Many adults now acknowledge the benefit of a supportive professional as they
face the challenges a divorce inevitably brings. But many parents are unsure
at what point their child may be exhibiting signs that indicate a need for
Many of these signs are similar to the symptoms adults experience when
undergoing severe stress.
- Sleep disturbances
Some children wake with nightmares or have great difficulty going to sleep,
saying they are afraid (of monsters, burglars, ghosts, etc.). Other children
may regress to earlier sleeping patterns, such as sleeping with a favorite
object, wetting the bed, or sleeping in a parent's room. Children may also
withdraw and hide in sleeping, which is more likely in teenagers and sleep
longer hours than usual.
- Eating changes
Some children under severe stress have difficulty with appetite. They may
find their stomach hurts or feels upset and they may appear more picky than
usual or refuse to eat at certain meals. Other children may find solace in
food and try to nurture themselves by eating sweets and high fat foods. Both
are signs that a child is not addressing directly their feelings of stress,
anxiety or possible depression.
- School problems
Teachers can often tell when there are problems at home just by observing a
child's behavior at school. A child who was once very social may isolate or
even push peers away. Children can become aggressive, exhibiting the
interaction styles they have witnessed between their parents.
Some children withdraw and isolate when they are afraid or upset. When
isolating children may be doing things that help them feel better, such as
writing, drawing or listening to music. But a child may be feeling alone,
left out, frightened and obsessing about how out of control their life feels.
- Outbursts of anger or destructive behavior
Children who have been holding in how they feel will let it out at some point.
If outbursts of anger (verbal or physical) are modeled by either of the
parents, children are more likely to let this anger out in similar ways.
Children's anger and frustration need to be heard, not "fixed" or reasoned
- Trying hard to get parents to reconcile
It is very normal for children to want their parents back together, but if a
child becomes fixated on this activity it can be a sign of severe stress and
fear. Some children try to get their parents back together by being
exceptionally good so parents won't fight about them, others will act out to
try to get parents to focus on them rather than the separation.
- Becoming the "perfect" child or confidant
Some children cope with the stress of a divorce by trying to take the place of
the absent parent. They may try to make life easier for a parent, and in
return deny their own natural needs as a child. This robs a child of having a
healthy childhood and can cause serious problems later on in life.
- Coping with a difficult custody battle.
Custody battles can take a grave toll on children. Often they are pulled this
way and that and may even be asked by the court with which parent they wish to
live. A child entangled in a complicated custody battle can almost always use
some outside help and counseling.
While some of these signs may appear for a short period of time and in mild
forms during any divorce, if they are present for a significant period of time
(weeks or months) it is important for the child to be evaluated by a
professional therapist. Children usually feel comfortable with a therapist
who specializes in treating children or has children of their own. A
therapist working with children should also have supplies on hand to help
children feel comfortable sharing their feelings. Some common therapy tools
are, drawing materials, such as crayons, markers, colored pencils, puppets,
books, sand tray and toys.
Remember it is always appropriate to ask several therapists questions about
how they conduct therapy before choosing one for your child. A therapist with
experience in working with children should help your child feel comfortable in
their office. Both parents and children need extra support when going through
the challenges of divorce.
A selection of helpful books from Amazon.com
Children and Trauma: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, by Cynthia Monahon
Children Changed by Trauma: A Healing Guide, by Debra Whiting Alexander
Conduct Disorder and Underachievement: Risk Factors, Assesment, Treatment and
Prevention, By Harvey Mandel
Let's Talk Abou Being Afraid (The Let's Talk Library); Anna Kreiner
Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents; John S. March (Editor)
I'm Scared (Dealing With Feelings); Elizabeth Crary, Jean Whitney (Illustrator)
Mommy, Don't Go (Crary, Elizabeth, Children's Problem Solving Book.)
When Growing Up Hurts Too Much : A Parent's Guide to Knowing When and How to Choose a Therapist With Your Teenager; Scott O. Harris
© 1998 Lois V. Nightingale, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist, 714-993-5343
Director of Nightingale Center in Yorba Linda, California.
Author of "My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They're Getting Divorced"
Submitted by: Dr Lois Nightingale *
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