QUESTION: My wife and I recently broke the news of our divorce to our three children, who are 8, 11 and 13. We are fortunate that things have remained amicable between us during this difficult time, but we are wondering if we should bring in some outside support to help our children cope. Is taking them to a family therapist or counselor necessary or even helpful?
BBB: Divorce is never easy and takes tremendous adjustment for all the players and even some of the bystanders—nuclear family, extended family, and some friends of the family. But it does not necessarily mean that the nuclear children need therapy.
How the divorce affects the children has everything to do with each individual child as well as with how the parents behave. That you and your soon-to-be ex have an amicable relationship points in a positive direction for the children. It is when the divorcing parents openly disagree, bad mouth one another or display discord, that often there is trouble.
I do not believe that you need to race the children into therapy. Rather, it is a good idea to stay alert to signs in each that all is not well.
Of course, the children need time to adjust to the new arrangement as well as to their new living and custodial situation. After eight to 10 weeks, if you are seeing regressive behaviors, difficulty with sleeping, eating, separating, unusual behaviors, atypical displays of emotion or relationship issues among the kids, then it would be a good idea to seek the help of a mental health professional. It may be necessary for one or two of the children while the third seems fine. There are no rules here. Keep your eyes open and your ears to the walls and the ground for any signs of adjustment trouble brewing.
By all means, both parents need to keep their lines of communication with the children wide open. Be accepting of all their feelings, never belittling an emotion one has shared. Be sure to spend “alone time” with each child, encouraging open conversations. Often in a divorce situation, the siblings get clumped together as a unit that spends time together with each parent. The separate, individual parent-child relationships get pushed to the back burner. It is in these one-on-one times, however, that real feelings are expressed. Communication is key to a child’s well-being, especially in divorce.
Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (toddlers to teens), Parent Educator, Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist, and author of two bestselling parenting books. She consults privately, runs groups, seminars, and workshops for parents, teachers and other professionals. Betsy is a regular guest on national television and is featured in numerous major publications and periodicals. Betsy and Ray have been Palisades residents for 40 years, are the parents of adult, married triplets, and will soon welcome their fifth grandchild.