Divorce is a painful and disruptive transition for any family. Particularly for children, divorce can be a traumatic event. Vast psychological research indicates that most children experience emotional trauma as a result of divorce, even where the child seems to be displaying no outward signs of emotional problems. Unfortunately, for many families in Pennsylvania, filing for divorce does little to relieve the tension that existed between parents prior to a divorce. In many cases, the tension between parents continues or even worsens as the divorce progresses and disputes arise regarding visitation, extracurricular activities, and other issues. If parents going through a Pennsylvania divorce are serious about the well-being of their children, they must put aside their differences and determine how to provide adequate support.
EFFECTS OF DIVORCE ON CHILDREN
Each child and each family are unique. Individuals have different personalities, coping mechanisms, and temperaments. Family situations prior to and during divorce also have their own special characteristics that will impact a child’s social and emotional development. Despite these differences, studies have almost universally shown that divorce increases the likelihood of a negative impact on a child’s development in family relationships, education, and emotional well-being. Some of the negative effects of children of divorce that are routinely studied include the following:
- Weakened parent-child relationship
- Children may lose economic security
- Children may lose emotional security
- Children may have decreased social and psychological maturation
- Children may be less physically healthy
- Children may lose cognitive and academic stimulation
- Children may lose religious faith and practice
- Children may have a higher risk of emotional distress
WARNING SIGNS TO LOOK FOR FROM CHILDREN DURING DIVORCE
Symptoms of emotional distress in children of divorce manifest themselves in different ways, but parents should look out for any of these red flags in the months surrounding a divorce:
- Aggressive, angry, oppositional, or defiant behavior
- Regression or loss of developmental accomplishments
- Feelings of anxiety, depression, grief, or guilt
- Low self-esteem and decreased academic performance
- Experimentation with drugs and alcohol
- Attempts to inflict physical self-harm
If your child shows any signs of distress, you should consider professional help. While a divorce may be uncharted territory for you, a good therapist with experience in divorce matters can relieve some of your stress.
PARENTAL CONFLICT AND THE EFFECT ON CHILDREN
There is a tremendous amount of research on children of divorce concluding that the most poorly adjusted kids are those whose parents are in continuing conflict. Despite rather common knowledge of the emotional damage that can be inflicted by criticizing the other parent in front of the child, it is unfortunately very rare for a divorcing parent to resist this temptation. In fact, there are several actions parents often take that are likely to harm their child greatly. These behaviors will add weight to the emotional trauma inflicted by the divorce:
- Bitter custody disputes
- Pressure on the child to choose sides
- Disparaging the other parent in front of the child
- Using the child as a messenger between parents
PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING CAN HELP
If you sincerely want to help your child cope, you should seek the help of a trained divorce therapist who specializes in working with children of divorce. Parents often dismiss the idea of divorce therapy because they believe that their child is the exception to the rule and will emerge unscathed. Parents instinctively want to believe that they can provide their children the support they need. The reality is that only a trained divorce therapist can provide your child with a necessary outlet to grieve and help your child to develop active coping skills to increase resilience. Using engaging and innovative techniques designed specifically for children, a professional divorce counselor can bring about successful treatment outcomes. A divorce therapist will seek to address a number of key issues, including:
- Development of effective coping skills
- Clarifying misconceptions about the divorce
- Expression of anger through appropriate channels
- Promoting the appropriate expression of feelings
- Disengaging from parental conflict
- Eliminating self-blame for the divorce
- Enhancing positive self-perceptions
Many community resources exist for children of divorce, but it is up to the parent to set aside his or her own pain to take advantage of these programs.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING PARENT COUNSELING SESSIONS?
First, your counselor will want to get to know you. This will help the counselor understand your situation and how the counselor will be able to help you. Then, the counselor will identify and set specific goals. Setting goals depends on each individual circumstance; however, a common goal is for parents to learn how to address their own problems so that the problems do not negatively affect the children. Parents need to learn how to cope with stressors, difficult situations, and other issues causing anxiety. It is not easy for parents to recognize that they may have problems that need to be addressed with a professional. After the goals are set, subsequent meetings with your counselor will be targeted towards achieving the goals, improving communication, and strengthening skills to handle conflict.
WHAT IS COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns. For example, therapists can teach you how to be less critical of your parenting skills and more accepting of the fact that you are doing your best. CBT can be conducted as individual sessions or sessions with the child and parent working together.
CHILDREN COME FIRST – MONTGOMERY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
When a divorce action in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania includes a claim by either or both parents for child custody or when a separate child custody action is filed, Pennsylvania local rule 1915.3 requires both parents to attend an approved education seminar called Children Come First. Parents are required to register for the seminar and for payment of seminar costs. The program is aimed at helping divorcing parents to alleviate some of the disruptive consequences of divorce on their children. The seminar is designed to educate parents on the most effective ways to work with one another for the best interests of the children.
The seminar explores the potential implications on children during divorce and teaches parents how to effectively co-parent their children during this painful and chaotic time. Parents are taught about child development and the skills necessary to help their children cope. The program emphasizes that divorce does not change a child’s need for an ongoing relationship with both parents.
The seminar is held on several different dates and times each month at a location in King of Prussia, PA. Classes are restricted, usually with a maximum of 25 people. Each class lasts approximately 90 minutes and upon completion, a certificate is issued to the parents. The certificate of completion is issued only when the seminar is attended in person, for the full length of time. Currently, the seminar is only offered in English.
DIVORCE RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
Our Children Come First: https://www.thechildrencomefirst.com/
Montgomery County, PA Family Matters: https://www.montcopa.org/258/Family-Matters
Montgomery County Center for Psychological Services: http://www.centerpsych.com/
Montgomery County Children and Youth: https://www.montcopa.org/149/Children-Youth
Divorce is a painful life event, especially for the children involved. If you are divorcing or recently divorced in Pennsylvania, you should make a conscious effort to adequately address the needs of your children. Working with a professionally trained divorce therapist is highly recommended. Professional counseling, together with care, commitment, and cooperation, can help children of divorce in PA handle the transition constructively and can help prevent many problems.