I recently reached out to Glenn Murphy, MA, LPC, a well-respected local counselor to see if I could interview him regarding how divorcing/separating parents can help children through a divorce. Glenn graciously accepted the offer to help, and the following is the transcript of the interview. Please note that the following is general advice, and that as with legal issues, emotional or other issues are best handled by an appropriate expert. For information on how to address your specific issues, you should reach out to the appropriate specialist/expert. Again, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to Mr. Murphy, and I know everyone will find his answers to be thoughtful, informative, and interesting.
1. What can a parent do to insulate their children from a divorce or separation?
Given the extensive short and long-term impact of divorce (on everyone), couples would ideally commit to work hard on healing their marriage and would see divorce or separation as a last resort. Weekend marriage rebuilding intensives like those offered at “Retrouvaille” and “MarriageMinistry.org” can help couples begin the restoration process, even after an affair. Marital therapy with a professional counselor or psychologist would also be a highly recommended aspect of the healing and recovery plan that hopefully would help protect children from the pain and scars of divorce.
2. How does divorce affect children at different ages? For instance, how does a divorce affect children at ages 5, 10, 15 and then during their college years?
Very young children generally lack the ability to process what is happening or why it is happening. They might blame themselves for the divorce or believe it is their responsibility to try and get their parents back together. Often they will become clingy or show other signs of distress, such as regressing behaviorally.
By age 10 children are more able to understand what is happening yet will likely experience intense grief and sadness over not living with both parents. They will likely express strong feelings of disapproval and anger at what is happening to them, and may take sides deciding who is the “good parent” and who is the “bad parent.” Boys will tend to go “inside” themselves and “shut down,” while girls will tend to go “outside” themselves verbally expressing their emotions. Children this age may also become more manipulative, seeking to use the parent’s guilt to their advantage, to get whatever they want. Among adolescents you might anticipate boys expressing themselves more aggressively and acting more defiantly toward parental authority. They may also seek escapes such as video games and pot, as a way to distract and numb themselves from the pain of their lives. Girls may become more anxious and begin acting out sexually, seeking comfort or escape in relationships with guys. Parents might also anticipate their teenagers blaming them for “ruining my life.” College age children of divorce tend to be more skeptical of marriage, love and commitment. They may have difficulty making decisions or make rash decisions, and may view marriage as a trap they want to avoid. They may be more interested in “no strings attached” hook-ups as a means of protecting themselves emotionally. Depending on who they see as the good or bad parent, they may take on the role of “protecting mom” or “siding with dad against mom.” Over time they will likely begin letting go of these roles, and adapt to the new reality of their “two families,” especially if mom and dad have resolved their hostilities peacefully. Conversely, they may a distance themselves from one or both parents, especially if the pain from their family of origin remains unresolved in ongoing “parent wars.”
3. How can a parent prepare a child for a pending divorce?
Ideally, parents would talk together with their child about their intention to divorce in advance so that the child would have some time to begin to process it, to ask questions, and to know what will be happening. That conversation would include information about where he or she will be living, and any other changes that will be impacting his or her life. If both parents will be actively involved in parenting, that should be mentioned, to provide appropriate reassurance and stabilization. Additionally, the child should be assured of the parents ongoing commitment to, and love for, the child. Children need to know that they will not get lost, forgotten or neglected in the midst of the marriage crisis. This point cannot be stressed enough, as the child is likely to wonder, “If your love for each other ended, how do I know it won’t also end for me, when we are no longer living together every day or when one or both of you remarry.”
4. What types of things should a parent tell a child after a decision has been made to separate or divorce? Should both parents be present to break such news?
Ideally, parents would avoid pointing fingers and blaming their partner. The wise parents would choose instead to use more neutral language, even if they do internally blame their spouse for the impending divorce. Children are too easily put in the middle, a place they do not belong. “We” should be the operative word, NOT “Your father…” or “Your mother…” The children should be told that, “WE have reached the point where we will no longer remain married and living together.” If possible, both parents should be present for this conversation, and they should prepare ahead of time with each other for that conversation. (Other key elements of that conversation are outlined in Question # 3.)
5. What are some warning signs that marital or divorce issues are negatively affecting a child?
It should be anticipated that ALL divorces will negatively affect the child in some fashion. So rather than hoping to avoid any negative impact, it might be better for parents to be observant of indications that the negative affect is falling outside the normal range. For example, being angry and expressing one’s anger over the divorce is normal, but expressing that anger by punching holes in bedroom walls is outside that range. Likewise, having a child exhibit increased anxiety might be expected, but not being able to sleep at night or participating in self-harming behaviors designed to relieve that anxiety such as “cutting” is a cry for help. Parents should also be on the alert for signals such as dramatic weight gain or weight loss, schools grades declining, loss of interests in previously enjoyed activities, withdrawing from close friends, etc. – any signs that suggest “my child is not coping or adapting, but rather he/she is in a state of declining health, functionality or well-being.”
6. At what point should, in your opinion, a parent consider counseling for their child to help the child deal with the parent’s divorce or separation?
As stated in the previous answer, when a parent observes that the child’s coping skills and internal resources are not sufficient to meet the challenges brought on by divorce, that is the time to seek out counseling. If you’ve given them some time to grief the loss and sought to personally help them adapt to their “new normal,” but they only continue to destabilize and decompensate, seek professional help.
7. When issues of domestic violence are involved, how does that change your approach to children’s therapy?
Domestic violence can change the approach to therapy in that it may necessitate the therapist’s helping the children to detach from the abusive parent until that parent gets help and becomes a safer, non-violent person. This is obviously a very different approach than that of the therapist helping the child to maintain a strong bond with both parents throughout the divorce process, as would be more typical in a case where DV is not present.
8. Assuming no court orders or laws are in place addressing this issue, how much information should a younger child be told about his or her parent’s divorce?
There is no simple or easy way to explain divorce to a young child but it is normally best to provide truthful, but not specific details. For example, details such as “your daddy has been paying woman to have sex with him,” is way too much information for a young child. Young children do not have the capacity to understand the complexities that are typically involved in divorce, nor are they able to process some of the more painful and explicit details about parental mistakes, but they can understand concepts like “happy” and “unhappy” and the desire to “stop all the fighting.”
9. What should both parents be doing to work together to minimize their divorce or separation negatively impacting their children? In your opinion, what is the best parenting arrangement to stimulate a child’s continued development?
Parents should discuss and agree to follow ground rules for the sake of the children’s well being. Examples of possible ground rules are:
a) We will not talk badly about our ex to the children or in front of the children; 2) We will not use our children to send messages to our ex nor interrogate them after visiting with our ex;
b) We will not undermine the house rules or daily decisions of our ex;
c) We will discuss and mutually work out between ourselves the larger decisions that will obligate or involve both parents;
d) We will seek opportunities to point out to the children the good qualities of our ex and to model respect for him/her;
The best parenting arrangement would include parents who are equally committed to making parenting a priority, who shared custody, and who live in the same (or nearby) town, so as to minimize disruption and chaos in the child’s routine and schedule. Children from divorced families do best when parenting schedules and times are regular, predictable and occur without drama and conflict at the point of dropping off and picking up the children.
10. What are some good resources for parents to utilize in helping their children through the parents divorce and separation?
Groups for children of divorce can be helpful for children navigating the divorce process. Children often benefit from having a safe place where they can talk with a safe adult facilitator and with other children going through the same experience. They need to be able to freely express their feelings and grieve their losses without fear that they are hurting mom or dad by what they say. Check with your local school guidance counselors, mental health center, or church/religious organization to see if they run such a group. There are also many helpful books written for every age group from pre-school through adolescence to help children cope with the aftermath and pain of divorce.
Glenn Murphy has been a NJ Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) for the past twelve years. He maintains a full-time psychotherapy and counseling practice in Basking Ridge, NJ, where he works with adolescence and adults, individuals and couples. For more information about his services, please visit his website: GlennMurphyCounseling.com.
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