First, ask the experts — your children. Explain that you can know something is wrong and that you want to understand it. Then listen. Don’t try to fix it or explain it away. At first, your boys may say almost nothing. But knowing you care will open the door.
When you listen, your children learn that their feelings matter. Children only know they feel bad — they don’t know why they’re behaving badly. Talking lets them make sense of their own feelings. If they know you care about how they feel, those feelings become more bearable.
Second, talk with your ex. Make it clear that you aren’t blaming her or fishing to change custody or visitation arrangements. Even though you are divorced, you both remain your children’s parents and both of you want to help them. Together, you can understand more than either of you can alone.
Put yourself in your boys’ shoes and try to imagine how they feel. You’ll need to put together what you learn from the children, your ex, and your own observations to make sense of their unhappiness. Understanding is the first and most important step in helping.
Don’t assume that you or your ex are doing something wrong. Good parents naturally question themselves when their kids are unhappy. Unfortunately, divorced parents often blame each other for the children’s problems. If you see something wrong, try to correct it. Remember, though, while even the best parent can improve, some situations are going to be painful and difficult for any child.
Children of recently divorced parents face many challenges. For eight and ten-year-old boys, two weeks is a long time — think back to when you were their age. So long a time away from Dad is upsetting. Even the weekend away from Mom and home may feel like a long time. Many children find it easier if they can talk with the absent parent on the phone. Boys worry that they won’t be able to learn “man stuff” without their father around. Assure them that you’ll have plenty of time together.
The children are upset by the divorce itself. Their whole world changed and they had no say in it! Children have many theories about why parents divorce. Give them a chance to put their feelings and ideas into words instead of actions; give them room to talk about what the divorce means to them.
Your children will likely be unhappy about specific problems. Things like their parents’ new relationships, parents’ depression after a divorce, or even a holiday atmosphere on the weekend with Dad can create difficulties and confusion. Try to do your best but, if you can’t fix their unhappiness, let your sons know you understand.
Children of divorce often worry about losing their non-custodial parent, especially when that parent moves some distance away. Unfortunately, studies show that their worries are justified. Be sure that you’re committed to remaining involved with your sons, and check that you aren’t giving off signals that the divorce is the first step to your disappearing from their lives completely.
Children, and adults too, often deal with emotional problems by moving backward in their development, acting as they did when they were younger. Ted did this by starting to wet his bed again. The technical terms for this is “regression.” Regression is a normal response to difficulty. Try to directly help your sons over this hump, but if problems persist — get help! Persistent regression leads to long-term problems. Children can get stuck in regressions and don’t move ahead with their lives. Regression is a significant problem if it continues over time and doesn’t respond to attempts to help.
Children stuck in regression need help from a mental-health professional. Children of divorce often have troubles in later years caused by unresolved problems from the divorce. If you see that you can’t help your children yourself, work with your ex to get them the help they need.
Sometimes, parents have a hard time deciding about professional help for their children. Follow-up studies of children of divorce show that many youngsters could have used help that they didn’t get. If you are unsure about whether to get professional help, make the “mistake” in the direction of getting it.
Finally, choose a mental-health professional experienced with children of divorce and their families.
Robert M. Galatzer-Levy, M.D., is a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with more than 25 years of experience working with children of divorce and their families. He serves on the faculties of the University of Chicago and The Institute for Psychoanalysis and is an editor of The Scientific Basis of Custody Decisions in Divorce.