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Children Feel Anxious, Too

Photo by Grendl on Flickr

Children find the divorce of their parents to be the single most catastrophic thing that has ever happened to them. It is easy for adults to forget that essential element of childhood: dependency. A child depends on grown-ups for food, clothing, housing, warmth — everything.

This truth came home startlingly to a father I knew.  Through an unbelievable maze of events, his ex-wife had disappeared and his children had gone off to live with a woman in Wyoming who was co-habiting with some college students. Alarmed about the welfare of his children, he stormed off to retrieve them. A local lawyer helped him get a court order to make his task easier. So, accompanied by two deputy sheriffs, he arrived at the door of the woman’s home. She became violent and had to be restrained. The young children were so alarmed that they insisted they didn’t want to leave. Two of them even locked themselves in a bathroom. However, a few minutes later, almost as soon as they were in the car and headed back home, the children apologized to their father for their behavior and expressed their pleasure at the thought of returning home and getting away from the woman. As they were doing this, he told me, it suddenly struck him that they were being as honest as they could and he ought not blame them for their duplicity. He recognized their dependency, which made it necessary for them to come to terms with whatever adult was closest at hand. To ask them to protest on the grounds of principle was absurd.

Children see their families, no mater what the problems of those families might be, as the source of the support and protection they need. From their point of view, the collapse of the family structure is a catastrophe for them in much the same way that a bankruptcy or a house-fire would be for an adult. It leaves children terrified, lonely, and anxious.

To add insult to injury, most children face this catastrophe with little help. Adults invariably become so preoccupied with their own troubles that their parenting efforts all but cease. When they do get around to trying to help their children, many a depressed parent winds up breaking into sobs, as the anguish of it all overwhlems them. This often alarms a grieving child — more so if the sobs are accompnaied by threats of suicide — with the result that the child will resolve to keep his sadness to himself and not seek solace from his parent in the future. Instead, he will valiantly set himself to assuage his parent’s grief with his own presence and support.

Children in divorce are doubly afflicted. In almost every other sort of trial, the comforting presence of a parent sustains and reassures a child. Not so in a divorce. It is the parent who introduces this trial and whose own inner turmoil often prevents him or her from being of help. In fact, since the child’s most strongly felt need is to restore the missing parent, this may put him at logger heads with the remaining parent, who may see the departure of an unwanted spouse as a cause for relief and new hope for the future.

When parents are embroiled in battle — often with one threatening to take custody from the other — the children are sharply pained and become preoccupied with the details of their parents’ intentions. They foresee keenly and sadly that their own relationships with one or both of their parents are going to be impaired by the adults’ rage. This is the sort of stress that can slow a child’s progress toward maturity or even stop it altogether.

Parents of very young children often neglect to offer any adequate explanation or assurance that they will continue to be cared for by at least one parent. In most cases young children simply awaken one morning to find Daddy gone. Sometimes parents are reluctant to talk with their young children about the problem because it involves intimate matters of infidelity, frigidity, or indifference to sex. Also, they may be unwilling to face the pressure to reunite that they correctly anticipate from their children in the event they bring up the subject with them.

On their side, the children are reluctant to ask questions for fear of heightening a parent’s distress. A weeping parent is very upsetting to a child, who is even more upset if he thinks he’s managed to provoke the tears. Consequently, whatever announcement the children hear is usually painfully brief and accompanied by no discussion of how they will be affected. For example, what arrangements will be made for them to see the departing parent? What is the divorce about? Where will the family live? Will Mary still have her own room? Will Daddy take the dog with him? And yet parents are astonished that these children do not greet with warm affirmation their vague assertions that things will get better as a result of the breakup. On the contrary, they frequently encounter loud protests and earnest expressions of grief and disapproval.

One of the most alarming discoveries I have made in my practice of family law is that parents consistently fail to provide their children with an adequate opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns. Nor do they manage to recognize that the divorce precipitates a crisis for each member of the family, or to realistically reassure the children that, while things might be difficult at first, they will be okay in the long run. This parental paralysis at such a crucial time increases the children’s anxiety and fears immeasurably. If it produces total separation from the parent, it can have a serious effect on healthy development.

Nor are those fears erased in the days and weeks following a typical separation. Children nine and older are often left to fend for themselves in many respects. And all children experience an increased parental absence. Gone are the days of returning form school in the afternoon to find a parent in the house and a snack in the refrigerator. The children of divorce often must eat by themselves, prepare their own meals and school lunches, spend long hours at home unsupervised, and put themselves to bed.

We’ve talked about this before, but for any new readers, I’d like to point you in the direction of a checklist for those of you who have children at the time of divorce or separation. A divorce is terrible for you, the parent. But it’s worse for your child.  Take a deep breath, and think about the kids first.

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