One-on-One Focused Time for Your Child
Spending time with a counselor provides your child with one-on-one time with an adult who is focused on them. This can be especially crucial if parents are struggling emotionally. When I work with children, we sometimes discuss and process difficult things. We also have fun together. I always spend some time with each child doing something that they enjoy doing. There is always time in my sessions where the child has complete control. Children can sometimes feel out of control during the divorce. Children thrive when they feel that they are the focus of the session and this is special time for them.
Someone to Share Their Feelings With
Children can share with counselors what they may be afraid to share with their parents. Your children may not want to share certain things with you for various reasons. The biggest reason is that they do not want to hurt you or your feelings. They want to protect you. Children are so amazingly intelligent. They have so many amazing thoughts and concerns going through their minds. You would not believe some of the concerns I have heard. I would never believe them had I not heard them directly from the children as I worked with them. Children may be afraid to share these concerns with you. They also may have been asked to keep secrets by one or both of their parents. Once your child trusts their therapist, they can share these concerns with the therapist. I tell all the children I work with that they can tell me anything and I will not share it with their parents unless it is a life-threatening situation and I have to tell. I do tell them that if I think we should share it with their parents, that we will discuss this. This gives children a lot of freedom in being able to work with me to process some deep fears. I want children to trust me because my goal as a therapist is to be there for them. If they can share something with me, and choose not to share it with their parents, I still believe that it is healthier because the child and I can process through the concern. They are able to release a lot of stress in sharing their fear with me. This promotes healthy development for your child.
This does not mean that as a parent you have done anything wrong, it just means your child may have fears they feel they can't share with you. In one case, a little boy told me, "I know I did not cause the divorce but what I do know is that my parents started fighting more once I was born." So I said, "I will bet you a million bucks that if we ask your mom, she will say that was not true!" We had a deal. So we left my office and went to talk with his mom. The child was afraid to ask mom so I asked if it was OK if I asked mom and he said yes. Mom's reaction was, "Oh no, we were so happy when you arrived! We had been waiting for so long for you to come." The smile on this child's face almost lit the room. The relief on mom's face was worth a million dollars.
Children's fears relate to the unknown. Children need help sorting out what is real and what is not and what is true and what is not. Once children trust a counselor, they will sort these questions out with the counselor and get the relief that they need.
Child Feels Supported by Adult
Counseling is important for children because it allows them to feel completely supported during this time. Children feel that they have their own personal advocate who understands them, which is true. Many times I act as a mediator with parents and children, to help facilitate communication of worries and concerns. I assist parents to understand how they can better assist their child during this time. I recently worked with a teenage girl who expressed that she felt such a void at the end of her day because dad was no longer there when she came home from school. We decided to share this with her dad and asked him to call her more frequently in the evenings. This worked and was a win-win solution for both of them.
If Parents Are Fighting, Counseling Can Provide a Place of Refuge
I heard a parent pose the following scenario to an adult counselor. He indicated that he and his ex-wife were fighting terribly. He asked if they should get counseling for their children. The response from the counselor was, "Get help for you and your children will get better." I do agree with that statement but I believe a large piece was missing. I felt that we were selling out on the children. First, the truth is that some parents don't get better. Sometimes the fighting and pain continues for various reasons. If we can at least provide counseling support for the children, we can provide so much for them. Second, even if parents get counseling, their children will need someone as well. It is only fair for them to have their own focused time and process.
If you and your child's other parent are fighting, an emotional war is being simultaneously waged within your child. They need someone to help them make sense of this internal war, someone who can help them see they don't have to take sides in this divorce and that this divorce is not about them. Children know what is going on during this time, no matter how much you try to conceal your pain. Children become hypersensitive to everything during this time. Saying that your children do not need assistance as long as mom and dad have counseling is like saying your family's ship is sinking and, as long as mom and dad get on a life boat, the children on the sinking ship will be OK, too. Don't leave your children on the sinking ship. They need you to support them by finding an excellent professional for them to work with.
Just as you are figuring out the details of divorce with trained professionals (lawyers, mediators, and financial planners), your child needs to work with someone to assist them. This professional can help them take the easiest road possible through the quagmire of the divorce. We will discuss later how to look for the best professional possible.
Sometimes children who have had cooperative married parents have the toughest time with the divorce because they completely did not expect it. A friend of mine shared her story with me when I began this work. She and her ex-husband had gone through an amicable divorce seven-years earlier. Because she was very aware and wanted her children to be healthy through the divorce, she decided to have her children see a counselor even though it was a good divorce overall, as far as divorces go. The kids attended counseling and everything went well. Her children are now 14- and 16-years old. She recently overheard them talking and asked what they were discussing. They told her, "We were saying that we want to go to college and then work with children of divorce, like our counselor." That statement is all the validation I need to know that the work I do as a counselor positively impacts children's lives.
There is so much research out there now on the negative impact of divorce on children that not seeing a counselor seems irresponsible to me. Recently, a mother told me, I am spending so much money on attorneys, I just can't afford for my child to see you. Wow, $220 per hour for an attorney (a cheap one), and $100 per hour for your child's future. This seems like such an easy choice. In the end, a counselor's bill is usually 1/10 of an attorney's fees. Know that an investment in your child now will pay off through their future mental and physical health as they grow. If you choose to take some of the advice in this book, you will probably pay enough less in attorney's fees to easily pay for counseling for your child. Make the choice that makes the most sense for your child. Allow your child to move through this time in the healthiest way possible.
This article has been edited and excerpted from the book The 7 Fatal Mistakes Divorced & Separated Parents Make: Strategies for Raising Healthy Children of Divorce, permission by Shannon R. Rios, copyright © 2009. Shannon Rios, MS LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She can be reached at www.healthychildrenofdivorce.com; and her book can be purchased on her website or amazon.com.