Saturday, March 20, 2010

What To Do For Your Kids After The Divorce..., Part I

What To Do For Your Kids After The Divorce..., Part I

In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents
drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad
behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting
bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting
or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's
behavior by changing the way the parents approach the children.
There are two main engines that change children's behavior.
One is the ratio of positive-to-negative messages. The other
involves the characteristics of the reinforcers, which are three
in my system. These are discussed elsewhere (see Resource Box,
This article discusses what not to do after the divorce,
or put more positively, what to do to help your child(ren) cope
and process this very big life-changing event. It focuses on the
parent and child's point of view.
Children of any age do not like divorce. It is indeed a very
rare exception when a child says, "Good, they're not living together
anymore." For that to happen, the pre-divorce behaviors must have
been really severe. By far the norm is for kids to regret the
separation, and to act out some of their feelings. As a general
rule, the younger the child, the more s/he will act out vs. talk
about her/his feelings. When children do not talk about how they
feel, acting out usually ensues.
So, the first thing to do for your children is to teach them a
vocabulary of their feelings. In the literature on emotional
intelligence, there are eight major feelings that encompass most of
what we humans emotionally experience. I looked at this list and
thought is left one out, so for this article, there are nine major
feelings. They are: anger, sad, happy, love, fear, hurt, surprise,
shame and disgust. The first things parents can do to help their
kid's process such a big stress, as a divorce, is to teach them a
vocabulary of their feelings. Start with the above nine and add
synonyms--as many for each of the nine feeling words as the child's
emotional maturity can absorb. I go to and type in
each word, and then type in the synonyms. (I did this for a year
and had others do the same. At the end of a year I had nearly eight
hundred synonyms for the nine feeling words.) Younger children only
need three or four words for each of the nine feeling words.
Teenagers need five-to-ten.
When a child acts out, s/he is expressing feelings in non-verbal
ways, through behaviors that usually attract negative attention,
if not just downright cause trouble. This is normal. As a parent,
the task is to teach children what words go with what feelings they
are having at the time. Parents are usually pretty good at intuiting
what their kids feel, so if the child doesn't know what feeling s/he is
having, the parent can say something like, "When kids act like you are
right now, they are usually feeling ________. Is that what you feel now?"
Most times, this nails it and the child will say, "Uh-huh" or just nod
(indicating "yes"). The trick is to get them talking about what they
feel, not act so much to act out their feelings. It takes a little
practice, but kids catch on quickly, especially is there is a reward
that quickly follows for just trying.
It is important to teach children than what they are undergoing
(divorce) is painful, difficult, stressful, hard-to-deal-with, etc.
It is important to teach them that what they are experiencing is normal;
that most children feel just the same way as they do, now. It is
important to tell them about our feelings, as parents, to model how to
verbally express feelings.
The point of this technique is to give kids the verbal skills to
express themselves without getting into trouble. It also gives the
parents a more reliable way to more deeply communicate with children,
hence gives parents more control over the child's behavior with less
physical interventions.
The next article will be on children's perceptions and roles after
the divorce.


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