Do Children of Divorce Need Counseling?
In my practice, I regularly suggest counseling for the children of parents in conflict because, when the parents are so embroiled in their own conflict or pain, they are sometimes unable to recognize their children’s emotional needs in the way that they need to. When any of us are in deep conflict or pain, we revert to our more primal reactions without even realizing it – we basically can become like helpless children. Brain scientists tell us that we have a very evolved brain, which enables us to be very sophisticated in our thinking, but when we are under stress, we return to the “fight or flight response” of our very early primal existence. No matter what our education or sophistication level, we all do that, and when we do that, we have a really hard time being objective, even for the benefit of our children. So, when parents are embroiled in conflict with their spouse or ex-spouse, they will unconsciously (or sadly, sometimes consciously) bring the children into the conflict.
How Can Parents In The Pain of Divorce Refocus on Their Children’s Needs?
I was once involved in a divorce case where both parents desperately loved their children, but because of their own pain, they did not realize the depths of the suffering their children were going through. Because it was a Collaborative Divorce, when the children were exhibiting behaviors that showed they were in crisis, we all agreed to engage a Child Specialist to work with the children and educate us on what might be helpful to them. The Child Specialist met with the children, then came back to the group and very tenderly explained to the parents that because they were so deep in their own pain their children felt neglected. The parents cried first, then took the advice and suggestions from the Child Specialist about ways to help their children. And while the work with the Child Specialist did not completely alleviate the children’s or the parents’ pain, her suggestions and their implementation of them made it manageable for the members of this family. That was a profound experience for all of us in that case, and I wish that positive result for every family going through a divorce.
The Key to Children’s Well-Being is Parents Dealing with Their Own Conflict
Counseling may not be enough for children if the parents are unable or unwilling to learn how to manage their own conflict. In an article in The Hamilton Spector, by Gary Direnfield, a well-known social worker, said if the parents are unable to manage the conflict between themselves, counseling may not be enough [for the children], whatever their age. So, just like the flight attendants on planes tell us, the first thing parents need to do is get help for themselves so that they can then concentrate on the needs of the children.
Infants and Toddlers in Divorce
Infants and toddlers are vulnerable in a conflict-ridden household or in a divorce because they still need adults to provide their emotional and physical security. In a recent article by Harvard Clinical Psychologist, John Churban, Ph.D., Th.D, he offers some insight and suggestions on how to insulate infants and toddlers from the impact of a divorce.
Young Children in Divorce
Another question posed to Gary Direnfield in The Hamilton Spector, was whether children can be too young for counseling. Play therapists can work with young children who may be too young to even verbalize their reactions to the conflict and can help children work through their feelings so that they can cope with the conflict in their environment. The world renowned Center for Play Therapy was founded by Garry Landreth, Regents Professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Texas offering play therapy and counseling based on a sliding scale for families with limited resources.
Older Children in Divorce
With older children, who have the ability to verbalize their feelings, counselors can provide an outlet for them to express their emotions without fearing that they are adding more worry or stress to their parents, who are already in great pain. In all of these cases, whether the children are very young, tween, adolescent or older (even adult children), a counselor can also educate the parents on what their conflict is doing to their children so that they can learn how to manage their own conflict in a way that will not hurt or even emotionally scar their children.
Whether it is actual divorce or just conflict between parents (married, previously married or never married), counseling for the children can be a God-send, but it is most effective if the parents learn to manage their own conflict so that they can be the support the children need for an emotionally healthy childhood.
The Family Tree Program also provides free or reduced cost couseling services for families and children in Denton, Dallas, and other counties in Texas.
Mr. Direnfield recommends Collaborative Divorce as a process that helps divorcing couples with children manage their conflict in a way that is less damaging to the children. If you or someone you know is considering divorce, please contact me or another Collaboratively Trained and Experienced Professional to learn about the attributes of Collaborative Divorce.