Your divorce is about you and your spouse ending your marriage but how you do this and how you parent with your STBX after your divorce will have a profound impact on your child no matter their age. One thing you can be sure of: your divorce WILL make your child anxious.
One challenge is that your child may not express their true feelings to you and even if they do tell you it’s no big deal because most of their friends’ parents are divorced, or that they understand that life may be better, the change in circumstances is going to cause them some anxiety.
So if your child isn’t talking, how do you recognize that they are anxious?
Is there a difference between the child who has had a history of anxiety and the child who has up until the divorce appeared to be care-free?
Is it just a matter of giving them time to adapt and get used to the new family structure or do children do better with more proactive interventions?
Joining me for this Conversations About Divorce is Bonnie Zucker, Psy. D, one of the nation’s leading experts in the treatment of childhood anxiety. Zucker is the author of Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide For Parents And Children. Listen in to the podcast below (email subscribers click here) or keep reading …
What Are The Signs Of Anxiety?
Behaviors like anger and hyperactivity are external behaviors. They’re easy to see and often easy to detect. Anxiety on the other hand is an internalizing emotion. “Your child can have an inner experience, be worried by what might happen but there are no outward signs,” said Zucker. “You may not know they’re concerned.”
Common signs of anxiety include:
- Stomachaches – when there is no known illness and no cause is found when checked with a doctor. Zucker has observed that when the child is treated for anxiety the stomachaches often go away.
- Headaches – similar to stomachaches, when no cause can be identified, headaches maybe caused by anxiety.
- Difficulty sleeping or difficulty staying asleep
- Negative self-talk, such as “I can’t do that,” or doubting own ability
- Avoidant behavior, such as not allowing a parent to leave or when the parent leaves repeatedly calling them or texting them so they stay connected
- Asking lots of questions – this is a less obvious sign of anxiety but lots of who, what, where and when and what ifs.
The age of the child can influence how they respond to anxiety. Zucker says that avoidance is avoidance at any age but a teenager will avoid different things than an elementary-school-aged child. Sleep problems are more indicative of separation anxiety and that’s more common in younger children. Teenagers are more likely to experience more anxiety before going to school and will engage in more isolating behaviors, such as going to their rooms, than younger children.
I think a parent’s natural response to a child experiencing anxiety is to the behavior rather than the underlying cause. You try to help your child sleep so you let them into your room or bed, you check the closet and tell them no one is there, you stay upstairs so they can shower. It solves the immediate problem but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem and the behaviors escalate.
“When you see parents accommodating their child’s anxiety, not because they want the child to have more anxiety but because they are warm, loving parents who see their child in distress and then they modify their behavior, it actually makes the anxiety worse,” said Zucker.
Some signs of anxiety, such as restlessness and difficulty concentrating, overlap with the symptoms of ADHD. Zucker says that if you suspect your child may be experiencing anxiety, then it’s important to treat the anxiety first because common ADHD medications can make the anxiety worse. Once the anxiety is treated, you may be able to treat the ADHD without medication.
Ending a marriage creates unknowns and when those unknowns impact your child, such as where they will be living, which school they might attend or what will happen to their friends, these are the things that may trigger anxiety.
Zucker recommends that before you tell your child about your divorce that you and your STBX have a plan for a living arrangement, that you have figured out your child’s schedule. This means that when you do tell your child about the end of your marriage you can speak to the impact it will have on your child’s day-to-day living and do remember to allow for flexibility so your child will be able to see or speak to their other parent while spending time with you and vice versa.
A word of caution however … where your child will be living is a decision that you and your STBX need to make no matter your child’s age. “We want to empower our children but when it comes to creating two homes, I feel having a plan that takes away the unpredictability is important,” said Zucker. “You want to have predictability and you also don’t want your child to choose between two parents.”
Gradual Transitions Help
By the time you and your STBX are ready to physically separate, you may have been discussing the end of your marriage for months. Chances are your social activities have changed and you’ve already been attending fewer events together, maybe stopped hosting social occasions. You’re ready to be separated from each other.
The same is not true for your children. Even if they have had a sense of tension between you and their other parent, they may still be surprised and shocked that one of you is moving out. They likely “are not ready for the dynamic of being separated from their parents,” said Zucker.
Zucker says that family dinners in the beginning are helpful in easing into the transition. Maintaining some of your family routines and traditions help create stability and a sense of normalcy. You can emphasize that you are still a family.
Children often fantasize that their parents are going to reconcile but you shouldn’t let this discourage you from still doing things as a family. Instead, Zucker recommends being clear that these events do not mean that you and their other parent are going to be getting back together. You can and should acknowledge that this is sad, that it is a loss. Your child needs to hear that this is a loss to you and this gives them permission to grieve, which is also essential for their well-being.
“The reality is that even kids that hold onto that fantasy, after some time, it goes away,” said Zucker.
Talk About The Milestones
Making the transition to two homes comes with lots of milestones – telling your child’s teachers, the day one of you moves out, visiting the second home for the first time, sleeping in the new home for the first time, taking a different school bus … With each of these, you can help your child by talking about it in advance, and asking what you can do to make this milestone event easier.
When you talk to your child about sharing their new situation with their teachers and friends, you’re not only creating a plan with your child for how to handle this but perhaps more importantly you’re helping to normalize this. By letting your child know that this is news they can and should share, you’re reinforcing that the end of their parents’ marriage isn’t something they have to keep secret.
Mirror Your Child’s Emotions
Mirroring is the technique of reflecting back to someone what they are experiencing and doing this with your child may be sufficient to ease their anxiety about your divorce.
For example, if your child says they wish this wasn’t happening, you might respond with, ‘I wish it wasn’t happening either.’
We have to be careful however. “We need to be super thoughtful about what we say. Saying less and tuning into the child’s feeling is safer,” said Zucker.
In the example above, responding with, ‘When your dad and I got married, I never imagined we would end up getting divorced,’ might be a true statement but Zucker cautions this “may trigger reactions such as how will they know that their own marriage won’t result in divorce and now probably isn’t the best time to have that discussion.”
When Does Anxiety Become A Problem?
It’s normal for a child to feel anxious about the change in their circumstances so how do you know when their anxiety goes beyond normal and it’s time to seek professional help? It’s not easy to give a hard and fast rule on this because it does depend on your child.
Zucker’s simple answer is that if after three to six months your child’s anxiety is interfering with their daily living activities, then it’s time to get help. Zucker recommends seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy over traditional talk therapy as the latter has been shown not to be effective in treating anxiety. Realistically, you should expect treatment to last six to nine months.
If your child is already experiencing anxiety, then Zucker recommends that you seek treatment for your child before you and your STBX proceed with your divorce, if possible. The anxiety itself however is not a reason not to divorce – it’s very treatable.
Sleep problems are very common and Zucker says these are very treatable. Culturally, we expect a child to sleep in their own room but Zucker is not concerned if a child is in and out of a parent’s room. The research on family co-sleeping shows that while this may negatively affect the martial relationship, there are no negative effects of this on the child. It is reasonable to expect a child to be back in their own room after six months.
If however your child is not able to go to overnight events or have sleepovers at friends’ homes, then this is an interference and could be an indication of separation anxiety which needs to be treated.
Zucker has seen parents who help their children overcome anxiety, grow from the experience. “When parents can help their child through an obstacle and face fears, to learn how not to be organized by the anxiety, that anxiety doesn’t have to control their life or their decisions, the child becomes free from this.” said Zucker. “They become stronger and the parent has a parallel process. It offers them increased confidence.”
Bonnie Zucker, Psy. D, is one of the nation’s leading experts in the treatment of childhood anxiety. Zucker has a private practice in Rockville, Maryland and is the author of Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide For Parents And Children. Using a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) approach, Dr. Zucker has helped hundreds of children become anxiety-free.