other emotion as a result of the divorce or separation, try using emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is the naming of feelings. In this scenario, you may say things to your child such as “I know you’re sad that we won’t all be living together in the same house anymore.” or “I know you’re upset about having to sleep in two different beds,” or “I know you miss Daddy so much.”  You can talk about whatever feeling your child has about any aspect of the separation or divorce.  . Through acknowledging and accepting your child’s feelings about what is going on, you can help him release those feelings a little. If your child believes that his situation after the divorce is terrible, don’t try to downplay his feelings (i.e. by saying “it’s not really so bad – there’s lots of advantages to having two homes”). Accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings the way he feels them, not the way you want him to feel them.

Continue to Provide Appropriate Limits for Unacceptable Behaviors
Just because kids are hurting doesn’t mean it’s O.K. for them to become rude, aggressive, disobedient or otherwise badly behaved.  Your continued use of boundary-setting tools, rules and expectations will actually help increase their sense of security and emotional equilibrium. Be loving and respectful but firm. Follow the Relationship Rule as explained in the book Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. The Relationship Rule states “I do not give, nor do I accept, any form of disrespectful communication. I only give, and I only accept, respectful communication.”  This means that you don’t yell at or insult your child and you do not allow the child to yell at or insult you! Do not accept the excuse that your child is frustrated or traumatized by the break up of the family. While it is understandable that children will feel hurt, confused, overwhelmed, angry and grief stricken, it is NOT O.K. for them to act out these feelings with rudeness to their parents.

Offer Professional Support
If your kids are hurting, they may benefit from extra time with the school guidance counsellor or a mental health professional. There are also support groups for children experiencing divorce (which may be offered by local family service agencies). Your child may need someone to talk to who won’t be hurt by his anger or sadness. Allow him or her to talk to a therapist – or even a neighbor or relative – without asking him or her to tell you about the conversation. Privacy can give the child the opportunity to really clear out troubling emotions.

Consider Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. The flower remedy Walnut can help your child adjust to the many changes that may occur in his life after the divorce. Honeysuckle can help him not dwell on his former life, painfully longing for a return to the past. The flower remedy Willow can help ease any resentment the youngster might be experiencing as a result of the divorce. Star of Bethlehem can reduce feelings of shock, trauma and grief. If depression manifests as a result of the divorce, the flower remedy Gorse can help. When your child worries about his future and new life, Mimulus is the flower remedy to turn to. You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child 4 drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the emotional distress dissipates. Start treatment again, if it returns. Bach Flower Therapy cannot erase the pain of divorce, but it can sometimes help reduce the duration or intensity of initial distress that the child suffers.  Bach Flower Therapy is just one tool that adults or children can employ to help cope with stress. Using it may help reduce side-effects of stress such as sleeplessness, illness, behavioral problems and other stress-related conditions.

Be Aware of the Impact of Your Own Mood
Going through separation and/or divorce is really hard on parents. You may be distracted, traumatized, grieving, upset and overwhelmed. It’s hard to parent in this state. If possible, get professional support and/or join a support group (even if it’s just on-line) for divorcing parents. Make sure you have time to yourself each day. Single parenting is exhausting and difficult – if you don’t take good care of yourself, you’ll soon have insufficient patience for your child or children. Exercise and feed yourself well. Try to sleep. Learn mindfulness meditation and research stress reduction techniques. Be aware that your children are watching you carefully; they need you to be healthy for them.

Minimize Conflict with Your Ex
On-going conflict between separating and divorcing spouses is the factor that causes the most maladjustment in children from broken homes. Your children have the best chance of developing in a normal and healthy way when you have a friendly, cooperative and respectful relationship with their other parent. If the other parent is impossible to deal with, try to never speak about this fact when the kids can hear you. Bad-mouthing their parent (even when everything you say is the absolute truth) severely harms the children. You might hate your own mother, but you don’t want other people insulting her nonetheless. Insulting your child’s parent is an insult to the child him or herself. Moreover, the conflict itself is traumatizing. Children often end up in decades of psychotherapy to recover from the effects of witness their parents’ post-divorce conflict. Save your children from this fate by being determined to act respectfully toward your ex-spouse and never speaking badly about him or her.

Keep Routines Normal
Resist the temptation to sleep with your children once your spouse has moved out. You don’t want to have to kick them out of your bed when you decide to remarry. Normal routines increase stability, so keep life as normal as possible and the same way it was before the divorce.

Kids Need Laughter
Even if it’s a stressful time in your life, remember that kids are kids – they need lightness and laughter. You can bring this into their life with funny bedtime stories, silly games, outings, movies or other amusing activities.

Help your Child Deal with Academic Failure

A child spends about twenty developmental years in school. He spends more time on academics than any other activity during his growing up years. What happens when his talents and abilities lie outside the academic realm? What is it like to deal with regular academic failure and frustration? Whether a child has chronic and severe learning issues or whether he or she has simply gotten a low score on one particular project, academic failure can be traumatic, especially when it comes after much hard work and struggle. Not being able to make the grade on a regular basis tends to lower a child’s self-esteem; tutors, remedial classes and make-up tests can be demoralizing.

How can parents help their child deal with academic failure and frustration? Consider the following tips:

Intervene Early
It’s important that parents communicate their concern and support as early as the first signs of academic failure. While trusting our children to bounce back on their own is a good thing, parents can’t afford to intervene only when the final report card is released. Ongoing interest in the child’s school performance not only prevents sudden surprises at end of term, but also allows parents to offer emotional support, encouragement and practical intervention. Sometimes a little individual attention from a teacher or tutor can set the child on course. Sometimes boosting the child’s confidence in non-academic areas can buffer the frustration of negative academic feedback. The earlier parents can step in to address the situation, the less “repair” they’ll need to do later on.

Deal with Your Child’s Feelings
Parents understandably get upset when presented with a failing mark. But it’s important to remember that children have strong feelings about failure too — even if they come across as uncaring about their grade. Sit down with your child and ask them how they feel about the situation. Let them vent. And be willing to look past a defiant exterior; insolence can be a mask to hide a child’s feelings of vulnerability inside. Don’t be alarmed if your child “doesn’t care” about his low grades – that’s most likely a neat defence he is building to ward off feelings of shame and failure. Don’t overwhelm your youngster with your own feelings about his grades; instead, ask in a matter-0f-fact tone about how he feels and then reflect his words back to him. “I know what you mean..it IS frustrating when the teacher doesn’t give part-marks…and really annoying when you actually spent time studying and then get a mark like this.” After you “emotionally coach” the child in this way, spare him the lectures. If you have a handy tip to offer, first ASK him if he’d like to hear it and if he doesn’t want to, just leave it for now. He may ask you about it later. You can also offer help and intervention: “Would you like some help in studying next time?” or “Would you like me to ask the teacher to give you a little time after school to go over things?” or “Would you like a tutor?” and so on.

Help Ascertain the Reasons for the Failure
Instead of focusing on the disappointing outcome, focus instead on identifying the factors that contributed to the failure. Usually it’s not one reason, but a combination of many things like learning and/or attention issues, lack of motivation, lack of conducive study spaces or dislike for the subject matter. When academic problems are chronic, a professional psycho-educational assessment is the best venue for determining the cause. Most school boards can arrange this for their students and private psychologists also specialize in providing this service.

Get Your Child to Take Responsibility
Is your child at fault for the failure? Perhaps he skips class or chooses to watch TV instead of reviewing for an exam. If this is the case, it is important that parents get the child to acknowledge that he also has a contribution to the failure. This step is not to encourage self-blame, but to instill responsibility for one’s choices and behavior. And to make responsibility easier to accept, parents can also acknowledge their own shortcomings to their children and how they’ve addressed them over the years. Modeling how to take ownership for the consequences of one’s actions is one of the best gifts parents can give to a child.

Set Learning Goals Together
Parents can help children deal with academic failure by being future-oriented and proactive. Set learning outcomes together with your child, for example decide on acceptable and realistic targets for the next grading period or the next school year. Create a workable map on how to achieve those learning outcomes. Make plans too involving behavioral changes that need to happen in order to facilitate a better academic performance.