Can we work it out? Can we be a family?
I promise I'll be better, Daddy please don't leave. –"Family Portrait," Pink
Divorce is a stressor; no doubt: It can raise your blood pressure and distract you into having an accident. Can the stress of a divorce affect your children? The answer, of course, is yes. But, it’s not always as straightforward as it seems.
Separation Anxiety Disorder is a clinical term that describes an extreme state of distress that’s experienced when a person is separated from someone they’re close to, like a mother or a father.
Now, it’s somewhat normal for children to experience separation anxiety on occasion; most young kids have moments of such panic; but it’s short-lived. Real Separation Anxiety Disorder is an extreme state. The child is terrified of being left alone. She’s convinced, for instance, that robbers are about to come. Or, he believes that some strange creature in hiding in the basement. Or, sadly, she worries that Mommy or Daddy is going to die – tonight.
- Some kids refuse to sleep alone.
- Others will complain of feeling sick (when perfectly healthy), and become extremely clingy.
- When it gets bad, some may even refuse to go to school.
Separation Anxiety and Divorce: Separation anxiety tends to be more severe in children who have foster or divorced parents, which is understandable because they are separated from and in some ways “lose” a parent. It’s reported frequently in adopted kids as well.
Kids often experience their parents' divorce as a breaking of trust. After all, it’s not something they asked for. They expected their family to last forever and when it comes to an end, it’s like the bottom has fallen out. So don't be surprised if there's an increase in separation anxiety soon after a parent moves out.
And, children aren’t the only ones affected by anxiety during the turmoil of a divorce. The lives of adults who go through a divorce are disrupted, and they also often experience stress and anxiety because they’ve lost someone too.
There is hope: First, make sure that you have the right diagnosis. Every child going through divorce is entitled to a miniature experience of Separation Anxiety Disorder. See if the symptoms last or disappear. They may well go away after a week or two. It’s normal to be upset by something as big as a separation.
If your child has temporary separation anxiety symptoms, you may benefit from some of the following 10 pointers. I very much like Dawn Huebner’s books. Identifying triggers, like rocky transitions with mom or dad, can be critical.
And, if it doesn’t abate, get your child assessed. Talk therapy may help. Recently, there’s been increasing interest in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medication or a combination of the two for the treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder.
Separation Anxiety Pointers:
- Keep a routine at home. Kids benefit from predictability and structure.
- Respect your child’s feelings. Fears are exaggerated when they are private.
- What triggers the anxiety? Talk to your child to identify what makes it worse and rectify it if possible. Perhaps yelling between you and her dad is too much.
- Recognize when reassurance is not enough. Don't delay getting help and be sure to intervene before it leads to school avoidance.
- Keep calm during separation or goodbyes. Your child will take his cue from how you react. Having a special goodbye ritual like a special wave can be hugely reassuring and comforting.
- Don't be afraid to use medication if required. They often work.
- Try the Child Anxiety Book Series by Dawn Huebner. You can read it together.
- Practice separation. When your child manages to separate without fuss, use positive reinforcement to praise him.
- Consider eliminating scary television shows and movies for now. Children’s fears may be exacerbated by the frightening scenes they see on TV or in the movies.
The Takeaway: Some children have a natural tendency towards anxiety. And, others will get triggered despite no past history. It doesn’t really matter. Divorce is a stress, but it does die down over time. Things usually do get better.
It may be hard. You will feel guilty at times, and quite frustrated at others. These kids can be exasperating. But, they also are so very scared.
If you suspect that your child has the real thing, get help. Start with your pediatrician. He or she will know the best therapist to go to. Usually, treatment is quite effective. Finally, don’t be afraid to get some support for yourself.
Anxiety, after all, is not only for kids.