Children and Divorce: Interview with Donna Ferber

Jodee Redmond
Donna Ferber

Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice for 24 years. She is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor and an educator. Donna works with individuals and in groups. Her office is in Farmington, Connecticut. In her private practice, Donna specializes in issues related to life transitions. These include but are not limited to divorce, remarriage, chronic illness, loss, relocation. Other areas of expertise include depression, anxiety and grief counseling. She is an experienced and enthusiastic presenter of workshops, lectures and training sessions. You can visit Ms. Ferber online at DonnaFerber.com.

Children and Divorce: Interview with Donna Ferber

Does divorce always have a negative effect on children?

No, we used to believe that under any circumstances, divorce devastated children. However, now we know that is simply not true. In situations where there is abuse, violence or untreated addiction, divorce gives children the opportunity to grow up in a peaceful, albeit, one-parent home. The definition of abuse is broadened too - at one time it referred only to physical violence. Now we know that emotional abuse - threatening, sarcasm, name calling, to name a few - are equally as harmful to the development and well-being of children into healthy adults. Since we know children often emulate their parents' behavior, divorcing an abusive spouse sends a clear message that such behavior is unacceptable. Indeed the old adage is true; children will do what you do, not what you say.Finally, couples who decide to end their marriage can help minimize the negative effect on their children by avoiding any fighting, conflict or tension in front of the kids. Many parents tell me they do not fight in front of the kids, but the children report knowing tension exists. Parents' conflict (whether in the throes of divorce or not) is the number one reason children lose sleep and do poorly in school.

What are some common issues surrounding children and divorce?

Depending upon their age, children may act out in different ways. Sometimes children seem to skate through the process with ease, then once they feel their parents are "on steady ground," do they begin to manifest symptoms of distress.In younger children, we sometimes see regressive behavior - thumb sucking or bedwetting for example. In the 4-8 year-old group, they may become clingier and have nightmares. Adolescent children may get angry and rebel. Think of it this way; whatever developmental stage a child is going through, the behavior may be magnified by divorce. Children, like the rest of us, do not always act their best during times of transition, change and confusion. The child who acts like everything is fine, is the child to watch closely. Divorce involves loss, change and the unknown. It is normal to have some reaction!

How can a parent tell whether an issue with a child is connected to the divorce or is unrelated to their home situation? What signs indicate that the child needs to see a therapist?

Great question. Parents will often attribute any acting out behavior in their children to the breakdown of the marriage. Look for the severity, duration and number of symptoms. So, for example, a child who has a dip in his/her grades may just be having a difficult time in school. But if that same child has other issues - suddenly not eating or sleeping, isolating themselves from peers, diminished interest in their usual hobbies - then there is a cluster of issues. If these behaviors last for a period of more than two weeks, it is time to call a child therapist. By the way, a therapist may determine that the issues are not related to the divorce, but to something else entirely: perhaps bullying or low self-esteem. Regardless of the reason, this child can benefit from professional help.

Many parents bring up the following concern, "We are in a custody battle. If I bring my child to therapy will it count against me in court? Won't I be seen as a bad parent if my child needs therapy?"

Quite the contrary! Many parents worry that if they bring their child to therapy, their spouse, or worse, the legal system will judge them as being a bad parent. This often stems from the adult's own fear/stigma about seeking counseling. The legal system understands that divorce is a stressful time and often recommends counseling to family members. When a parent seeks help, for either themselves or their children, the courts support and validate that decision. Not bringing a child who is manifesting symptoms of anxiety or depression to therapy is similar to a parent not bringing a child with the flu to the doctor. In fact, the parent who does not get the help their child may need risks being seen as neglectful.

How can a parent who is concerned about his or her child find a qualified therapist?

Ask your pediatrician or a clergy member. School guidance counselors often are good referral sources. Divorce attorneys often work closely with therapists and will know those who specialize in divorce-related issues.

What advice do you have for parents who want to help a child who is having difficulty but who are also dealing with their divorce?

There is wisdom to the directive we are given prior to every airplane trip we take: "In case of low cabin pressure, put on your own oxygen mask first then help those around you." The same is true in any crisis situation. Get professional help for yourself first. This can be in the form of self-help books, counseling, a support group or a clergy member. And while friends are great support resources, their advice may not be appropriate or objective. When you take care of your own emotional needs, you are better equipped to handle your children's needs calmly and objectively, thereby making choices that are in their best interest.

LoveToKnow would like to thank Ms. Ferber for sharing this information about children and divorce.

Children and Divorce: Interview with Donna Ferber