Throughout my career as a licensed mediator and attorney, I’ve worked with many families as they navigate the divorce journey. I know the impact divorce can have on a child, especially when it comes to mental health. I’m also a mother who experienced divorcing with children. I know firsthand how it can affect them. That’s one of the many reasons why I advocate for out-of-court divorce options like mediation and collaborative law.
These non-adversarial settlement options keep children and their parents out of the courtroom and reduce levels of emotional turmoil and stress for all involved. Yet, no matter the method of divorce, children who experience the divorce of their parents are also likely to experience their own form of grief or loss. It’s often a difficult transition as their parents move from one home to two. Countless studies show a child’s mental health can be affected in various ways.
A Professional Perspective
To further explain this, I had an opportunity to interview Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC), Tarik Sloussi. As a psychotherapist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tarik specializes in working with adolescent and young adult guys. His areas of expertise include thought, mood, behavioral, and adjustment related problems. Tarik has provided mental health support for many children dealing with the negative effects of divorce.
From the stigma of mental health to resources for divorcing parents, Tarik and I covered a lot of ground in our Q&A-styled conversation. We agree that mental health is extremely important when discussing a child’s overall health. Health and wellness aren’t just physical elements. Tarik and I explore how parents can reduce a possible mental health impact and what to keep in mind during divorce.
RPM: Why should mental health be considered when we talk about a child’s overall health?
TS: Poor mental health can have catastrophic consequences. Data shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst teens. Although this is alarming, there are things we can do to reverse this data. We can start by monitoring and addressing the mental health of our children via regular check-ins. Ask your children how they are feeling, inquire about their outlook on life, and offer to get them help if they need it.
RPM: Can you provide some sample open ended questions that would encourage them to share their feelings?
TS: How do you feel about your mental health? Be direct. Like the sex or drug talks, the more comfortable you are talking about the subject matter, the more comfortable your child will be as well. Also like the sex and drug talks, talking about mental health should not be a one-time thing. Check in periodically to see how your child is doing and if they have any questions, comments, or concerns.
Ask them to rate their self-esteem from a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being “down in the dumps” and 10 being “perfect.” Regardless of what your child’s response is, ask why it isn’t one notch lower or one notch higher. This will give you greater insight into the way your child sees themselves and why. It will also force your child to justify their answer as opposed to just throwing out an arbitrary number.
RPM: If a child resists sharing, is there something you recommend a parent say that leaves that door open and invites the child to share on their terms?
TS: If your child is resistant, find new and creative ways to engage them. Find something to do while you’re talking – walk and talk, play a game, or cook together. In some cases, you may want to consider disclosing age appropriate information about you or someone you know who has struggled with mental health to normalize the conversation and get your child more comfortable talking about the subject matter. You can also encourage your child to talk to another trusted adult or family member. This could include an aunt or uncle, school counselor, or a close family friend.
RPM: How can a parents' divorce play a role in the health of children?
TS: Divorce can impact children in a variety of ways. Some may feel anxious, worried, confused, and scared, while others may feel relieved - especially if divorce means less drama and stress. The children that struggle most tend to blame themselves for the divorce. Some children even worry that if their parents can stop loving one another than they can stop loving them as well. This can result in a variety of problems including issues with sleep, mood, eating, and concentration.
RPM: What can a parent do to combat a child feeling as though it is their fault?
TS: This is difficult to combat as it has more to do with a child’s stage of development than anything else. You can however limit its effects by normalizing the concept of divorce and reinforcing the fact that the divorce had nothing to do with your child and their actions. You should also co-parent well and consistently highlight that you and your ex-partner’s love for your child is unconditional. Kids need a form of positive reinforcement and to hear that everything is going to be okay.
RPM: What should divorcing families keep in mind about the mental health of their children?
TS: The first year is the toughest. Try to provide structure and consistency, reassure your children that your love is unconditional, make space for them to process their feelings and emotions, encourage them to explore healthy outlets like socialization and exercise, and maintain healthy boundaries by not oversharing or talking negatively about your former partner.
RPM: How can a divorcing family reduce a possible mental health impact for their children?
TS: The best way to limit the negative mental health impacts of divorce on your children is to co-parent well and model emotional intelligence. Children take their cues from the adults around them. If you’re freaking out they’re likely to freak out as well. Keep your cool, maintain healthy boundaries, and be willing to negotiate with your ex to provide the best transition for your children.
Tarik also shared several recommended readings and resources for children and parents. These books about children of divorce have several benefits for the readers to help them cope and understand their feelings.
For young children, Two Homes by Claire Masurel is a beautiful book that explains the journey of a young girl as she enjoys her two homes. As written in its description, the gently reassuring text focuses on what is gained rather than what is lost when parents divorce, while the sensitive illustrations, depicting two unique homes in all their small details, firmly establish Alex’s place in both of them. Two Homes will help children and parents embrace even the most difficult of changes with an open and optimistic heart.
For grade school children, Tarik recommends the book My Parents’ Divorce (How Do I Feel About) by Julia Cole. This book helps to teach children how to describe different situations related to divorce and separation and offers suggestions to help children feel better. It also discusses why divorce happens, how to cope with it, and how to deal with difficult feelings as well as friends whose parents are divorced.
For parents looking to help their children during their divorce, Tarik recommends Making Divorce Easier on Your Child by Nicholas Long and Rex Forehand. This book details 50 ways to help children adjust and cope with divorce. These strategies and action steps are packaged in a convenient, quick-bite format. It is based on the authors' years of clinical experience dealing with the children of divorce, as well as their extensive research into the causes and cures of divorce-related emotional problems.
An added benefit of collaborative divorce is the additional resources that are available to you and your family. This includes bringing in professionals who are experts in wellness. At any point during the collaborative divorce process, each spouse can enlist the help of mental health professionals, if needed. Guidance can also be given for children in terms of counseling and therapy. In addition, the divorcing couple can also utilize additional experts to help create a tailored agreement that is fair and balanced for everyone. These neutral experts may consist of additional lawyers, financial advisors, planners, coaches, and/or child specialists.
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If you have any legal questions about using collaborative law to reduce emotional turmoil for your children during a divorce, please give us a call at (980) 260-1600. Our Charlotte-based team is here to help you and your family.
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Note: This blog is intended to be informational only and shall not be construed as legal advice.