Here is March’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My husband and I recently separated and our youngest son is having a hard time coping. He’s been very upset, cries a lot, and doesn’t want to go anywhere alone. When he’s with me, he’s asking about where his dad is and when he’s with his dad, he’s asking when he’ll see me again. It’s breaking my heart to see him like this. What can we do to help him?
Dear Divorce Disaster,
I know how hard this can be…on everyone. I work with a lot of families going through separation and divorce and I am always impressed with how thoughtful and worried most parents are about how their children will manage through this painful time.
Some of what you are describing is normal, and actually very healthy. I am glad your son knows that it is okay to show his sadness and fear about the situation. Separation and divorce disrupts the whole family and it makes sense that a lot of kids feel like their world has turned upside down. Their sense of trust is shaken, and sometimes they don’t feel safe, because they think everything might change on them again and they will have no power to stop it. A lot of kids experience the kind of heightened separation anxiety you describe, always worrying and wondering about the parent they are not with. You and your husband can help your son by staying calm, validating his fears, and answering his questions about where and when he will see the other parent in simple, clear terms. Then, remind him about what is planned for this present moment and help to distract him from his fears. If you go around and around with him, it only escalates his fears, so simple, short, calm answers are best.
You and your husband can talk with him about what he might need in order to feel better. He might say, “For the two of you to get back together.” You can gently tell him that is not an option at this time, but that there are many other things the two of you can do to help. Some kids like having a favorite stuffed animal at each house. Some kids like having a reminder of the parent they are not with, say mom’s scarf at dad’s house and dad’s socks to wear at mom’s house. Setting up consistent phone calls to check in with each parent, a journal that he can write in, or more voice in the visitation schedule can help. Most kids learn to accept the new routine and actually find there are some positive aspects to the separation. Kids have told me that if it has to be this way, at least they get more quality time with each parent, or enjoy having two bedrooms to decorate.
If your son continues to experience intense reactions to the separation, or you and your husband have a hard time agreeing on how to handle things, working with a therapist can be very helpful.
I wish you, and your son, a healthy transition,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website http://www.shelbyrileymft.com/ for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.