Parents often want me to see their children because they are concerned about the impact couple issues, including sometimes their separation or divorce, may have on the child. They question whether they should stay together for the sake of the children. They fear that divorce many damage the children. They want me to see the child in order to make sure that the child will be “OK” or else to deal with anxiety or behaviour problems that they feel are linked to the rise in their couple conflicts. There are definitely many things that a psychologist can do to help parents and children cope with separation and divorce, to minimize the negative effects on the child, to address the child’s fears, worries, and behaviours, and to facilitate their adjustment to a new living arrangements. I love to help and I will…but parents have to be aware of some very important things and commit to conscious parenting as they simultaneously navigate their couple, and/or custody, issues. After all, I will probably only see their child once a week for a few weeks or perhaps months, but their child will be forever theirs. So my work begins with the parents and psycho-education, or teaching. Here are some of the most important things I share with parents;

1. Couple conflict, rather than divorce itself, is the “damaging” element. All parents disagree at times, but those who escalate to fighting, to aggression, to disrespect, and to offensive behaviour and do so in front of the children are harming them. They are creating fear and anxiety in their children. Following a separation or divorce, most children may display some changes in behaviour, and may express some sadness and anger in the short term. However, most “bounce back”. Parental conflict, on the other hand, whether a couple is divorced or not, has been shown to have detrimental effects on children. Studies have also shown that children welcome the relief that divorce brings from parental conflict, and that children may actually experience improvements in their well-being.

2. If I or any therapist has any chance to successfully buffer the effects of a separation or divorce, then parents have to collaborate. Collaborating may mean getting help for themselves. It is often difficult to be a good parent even in the best of times, and it may be especially difficult when a parent is themselves in tremendous pain and distress. This is why parents should seriously consider getting help for themselves. Many deny needing help, and tell me, “Oh I’m OK, I’ll survive this, I can handle this…it’s my child that needs help”. Your child needs YOUR help. So help yourself first, in order to be able to help your child.

3. Children who are exposed to high parental conflict may become depressed, anxious, distracted and have difficulty learning, or keeping up their grades. They may also “act out”. This is because parental conflict attacks their security. Children need their parents to behave like mature adults that they can rely on. Children need to feel that their parents are in control and capable of taking care of them. Then they can trust that their security needs can be met by the parents, and they can relax, and feel secure, play appropriately, learn, etc... Intense marital conflict conveys that parents are distressed, out of control, pre-occupied with their own issues, and may not be able to provide the basic safety net every child needs.

4. If parents don’t handle their marital conflicts appropriately, or they don’t engage in appropriate divorce behavior around the children (despite the many guidelines available in print and on the internet), then children will also be left carrying the burden of care for the situation (if only in their little hearts and souls). That is, children will expend much thought and emotional resources to figuring out how to make mom and dad happy, how to solve their money problems so they won’t fight, and how to bring them back together. I have seen many children walk on eggshells around parents, ever so careful to be the model child. This creates anxiety. Or on the contrary, children may act out, get into fights, break rules, etc… This type of drastic behaviour may be necessary in order to get the parents to parent them. It also workds to distract them from their own couple problems. Being called to the principal’s office may result in a few minutes of parental collaboration (even if only for the sake of appearances in front of the principal). It is amazing how reinforcing this may be for a child…and a pattern develops ever so quickly after this…just for those few minutes when parents revert to being parents rather than foes. Even the kids who act out usually feel intense anxiety, insecurity, and sadness as a result of the family instability expressed in couple conflicts. Bringing the parents together in the principal’s (or therapist’s) office can be quite re-assuring.

5. Most children are attached securely to both their mother and their father, and their parents are a reflection of their identity. When they look in the mirror, they are part-mom and part-dad. Thus, when one parent disrespects the other, that child’s identity will be injured. For example, if a mother calls the father a terrible name, that child will question…if Dad is a “insert disrespectful term” , and I am part-dad, then what does this say about me? And so begins the erosion of our self-worth, our self-esteem and our lovability and in worst case scenarios, a sense of shame seeps in. While children may obsess about Spiderman and Cinderella, their favorite heros, the ones they can always count on to save them, are mom and dad. Don’t shatter this illusion before necessary with out of control, angry and frightening behaviour…they will eventually figure out that parents are only human but they should come to this realization gently and after the superhero identify is no longer necessary for their emotional security.

I hope these basic guidelines will be helpful for those parents coping with couple issues and who are worried about the impact of these issues on their children. Consulting for yourself or for your child can open the door to many more individualized interventions that will help your particular situation and your child.