Divorce is an incredibly complex issue for children and teens to understand. A critical factor when considering how children and adolescents might be impacted by separation or divorce is their egocentricity. What is meant by egocentricity is that children and teens look to themselves, almost always, as the cause of problems that arise in the family and this can provoke great stress and anxiety for them, especially in the case of divorce.
No matter how much you as a parent might try to assure your children that they are not the cause of the break up, none the less they tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that they are in some way the cause. They may contemplate thoughts like, ‘If I had been a better kid or a smarter kid, this wouldn’t have happened.” I once had a young adult client whose parents had separated several years earlier, right after a baseball game in which he played poorly. A part of him still felt his inadequacy at the game had somehow tipped the marriage, which ended, over the edge. Added to children’s thoughts of blame is usually the enduring hope that the family will come back together again. This hope may span many years. Assurances by parents that kids are not to blame and the reasons for the break up must be consistent and repeated over time as must the fact that the family has changed permanently. Children’s self blame can manifest in behaviors such as acting out, tantrums, bed wetting, sleeping issues and depression. For adolescents, drinking and the use of drugs or other substances are symptomatic of painful feelings they cannot tolerate because they lack the needed coping skills.
Sadness and loss are normal reactions for all of those in the family affected by divorce. However, if your child or adolescent is exhibiting behaviors that concern you, consider whether the help of a therapist might be appropriate—both for them and for yourself. Whether you’re contemplating separation or divorce, in the midst of one, or dealing with the aftermath, I encourage you to reach out for support. Don’t struggle through this difficult time alone.