Helping Your Child Cope with Traumatic Events

All parents want to protect their children from things that can unsettle or harm them. But sadly, there are many things in life that even the most conscientious of parents can’t control. Our children may witness or experience traumatic events despite our best efforts to shield them. When this happens, they may have difficulty bouncing back. Sleep disturbances, sadness, anger, fear, or other symptoms of trauma may plague a traumatized child long after the traumatic event has ended.

What is a Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological reaction to highly stressful events, particularly those that threaten life or safety. When an experience is considered traumatic, it means that the coping resources of the person witnessing or experiencing it are not enough to deal with the impact of the event, and some degree of psychological shock or breakdown occurs. Events that most people consider traumatic include vehicular accidents, crimes, natural disasters and physical or sexual abuse.  Although parents may think that trauma results only from catastrophic events like war or rape, it can actually occur as a result of more normal and common events. For instance, a child can be traumatized by being chased by a dog, by a harsh reprimand from a teacher, from a threatening bully, or from being laughed at while giving an oral report. What makes an event traumatic differs from person to person, as individual coping abilities must be taken into account. Personality factors, psychological profile and past history all play a role in producing a traumatic reaction. A trauma response often includes symptoms like reliving the event over and over again (obsessing about it; experiencing intrusive thoughts), panic attacks, nightmares, numbing and fog responses, avoiding people, places and things that trigger a memory of the event, depressed and/or angry mood and increased nervousness (startle response).

How can Parents Help Children Cope with Trauma?
Parental support is critical when a child is dealing with trauma. Unlike adults, younger children don’t yet have the ability to understand what they are going through. Not only is the original event traumatic, but their trauma symptoms too, can be traumatic. For instance, physical symptoms like tremors and nightmares, mental symptoms like obsessions and hallucinations, and emotional symptoms like fear and anxiety can be overwhelming for a child to be experiencing.

The first line of business is to help children manage their emotions. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. A traumatized child may talk about the same thing over and over again, and this is okay. The content of the sharing is less important than the process of getting things out. If a child finds difficulty in expressing what he is going through verbally, either because of age or because of the trauma, then consider non-verbal ways of venting emotions. Letting it all out can also be done using drawings and pictures, clay sculptures and toys, play-acting, and story-telling.

Second, give your child a rational explanation of the traumatic event, that is appropriate to his or her age. The more information the child has, the less he or she is likely to generalize the event to other situations. For instance, knowing that a car crashed because it skidded on the snow can help a child feel safe in cars with good snow tires and in cars driving on dry roads. Without this information, the child may conclude that all cars are dangerous at all times. (While this is in fact true, the healthy state of mind is one of sufficient denial that a person can comfortably drive and be driven at all times. Phobic and traumatized people, on the other hand, over-exaggerate the likelihood of a catastrophic event occuring again, such that they can’t live in a normal way.)

When a child is suffering rather mild symptoms, parents may find that self-help interventions are sufficient. For instance, learning how to do EFT (emotional freedom technique) with the child may complete calm the youngster’s nervous system. However, parents may prefer to take their child to a child psychologist who practices EFT or EMDR. Both of these techniques are used to rapidly heal the trauma of one-time events. If the child is experiencing many symptoms of trauma, it is essential that parents DO NOT try the self-help approach. Instead, they should take their child to a mental health professional who is specifically trained in the treatment of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the name for the cluster of symptoms that occur in reaction to a traumatic event. The “p” in this label for “post traumatic” points to the fact that trauma symptoms can suddenly occur months, years or even decades after the original traumatic event(s). The mind/body seems to wait for the “right time” to release the memory of the event(s).

Technqiues like EFT and EMDR can also be used as part of a longer therapy addressing more chronic forms of trauma (such as being subjected to chronic bullying, physical abuse or incest). These and other interventions are specifically designed to heal both the memories and the bodily reactions and return the child to his normal state. In addition, the Bach Flower Remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can help reduce temporary and chronic symptoms of trauma and is especially effective for home-management of symptoms inbetween psychotherapy sessions.

The good news is that children respond well to treatment of trauma. They can experience a complete healing of their symptoms and a return to “normalcy.” In fact, children are often even happier, calmer and more mature after trauma therapy than they were before the traumatic event(s) occurred.

Child is Bullied

Being the victim of a bully can take a severe toll on a child. There are intense feelings like anger, helplessness, sadness, shame and fear to process and accept. There’s also the stress that comes with the aftermath of the difficult event, including having to deal with authority figures who want to know more about what happened, and peers who choose to tease and ridicule. The effects of bullying can be felt for weeks, and in severe, traumatic cases – a lifetime.

If you have a child who has experienced bullying or mistreatment, consider the following tips:

Emphasize That It’s Not His or Her Fault
Bullying and mistreatment are the result of a perpetrator choosing to act aggressively against a less strong individual. This means that the problem is with the aggressor, not the victim. Kids need to know that they did nothing to “ask for it” — they did not get victimized because they deserve to be treated shabbily. Nor is the aggression a result of them being weak and fragile. Being stronger is not license to abuse one’s power.

Help Your Child Vent His or Her Feelings
As mentioned, surviving bullying and mistreatment can create many unpleasant emotions in a child. These emotions are normal, and should be affirmed by a parent or a caregiver. Saying that “you’ll get over it” or “you’re overreacting” or “toughen up” will just force a child to repress what he or she is feeling, instead of getting it out and moving on. If you want to help your child bounce back from a negative experience, give them the opportunity to grieve. Let them talk about what happened; allow them to cry, stomp their feet or temporarily withdraw from friends. When it comes to negative emotions, it’s better to let them out than keep them in.

Role Play Victory Over the Aggressor
Sometimes kids who are victimized ruminate about their inability to fight back. These thoughts can become obsessions, and in turn become anxieties. One way parents can help their child recover from their feeling of helplessness and self-blame is to role play what they want but didn’t or couldn’t do to their bully. For example, did they want to scream and fight back? Do they fantasize about telling the bully off? Let them paint a verbal fantasy of what they wish they would have done or what they’d like to do now – don’t worry about how violent it may sound. Imagining “pay back” aggression doesn’t lead to actually becoming violent; on the contrary, the imagination releases violent feelings in a safe, harmless way. Once the energy is moved out of the child’s mind, it is also moved out of his body. If,however, you notice that your child is actually talking about taking revenge in the real world, do step in and advice him of the potential negative consequences. Help your child identify with “good guy” characters rather than villains. Make up stories for him or ask your librarian for help in selecting books that will model the right attitudes and behaviors in the face of victimization.

Affirm Your Child’s Strengths
Focus on your child’s innate strengths and ability to recover. You don’t have to teach all skills in moving on from a bad experience. Instead, affirm what is already there and build from it. Bullying and mistreatment do not make the whole of your child’s person; for sure, he or she has plenty of things to feel proud out. However, if bullying has weakened your child’s self-concept, try to give your youngster extra “strengthening” experiences. For instance, enroll your child in sports or self-defense arts to build a strong physical self-image. This will help put a protective aura around your child so that bullies won’t be so tempted to pick on him. Or, enroll your child in drama classes so that he can experiment with and find different aspects of his personality that he can call upon when he needs to. Make sure you are not bullying your child at home with forceful discipline or name-calling; if your child gets used to being treated badly, he wears an invisible energetic sign that says “beat me up” – and disturbed children are all too willing to comply. Your child may benefit from assertiveness training or special anti-bullying classes, art therapy or play therapy. Other types of psychotherapy can also help your child process the pain of his experience and learn skills that will help him become “bully-proof” in the future. School guidance counselors may also provide good support and practical skills.

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.

Bedtime Anxieties

Bedtime anxieties are common and occur for many reasons.

If your child suffers from bedtime anxieties, consider the following tips:

Fear of the Dark is Common and Normal
Children are afraid of monsters, shadows, robbers and all kinds of things that go “bump” in the night. Here are a few things you can do to help them settle:

  • Try Bach Flower Remedies. For vague fears like fear of monsters or the dark, use the remedy “Aspen.” (Add 2 drops to any liquid, 4 times a day until the child is no longer afraid). For specific fears like fears of robbers or fears of being kidnapped, use the remedy “Mimulus.” For night-time panic attacks or hysteria, use “Rock Rose” during the day and “Rescue Remedy” at night.
  • Use “bibliotherapy” – that is, read bedtime stories or make up stories about hero-type children and grownups slaying monsters, being brave, overcoming challenges and otherwise solving problems. When children hear stories about small people conquering big challenges, they incorporate the message into their own self-concept. They come to believe that they are powerful problem-solvers, rather than helpless victims.
  • Leave the light on for your child as he or she falls asleep. If your child wakes up in the night, then it’s fine to leave the light on all night too.
  • If the fear persists, consult a child psychologist.

Fear of Bad Dreams
Children who’ve been suffering from nightmares and bad dreams sometimes don’t want to go to sleep – they’re afraid of having another bad experience. Try to arrange a consultation with a mental health practitioner. A child psychologist will be able to help your child learn tools for ending the nightmares and coping with the fear of them.  Getting professional help is absolutely necessary if your child’s bad dreams are happening as the result of truly frightening life events that the youngster has experienced. For instance, if the child is having nightmares after being bullied at school, or being abused by an adult, or being in an accident or natural disaster – seek professional psychological help.

If your child’s bad dreams are not caused by some terrifying or upsetting life events, you might try some “self-help” techniques first, before seeking professional help for the child. For instance, you can give the child Bach Flower Remedies for a short while to see if that helps solve the problem. Consult a Bach Flower Practitioner to get the most accurate guidance. If this isn’t possible, try giving the child Rescue Remedy before bedtime. If this doesn’t help, try giving 2 drops of “Agrimony” in liquid 4 times a day and see how that goes. Another technique that you can try, is to have the child describe his or her bad dream. Then help the child tell the story again, with a new, much better ending. Have the child tell you the new dream over and over – maybe twice a day for a week or so. See if this helps end the fear. Finally, experiment with “crystal healing.” Go to a rock & mineral store and buy a small piece of amethyst for your child to hold at night. Tell the child that the amethyst can help make bad dreams go away. See if this helps your youngster. If it does help, it really doesn’t matter whether the help came from the placebo effect (just believing that it would work) or because amethyst can actually prevent bad dreams!

Children and Teens can Suffer from Anxiety Disorders
During the daytime, everyone is busy. Although both children and adults can be anxious during the day, they can be even more anxious around bedtime. Defenses fall away as we get ready for sleep. Those who are anxious by nature, will find that anxiety rises as the mind and body begin to relax and get ready for sleep. At this point, children and teenagers may be so overwhelmed with anxiety that they can’t sleep alone in their beds or their rooms or they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep. Some children and teens start to ruminate – they think and think and think about everything under the sun. Or they start to worry. Or they just feel vague unease. Or they begin to feel symptoms of panic. Different kinds of anxious feelings require different interventions. It is best to have your child’s anxiety treated by a qualified mental health professional like a psychologist.or psychiatrist. If the anxiety is mild, you might try some self-help techniques first. As above, you can consider Bach Flower Remedies. Try to find a Bach Flower Practitioner to prepare a remedy bottle for your child. Alternatively, your child might respond well to EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). There are many therapists who can teach this technique to you and your child and there are also excellent on-line resources and books where you can learn the technique yourself. Children can also learn simple versions of Mindfulness Meditation that help ease anxiety. Find a teacher who works with young people or find a psychologist who practices Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT).

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.

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.

Refuses to Go to a Mental Health Professional

In an ideal world, consulting a mental health professional would be as easy as consulting a medical doctor – and as stigma-free. Unfortunately, many people still feel an element of shame, embarrassment or other type of awkwardness about going to a psychological professional. Some people still think that mental health professionals only deal with people who are “crazy” and understandably don’t want to be an identified member of such a population. In fact, in the “olden days” mental illness was poorly understood and derogatory terms such as “crazy” were used to describe people who we know know were suffering from various biological disorders such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder or delusional disorders. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can now help mentally ill people feel and function better than ever before. Moreover, modern mental health professionals assist not only those who are suffering from true mental illness, but also those who are completely mentally healthy. They help almost everyone to function in less stressful, more productive and happier ways, helping  them achieve their full potential in every area. People who access mental health services in order to feel and achieve their best, tend to be more emotionally sophisticated, open-minded and growth-oriented than those who do not. In other words, it is often the most mentally healthy people who consult mental health pofessionals today.

Although YOU may know all this, your child may not. In fact, your child may have the old misconception that going to a mental health professional means that there is something wrong with you. As a result, he or she may not want to see a mental health professional, even though you know that this is exactly what is needed.

If your child refuses to go to a mental health professional, consider the following tips:

Explain to your Child what Mental Health is and what Mental Health Professionals Do
As previously mentioned, there are many misconceptions that float around regarding the mental health profession — and even young children could have heard of them through playmates and peers. It’s important then that you explain carefully that mental health is just one aspect of our health. Emphasize that healthy people access mental health services in order to learn new skills, improve relationships, reduce stress and emotional discomfort, feel better physically, and achieve more in school or life. Be specific too – talk about the various tasks that mental health professionals perform such as psycho-educational assessments, mental health assessments, family counseling (to reduce conflict or help cope with stress), remove and/or manage fear, anger or sadness, and much more.

Your child may not recognize or agree that he or she has an issue that requires intervention. As a parent, you are in charge of your child’s well-being. If your child had an infection, you would insist on medical attention. Similarly, if your child needs help for an emotional problem, it is up to you to arrange it. If the child in question is a teenager, you might have to deal with resistance – be prepared. First try to motivate the youngster with reason – explain the possible benefits of assessment and treatment. If the child still refuses to cooperate, let him or her know that, privileges will be removed. For example, “No you don’t have to go to see Dr. Haber, but if you decide not to come, you will  not have the use of my car until you change your mind.” Think of whatever consequences might help motivate your adolescent to cooperate.

Tell children what to expect at their first session. If there will be art or music or toys, let your child know that the session should be very enjoyable, even while the therapist is learning about the child’s issues and learning how to be help. If it will be a talking therapy, tell the child how the therapist might open the conversation, what sort of questions might be asked and how the child might approach the conversation. Tell the child how to handle tricky situations like not wanting to talk or open up too much or feeling not understood or being fearful. In other words, prepare for everything!

Gently but Clearly Explain Why you are Referring Them to a Mental Health Practitioner
Tell your child why you have scheduled a mental health consultation. Explain that the consultation is meant to help the child and is not some sort of negative consequence! Kids who are caught breaking the law, or even family rules, are often scheduled for counseling in order to find out the reason for the misbehavior. Children who do not do well in school are referred to educational psychologists for assessment of learning disorders or other causes. Depressed or anxious teens may be sent to psychiatrists or psychologists for treatment. If you are having relationship difficulties with your youngster, make sure to participate in the counseling process in some way, either having joint sessions with the child or having individuals sessions just like the child is having, or both.

Negotiate Confidentiality Boundaries Beforehand
A tricky issue for children in therapy is confidentiality. It’s common for some kids to have hesitation talking to a mental health professional. For them, counselors are just their parents’ spies — a way parents can gather information about them. It’s important that parents (and maybe the mental health professional him or herself) clarify beforehand that all issues discussed within sessions are confidential, and that only the generic nature of issues discussed would be revealed to parents. Similarly, the mental health practitioner can specify what will remain confidential and what sorts of information cannot remain confidential, giving the child the opportunity to share or withhold information knowing the limits of confidentiality.

Tell your Kids that They can Terminate a Consultation Anytime
It’s important that kids actually enjoy their therapy experiences. Negative therapy experiences may affect them negatively throughout life as they refuse to get much needed help because of traumatic memories of therapy in childhood! Therefore, make sure that your child LIKES going to therapy or change the therapist, or the type of therapy, or even consider stopping therapy for the time being and trying again later. Usually, mental health professionals are good at establishing rapport with their clients and child and adolescent specialists are particularly skilled at making kids feel comfortable. Nonetheless, if your child remains uncomfortable after a couple of meetings, end the therapy. Adults also need to feel comfortable in therapy in order to benefit and they, too, have the right to “shop around” for a compatible therapist or therapy approach. Since there are so many different types of treatments and so many therapists, there; they will do their best to get your child feeling at ease before they start an actual intervention. But many factors can cause your child to be uncomfortable with a mental health professional. It’s helpful then that your child knows that you are at least willing to consider enlisting a different professional, or terminating sessions if there are significant concerns.