A parent’s number one worry is their child(ren). In the case of separation or divorce, the worries about their child(ren) are often exacerbated as they face a big change. They agonize over how it will affect them and if they are doing the right thing. They lose sleep over the fear mongering statistics telling them that their child(ren) are doomed for mental health, behavioral and relationship issues in the future. As proactive and loving parents, what do they do? They sign their kids up for therapy. In a shocking twist, as a therapist, I’m here to tell you two things:
- Divorce does not necessarily mean your child needs or will benefit from therapy
- Children of divorce are not doomed for long-term negative consequences
While I will go in-depth on number two in a future post, this post is going to focus on number one.
Many children experience a traumatic or unstable life event and come out on the other side well-adjusted, healthy humans – divorce being one of them. While a divorce will undoubtedly cause increased stress in a child, stress alone is not an indicator of needing mental health treatment. Each child’s personality, genetic make-up, resources, relationships, etc. make their responses to divorce just as unique. So if jumping right into therapy isn’t the answer, then what is? Here are two places I would recommend starting:
Involve a child specialist
A child specialist is a mental health provider that helps bring the voice of the child(ren) to the divorce process. They will meet with the parents to gather background information and then meet with the child(ren) for a session or two – and sometimes all the siblings together for a session. After the sessions, the provider will then meet with the parents to relay to them how their child(ren) are coping with the divorce, their worries and recommendations.
One of the recommendations may be therapy for their child(ren), but not necessarily. A lot of the recommendations may be what parents can do to avoid long-term negative consequences for their children. There are plenty of cases where the child(ren) does/do not need therapy due to protective factors, as well as the parent’s ability to absorb and act on recommendations from the child specialist.
Unlike a therapist, the relationship with the child specialist is brief and not confidential. It’s important to also note that a child specialist is not a custody evaluator and will not make custody recommendations.
Work With a Parent Coach
Before signing up a child for therapy, start with trying to communicate with them yourself. A parent coach that specializes in divorce can help parents communicate with your child(ren) about divorce, how to answer the tough questions, explain the importance of communicating about divorce with your children, highlight the latest research in divorce and children, and help parents with identifying typical versus atypical reactions to divorce. Most importantly, the coach will help parents continue to connect with their children through this tough transition. The connection a parent has with their child will be a large protective factor in how the child fairs long-term.
If you have a healthy, positive, open relationship with your child(ren), and feel they have enough protective factors and resources to not need mental health intervention, simply monitor their behavior and continue to talk to them about their thoughts and feelings around the changes. Here are some things to look out for, that may indicate that therapy is needed:
- Your child asks to speak to a therapist
- You see big changes in their mood: increase in crying, easily irritated, disinterest in things they previously really enjoyed, emotional outbursts, separation anxiety, increase in anxiety
- You see big behavioral changes: truancy, isolating from family and/or friends, begins to self-harm and/or use drugs, changes in appetite, changes in sleep patterns
- You see big changes in academics (*A small dip can often be expected – but an A/B student getting C/Ds is a big change)
If after considering the above information you still feel starting your child in therapy right away is the best option for your child – do it. As I always say, no one knows their child better than a parent.
BrittanyLaFleur, LCPC-S, RPT
Psychotherapist & Founder of Your Best Self Therapy