Jaden was an eight year old boy who loved superheroes, space games, and baseball. A sensitive child and early reader, he had devoured the entire "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" series by the end of his second grade year.
What Jaden didn't know was that his dad and mom had been growing apart. When a not-to-be-passed-up business opportunity took dad across the country, they decided to end the marriage. They wanted it to be amicable, and tried to handle it in a way that would be least harmful to Jaden. They told him they loved him, but needed to live apart, and assured him that daddy would visit on school vacations and during the summer.
When he heard about the divorce, Jaden cried and held onto his daddy's leg. He didn't understand what was happening or why. He didn't want daddy to go away.
Fast forward six months: like most eight year old boys Jaden didn't know exactly what he was feeling. He didn't talk about things that were on his mind. Everyone though he was handling it all--until his mom and his teacher began to notice some changes. Jaden stopped playing superhero with the other boys. Instead, he stood at the perimeter of the schoolyard and looked down, often kicking rocks and sticks with the toe of his shoe.
And things weren't much better at home. Jaden wouldn't read with his mother. He refused to eat anything that was green or colorful, and he stopped watching baseball on TV with his mom. He didn't talk much anymore, and began to have nightmares about robbers and "bad guys" hiding in the tree outside his room, waiting to kidnap him while he slept.
Thinking he missed his dad, Jaden's mom let his dad pick him up and fly him cross country for a visit. Walking by his room, she thought she smelled something funny. Under Jaden's bed was a collection of rocks, sticks, bottle caps, and small items of trash. He had also stashed food, now rotten and spoiled, down there.
Jaden was hoarding as an attempt to deal with his out of control feelings. He felt left behind, angry, sad, lonely, abandoned, and terrified-a combination that overwhelmed him. He held on to manage his anxiety and feelings of loss. He dreamed of robbers because he wanted to steal to replace what he had lost.
Jaden's case and his hoarding to deal with feelings of abandonment, loss, sadness, fear, and anger are extreme. But, like adults, children do react to divorce, separation, and changes in their living situation. Their reactions to separation are diverse and varied. As mentioned, a lot has to do with cognitive and emotional development, though patterns do occur across age groups.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression and some guidelines for recognizing them in elementary aged school children:
What might you first notice in a five or six year old who feels anxious or sad? Nightmares. Kids regularly dream of nebulous creatures and threatening things, such as hulking monsters. Fear of animals is also common in this age group. But, in the case of an animal phobia it's usually the child's feelings-like anger-that are threatening, not Fido. Body aches, school anxiety, problems with eating and hoarding can also occur in five and six year olds. Children who are anxious can become aggressive and can bite or hit others. They do this to feel masterful and in control, instead of weak and powerless.
Like anxiety, depression can present in many ways in a five or six year old, including: sadness, tearfulness, isolation, and resistance to school. Even behaviors that don't necessarily look sad, such as agitation, anger, tantrums, fighting throwing things, and fidgeting can be signs of underlying sadness.
What about anxiety and depression in a seven or eight year old? Anxiety can cause nightmares to take on more human forms like witches, robbers, and bad guys. Fear of the dark is also common, in children of this age, as are school phobias, and even some learning difficulties. As with younger children, some seven and eight year olds can become aggressive or resort to hoarding to deal with extreme fears.
Depression in the seven and eight year old: children in this age group who are sad might be tearful, look downtrodden and withdraw, have difficulty concentrating in school, refuse to eat or to eat certain foods, or they might be agitated and act out in an aggressive manner. Sometimes kids who are sad try to cover up their feelings by "performing;" meaning they tell jokes, attempt to entertain everyone, and clown around to cover up feelings of loneliness and win friends.
What do anxiety and depression look like in an older child? Nine and ten year olds might have more elaborated fears, for example. Instead of nebulous bad guys, they might be afraid of being abducted, and avoid crowds. They might restrict food intake or even refuse to eat, in an attempt to manage their anxiety. Some even have recurring intrusive and uncomfortable thoughts about dangerous or scary situations like being kidnapped or arrested.
What would you expect to see in an eleven year old who feels anxious or depressed? Some might describe what they are going through in a more mature, more grown-up way, than their younger counterparts. They might tell you they are having difficulty sleeping. Or you might notice they have slept with the light on. They might worry a lot about homework, grades, and social situations. Their grades might slip because they have trouble concentrating or completing assignments. Some kids of this age even resort to restricting type and amount of food.
Eleven year olds are almost teens and can talk about their concerns and struggles. But that doesn't mean they will choose to share their problems with you. While some in this age group might ask to talk to someone about their problems, others might clam up and spend more time on-line, behind closed doors, or texting. Frequent periods of isolation, excessive amounts of time spent on-line, and school avoidance, are signs that something is going on with children of this age.
So, what to do if you notice any of the above in your child? Most important is talking to your child to get a sense of what is really going on in his life. Reading together to learn more about a problem can also help. But, if you spot symptoms of depression or anxiety in your child, and if they persist for more than a few weeks, child therapy or analysis is your best bet.
If you think you have noticed symptoms of stress or strain in your child, or if you just want to head them off at the pass, here are some general guidelines to help your child deal with separation or divorce:
1. Keep it civil!
While this is easy to say, and while it takes great restraint to be polite after your ex and his new wife have just sent you an attacking, nasty text or e-mail, take the high road.
It ain't easy to be polite, but try. Discuss the temptation to throw darts at your ex with your therapist--not with your nine year old.
2. Let your child spend time with his other parent.
This is very important, and will go a long way towards allowing her to feel loved. Plus it could help mitigate feelings of loneliness abandonment, and rejection.
3. Talk to your child.
Many children whose parents separate or divorce feel like they do not understand what is going on and why. Try to explain. Books can help with this.
Look beyond the obvious behavior and try to understand how your child is really feeling so you can best help her deal with things. If your daughter misbehaves for example, she may well feel afraid of what is going on-in the world and in her mind.
So, instead of (or before!) punishing a five year old for writing on the wall with lipstick, for example, ask her, "What feelings do you have?"
A younger child might need help differentiating and labeling feelings. And that is where you come in. When she is crying ask, "Are you sad?" It might also help to find out what happened at school that day. You might hear that a friend's dad went on class trip, and that your child misses her dad.
Information is key. With it you can take the next step, like shooting dad an e-mail, and asking him to visit school one day. If he cannot, communicate calmly and neutrally to your daughter that daddy cannot chaperone the upcoming school trip. Let her know that he'd like to go, and he is sorry to miss it--and stress that it's not her fault that daddy cannot be with her. Encourage dad to plan something fun for the weekend.
4. Talk to a professional.
It may be necessary to find a child psychologist or psychiatrist if your child has difficulties sleeping, eating, socializing, or concentrating in school--or if these difficulties don't go away in a matter of weeks. The American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, your local state psychological association, your pediatrician, and your school psychologist are all good sources for referrals to competent professionals.
Books for younger children:
Coffelt, N. Fred Stays with me! (2007). Hachette Book Group: New York, NY.
King, L., King, C. Daddy Day, Daughter Day (1997). Dove Audio, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
Danziger, P. Amber Brown is Green with Envy (2003). Scholastic, Inc., New York, NY.
Older children might enjoy:
Cleary, B. Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983). William Morrow and Co., New York, NY.