Congruency, Manipulation and Constancy in Post-Divorce Children
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. It is very
helpful for the parents to know their children's experiences,
especially after a divorce.
When parents are not congruent; that is, saying and
projecting what they really feel, mixed messages are sent.
The most common mistake parents make is to paint a pretty
picture of the divorce to the children. (In my
over-two-decades of dealing with divorcing parents, I can
think of only one divorce that was actually a good
experience, and the parents were not my clients.)
The child usually knows better. As said in the previous
article, children sense what parents really feel. Older
children see right through this, and typically resist suggestions
and changes predicated upon such parental deceit, often
acting out to show their displeasure. If parents lie,
children not only will have negative feelings about the
divorce, but also will have distrusting feelings towards their
parents. Kids are not dumb, so do not treat them as if....
As mentioned before, if parents do not encourage children to
speak (using words, not so much with behaviors), children
are much more prone to act out. In this case, when parents
misrepresent the truth, children also learn to do the same,
or worse, shut up. This is one big reason kids learn to
manipulate in divorce situations. This is tragic and later
will lead to much bigger problems. In the moment, the
child needs permission to speak, even if negatively. Emoting
out loud (vs. acting out) using the appropriate words is to be
encouraged and is the best way to "reach" the child.
Following from this, and a very good "general" thing to do
for your child in these circumstances is to model calm
behavior, again using appropriate feeling words to describe
how (adult) people feel when they no longer want to be together.
It is important that the child hear words like, "love" applied
to the relationship between each parent and the child, so that
during the many other daily changes there is a stable,
dependable, "same" experience of support and security.
The family recently experienced a major crash. Kids do not like
this at all, even if the family was fighting and in crisis before the split.
This is especially evident when a child is between the ages of
two and four years. Constancy is the experience of sameness,
whether in this case it is emotional, or physical. We humans need
this to bond with people and things in our world and to reduce
anxiety about things that change. Constancy, when interrupted in
toddlers, is devastating, and divorce is a huge destabilizer of constancy.
Between the ages of two and four, children are traversing critical
developmental stages and if trauma occurs during these times,
constancy can be derailed. Under extreme stress, it sometimes fails
to complete altogether. When this happens, the child fixates and
then is left wondering what is reliable and dependable. This goes for
relationships, too. So, from a psychodynamic point of view, divorce,
at this time, potentially is doubly damaging to children. In my opinion,
this is the dynamic most likely to create future depression in children of
divorced parents. It also is a big factor in failing to form healthy
attachments to people. Parents can help their children cope with
changes by describing, in emotion-based words, the things that stay the
same. Go back to their vocabulary of feelings and help the child use
those words, as previously discussed, this time with greater intensity.
We do not want children to "get stuck" during this critical developmental
stage. This technique helps to head off feelings of abandonment that
will surface later and cause disruptions of adult relationships. Set up this
standard and many of the following conflicts will be easier to manage.