Currently, 50% of today’s children are affected by parental divorce. Court dockets across the country are rife with angry parents embroiled in contentious divorce proceedings that are often protracted by custody and child support disputes. Children of these broken and failed marriages are stuck in the midst of a traumatic event. Whatever parental strife existed prior to divorce is now magnified and children are left helplessly watching the two people they love most tear each other apart. This trauma induced by divorces is equivalent to the trauma induced by experiencing the death of a parent. Many children are left with feelings of anxiety, sadness, depression, and anger.
These children often exhibit a variety of behaviors that affect their school functioning. Clinicians counseling children of divorce must be prepared to educate parents and assist them in recognizing the importance of their continued involvement in the child’s life. Counselors must be cognizant of the extreme stress that these children endure and be prepared to advocate for the best interests of their child client. With appropriate intervention for both divorcing parents and their children, counselors can help children heal from the pain of divorce and develop healthy post divorce family structures.
Counseling Children of Divorce
When parents divorce, children’s interests are often ignored or discounted. Angry parents are focused on exacting revenge, or are interested in moving on to a new life, and disregard the painful emotions experienced by their children. School difficulties that the children experience are viewed as problems endemic to the child, rather than latent results of sometimes protracted and contentious divorce, and custody proceedings. Court procedures recommend, and often require that children and adults pursue individual counseling to assist them in processing the effects of the divorce. However, the needs of the child, as part of broken family system, are often neglected. With 50 % of today’s marriages ending in divorce, it is estimated that approximately 60% of U.S. children live for some time in a single-parent home (Carlile, 1991, p. 232). Lewis and Sammons (2001) explain that despite the evidence illustrating the devastating consequences suffered by these children, society has yet to develop adequate interventions and resources to support children of divorce.
The problems associated with divorce include poor school performance, poor peer relationships, psychosomatic illness, drug dependence, criminal activity and suicide (Carlile, 1991, p. 232; Lewis & Sammons, 2001, p. 103). Zinsmeister (1977) characterized children’s view of divorce as a disaster (p. 29). Other studies report children feeling that their childhoods have ended when their parent’s divorces became finalized (Wallerstein and Lewis, 2004, p.361). These childhood perceptions are not surprising considering that the standard of living of both parents decline in the first year following the divorce. Due to the decline in the post-divorce families standard of living, children are subjected to not only the loss of their family, but often school changes, changes in schedules, and individual changes in their parents. Children often
must move into less expensive dwellings and are often left alone, as single-parents are forced to seek out additional sources of income, in order to financially support the needs of the family (Carlile, p. 233). Parents often become overly reliant on their children, requiring them to take on many adult responsibilities (Zinsmeister, 1997, p. 30).
Levitin (1979) discovered decades ago that newly divorced single parents were found to be less consistent in their discipline, less apt to reason with their child, communicated less well, were less affectionate, and had less face-to-face time with their children (p.7). Furthermore, Levitin (1979) found that these children exhibited significant increases in aggressive behaviors. The parent-child relationship was often a casualty of the divorce process. Sadly, the effects seen decades ago still persist amongst today’s children of divorce. This is despite voluminous information that provides recommendations intended to counteract and prevent such problems. Recent studies indicate that divorce activates attachment issues in divorcing parents, consequently affecting parent-child relationships in the post-divorce state (Yarnoz-Yaben, 2010).
These alarming findings illuminate the need for mental heath providers to incorporate adequate supports that will assist both children and parents of divorce. Counselors must work to provide parents with appropriate information concerning the negative effects of divorce. Children need the ongoing support of counselors who can act as the child’s advocate, during and after the divorce. By involving the parents and the child in the therapeutic process, the post-divorce family can be assisted in healing the divorce-inflicted injuries. The child can emerge from therapy with parents who are invested in cooperatively contributing to the child’s rearing. The Role of the Counselor
Counselors who choose to work with children of divorce must not assume that the child is their only client. The counselor must also commit to working with parents. The prime reason found for adverse outcomes amongst children of divorce is ongoing parental hostility (Lewis & Sammons, 2001, p. 103). It is incumbent upon counselors to endeavor to help parents cease this hostility. Hostility can be reduced as the counselor performs a psycho-educational role with respect to parents, educating them on how their behavior affects their children’s adjustment. By teaching parents new methods of communication, new methods of discipline and ways to resolve their own feelings of distress, much of the pressure can be removed from the child. In performing a consultative role, the counselor is instrumental in helping craft a healthy co-parenting relationship (Kenny, 2012, p. 238).
Counselors should remind parents of the critical roles they have in the lives of their children and, therefore, educate them on the best ways to maintain consistency and stability in their child’s lives. Threads of consistency should be seen in drop-off and pick-up procedures, parental involvement in homework, consistent discipline, and maintenance of school schedules (Lewis & Sammons, p. 103; Kenny, 2012, p.238). Counselors can be instrumental in developing post-divorce plans that involve both parents with the child’s doctors, teachers, grandparents and other support systems.
Parents need to be cautioned against using their children as messengers. Zinsmeister (1997) notes that it is important for parents to recognize that their children’s needs are unique and different from their own. According to research, there is no such thing as a “good divorce”. Parents must place their children’s needs ahead of their own, reassuring them that they are loved (Alger, 1995). Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) confirm that children are afraid, concerned that just as the marriage has dissolved, so too will their own relationships with one or both of their
parents. This fear of abandonment and the parental reaction to this fear can result in either negative or positive affects on the parent-child relationship (Strohschein, 2006). Parents must be assisted in maintaining good relationships with their children as they transition through this major life event.
In addition to educating parents, counselors must also be prepared to act as advocates for the child within the school system. By providing schools with relevant information concerning the child; teachers and administrators can assist with accommodations that help make school a safe haven for the child. Therapy offices and schools can be made to be places of refuge and safety during this confusing and tumultuous period. Play Therapy
There are a variety of methods that can be helpful when counseling children of divorce. The choice of method is dependent on the age and maturity of the child. The existence of any disability or known psychological diagnoses should also be considered. The therapist must be mindful of the process so as to not become entangled in triangulated relationships (Campbell, 1992). For the very young child, play therapy is a very effective way of assisting the child in processing the trauma of divorce. Alger (2005) emphasizes the importance of acceptance and positive regard for the child (p.1004).
Furthermore, Alger (2005) states that the therapist should adopt a nonjudgmental stance as they clarify, name and verbalize the child’s feelings. Counselors must be patient and very observant, as it takes time for patterns to emerge in the child’s play. It is through the medium of play that children are best able to express their feelings, both verbally and nonverbally (Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Volker, 2006, p. 334). Among the tools available for the child’s use are puppets, dollhouses, drawing and art, sand play, water play, and storytelling. Hall, Kaduson and Schaefer (2002) explain that, “for children, toys are
their words, and play is their conversation” (p.515). Trained play therapists successfully help child clients resolve psychological problems and help prevent future difficulties. Emotionally Focused Family Therapy
An adaptation of play therapy, emotionally focused family therapy, “combines affect regulation and attachment theories with systemic and experiential approaches” (Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Volker, 2006, p. 334). The goal of EFFT is to help the child “reprocess and reorganize interactions to create secure attachment bonds” (Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Volker, 2006, p. 335.) It is believed that by reprocessing and reorganizing interactions, children will be able to reestablish parental attachment bonds, learn to regulate emotions, problem solve and communicate. The therapist is the change agent during this process. The first step in EFFT is to build with the child, a safe therapeutic bond. Second, the therapist assesses emotional responses in an attachment context by examining the child at play. The final step is for the therapist to reframe the problematic interactions appropriately, so that the child will know how to effectively have future relationships. Parents and children are involved in the therapeutic process, learning how to appropriately engage one another so that the child sees himself as deserving of love, and sees the parent as able to provide love and comfort (Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Volker, 2006, p. 334).
During a structured play therapy session, the family can be assisted in reforming attachment bonds by enacting a puppet play. The therapist watches the interaction between child and parent to determine familial interaction patterns. Upon conclusion of the play, the therapist helps the family to process the interaction, by asking open-ended questions directed toward the actions of the puppets. This helps the parents to identify the underlying emotions of the child.
Many other activities can be used similarly to understand the emotional states of the child. However the emotions are discovered, it is important that “parents hear and understand their child’s need for comfort and connection” (Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Volker, 2006, p. 346) in a way that the parents do not feel blamed. As the parents accept the child’s emotions, the roles of the puppets can be switched so that the play is re-enacted, enabling the parents and child to take on the perspectives of each other. Once the play has been re-enacted, the family members can begin to problem solve and negotiate with the child, together ensuring that the child’s needs are met by both parents (Hall, Kaduson, & Schaefer, 2001). Narrative Therapy
For older children who need to exercise more control, a narrative approach can be helpful. The narrative approach enables the adolescent child to be the primary author and actor in his newly created narrative. The process of narrative therapy involves three processes. During the first process, termed co-construction, the relationship between counselor and child is developed, as the adolescent relates all past and present life experiences. The deconstruction phase is next, during which, the counselor and student examine the stories from different perspectives, attempting to identify patterns and themes, and noting areas requiring more exploration. Finally, the adolescent “reauthors their stories in a future orientation” (Thomas & Gibbons, 2009, p. 225). By assisting a young adult create a new, thickened narrative he is able to feel in control of his life. This fosters the adolescents’ developmental need for autonomy. Thomas and Gibbons (2009) feel that “narrative therapy can help foster an atmosphere of respect and avoid leaving adolescents feeling alienated and misunderstood” (p. 226).
Multiple Family Adventure-Based Therapy Groups
Multiple Family Adventure-Based Therapy Groups (MFTABG) combine the concepts of family therapy and group therapy into an action-oriented, out door learning experience. This approach encourages naturally occurring communications. Adventure Based Counseling (ABC) began in the early 1900s in New York when practitioners feared the spreading of tuberculosis began taking patients outside. Subsequently, the outdoor program was expanded to include psychiatric patients and therapeutic wilderness summer camps. Today the approach has evolved into programs like Outward Bound. These experiential programs incorporate several counseling theories including, Cognitive, Reality, Rational Emotive Behavioral, Behavioral, Gestalt and Narrative theories (Swank & Daire, 2010, p. 243). Client families learn by doing and taking risks. Participants are confronted with challenges outside their comfort zones, and are encouraged to face their fears (Herbert, 1998). In doing so, family members are able to develop trust, discuss thoughts and feelings, and develop the ability to both ask for and receive help. By interacting with other families who are also experiencing problems, each participant has someone with whom to identify and feelings of isolation dissipate. As group members work together to complete tasks, problem-solving skills are developed.
According to Swank and Daire (2010), MFABTG, “creatively integrates and enhances the counseling experience” (p.244). MFABTG is grounded in the principle of challenge by choice, offering opportunities for family members to choose to participate without fear of coercion. The participants are required to support each other as the activities transpire (Christian, 2001). Participants are encouraged to work as a group, focusing on group goals and safety, while offering and receiving feedback. MFABTG is effective with post-divorce families that are attempting to re-build damaged parent-child relationships (Swank & Saire, 2010, p.246).
Goals of Counseling
There are many goals that need to be focused on when counseling children of divorce. These goals change as families move through the stages of divorce. The primary goal of counseling is to ensure that the child will have the continued support of both parents. Parental support is the most critical factor in helping children through divorce (Henderson & Thompson, 2013). As such, the primary task of the counselor is to engage both parents in the counseling process. By approaching the parents and engaging them in the therapeutic process, counselors are best able to predict a successful outcome for their child client.
In addition to parental support, research had indicated that children must resolve the following psychological tasks; 1) Acknowledging the reality of the divorce, 2) Disengaging from parental conflict and distress and resuming customary pursuits, 3) Resolution of loss, 4) Resolving anger and self-blame, 5) Accepting the permanence of divorce, and 6) Achieving realistic hope regarding relationships (Henderson & Thompson, 2013, p. 669-70; Mandelbaum, 2011). These goals can be accomplished through the establishment of a supportive and warm therapeutic relationship. Adopting a client-centered, non-directive approach can help enhance and develop the therapeutic bond. By treating the child with respect, dignity and an attitude of unconditional positive regard, the client will feel comfortable opening up to the counselor, disclosing their troubling emotions and cognitions. As the relationship grows, the child feels heard and understood, necessary feelings of self-worth and self-confidence will emerge in them.
By engaging in the therapeutic activities, as they are presented, the child begins to experience feelings of confidence. The unconditional positive regard that emotes from the counselor begins to affect to child-client, as he feels loved. The judgment free, safe haven of the therapeutic environment fosters an environment where the child can process his feelings of anger, blame and sadness (Hetherington, 1979). Counselors who provide an empathic environment will be able to guide the client through more directive forms of therapy, assisting them to reframe and recreate their trauma story.
As parents are involved in the therapeutic relationship and learn ways to hear their child’s pain, parent-child relationships can be rebuilt. Taylor, Purswell, Lindo, Jayne and Fernando (2011) indicate that therapies that include parental involvement are helpful in improving the parent-child relationship within families of divorce. As evidenced in the findings of Wittenborn, Faber, Harvey and Thomas (2006), children and parents are able to see other points of views through play. The parent and child are assisted through this process with the help of the therapist, who assists in teaching parents to communicate to their child in a language the child will understand. Religion and Divorce
Zhai, Ellison, Glenn and Marquardt (2007) found that divorce had a negative effect on most children’s organizational religious participation, but had no long-term effect on children’s individual relationships with God. This is due to many variables including the way custodial and visitation schedules are arranged. It is the feeling of most parents that periodic visits with either parent occupy a great deal of family time, leaving very little time for church activities. Time is spent cultivating relationships between children and extended family, while church attendance is forgone. Findings indicate that some parents fear ostracism or perceive coolness on the part of church members (Zhai et. al., p, 140). It could be said that post-divorce schedules undermine institutional religious attendance.
Interestingly, some children report an increased reliance on prayer in the midst of parental divorce (Zhai, Ellison, Glenn and Marquardt, 2007, p. 140). Some postulate that the feelings of anxiety and distress may spur some children to seek a closer relationship with God, in an effort to replace waning parental relationships. Lawton and Bures (2001) indicate that children of divorce sometimes experience a changing of religious identity in the aftermath of divorce. This is most prevalent between the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Lawton and Bures (2001) found that children either switched religions entirely or chose to opt out of religion entirely (p.11). It is uncertain whether faith switching is an effort to establish a new identity apart for their parents, or it is linked to community-connectedness. Knabb, Brokaw, Reimer and Welsh (2009) found that adults, who had experienced parental divorce as adolescents, desired a relationship with God and hoped to structure their lives, so that, their children did not experience parental divorce. Regardless of the reason, it is evident that divorce produces significant feelings of upheaval for children, and their faith is often affected. Conclusion
Children of divorce bring with them unique concerns that are separate and different from the concerns of their parents. These children are often extremely distraught, and come to counseling experiencing many psychological, or behavioral problems. The task of the counselor treating these children is to provide assistance to both the child and his parents. It has been shown that the primary component necessary for success amongst these children is parental involvement and support. Counselors are individuals who are best equipped to guide the parents toward a successful co-parenting relationship, while helping the child resolve feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness. By making use of a variety of therapeutic modalities, such as Play Therapy, Emotion Focused Play Therapy, and Multifamily Adventure-Based Therapy Groups, counselors are equipped to assist children as they process the trauma imposed on them through parental divorce. Although, it is uncertain at present, the precise effects of divorce on children’s’ religious beliefs, it is certain that Christian counselors are well poised to provide these hurting children with their first experience of Godly love. The child-centered approach, grounded in the principles of unconditional positive regard, empathic listening, and genuineness will equip the counselor appropriately in order to help these children resolve their emotional and psychological problems.
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