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Concerned parents realize the importance of trying to help their children come through the separation with as few battle scars as possible. One of the professionals multiroles in helping a family through the parental separation is the minimization of possible negative effects on children. We strongly advocate a preventive approach, reaching parents early in the separation/divorce process and educating them in general parenting skills and in areas specifically related to divorce and children. However, we know that most parents do not present themselves or their children to mental health professionals until they perceive a crisis or there is chronic discomfort. Then, the educational process may have to wait until crisis intervention or other therapeutic techniques have reduced the florid symptoms.
Parents Communicate with Their Children About the Divorce
There are several ways in which parents can learn to communicate with their children, and to support them through their crisis or readjustment period. One approach is to have the parent enlist a therapists professiorial opinion about the appropriateness of including the child in some form of therapy: individual, family, or group therapy. An alternate approach is for the parent to work with the therapist toward understanding the childs needs and toward learning skills needed for effectively supporting the child.
When possible, the children need to hear (preferably from the parents), just prior to the separation, of the inevitability of this occurrence and the decisions and plans. Jacobson (1978b), who studied the impact of interparent hostility on the children noted: If attitudes emerge that lead to facing a situation realistically, rather than those of denial before the event occurs, the chances of developing symptoms can be reduced (p.177). Children are usually aware that something is wrong in the family and even spy and eavesdrop to try to find out what they need to know. The following example illustrates the dilemma for some children:
Jerry, an 11-year-old, was chastised by his mother for eavesdropping. In his group counseling session, he discussed his predicament: Neither his mother nor his father told him of impending changes in his life that concerned him. He knew that his mother was considering remarriage but did not know her decision or when the marriage might take place. He knew his father was thinking of moving away but when questioning his father, he was told not to ask questions. His dilemma was to eavesdrop and risk punishment or to live with his anxiety of not knowing about his future.
children in the group suggested to Jerry that he ask his mother about her plans.
The group leader called Jerrys mother in to discuss the impact of her behavior
on Jerry and to encourage her to be more open with him.
Parent Who Does Not Tell Enough
Parent reticence may be caused by the discomfort that results from the belief that the information must be presented in a strong way, without tears. In reality, the parents tears and emotional display give the children nonverbal permission to have feelings of their own. The fact that the parent is explaining the separation implies strength in itself.
The Parent Who Tells Too Much
On the other hand, parents often cannot hide the truth from the children. If the reason for the separation is alcoholism or physical abuse, the children have seen or heard evidence of it and the accuracy of their perceptions needs to be verified.
Thirteen-year-old Jane was referred for therapy after several incidents of acting out behavior. In the course of treatment, she acknowledged the connection between her behavior and her anger at her divorced mother. Then Jane revealed that she was certain that her mother was to blame in the divorce because she had an affair with Janes diving coach. Janes mother had repeatedly denied the affair. Finally, Jane confronted her mother with her anger and her reasons for feeling so certain. Her mother admitted that Janes perception was accurate. Jane felt relieved, dealt in therapy with her anger at having been lied to, and the acting out ceased.
older the children, and the more to which they have been privy, the more complete
the explanation of the reasons for the separation need to be. Otherwise, the children
will become distrustful of the veracity of their parents statements to them.
Reflection Exercise #4
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