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Overcoming Divorce Trauma
Foolproof Strategies for Maintaining Your Child's Equilibrium
As is typical in practically every divorce, your children are usually the last know. Even when a marriage is fraught with discord, children generally hold onto the wish that their parents will somehow manage to stay together, or, like The Parent Trap, they can engineer a modicum of a truce. But in the real world, acrimonious marriages generally end in equally contentious divorces. When that happens, a constellation of emotions surface, feelings of abandonment rage, psychological dysregulation, and immense anger are but a few of the overwhelming feelings children experience. Divorce is never easy. Even in the most civilized of circumstances, almost everybody is put through the wringer, with children suffering the most. But what happens when you are the cause of their pain? Even in the final stages of a divorce, many parents still don't want to own it. They know that they must do something about their child's anguish, but they're just too busy fighting the custody battles, property settlements, and a host of other issues that need to be resolved. Such parents are sometimes accused of putting their needs before that of their children. The kids think their parents are selfish for not listening. Who really loses? Do they feel they can express themselves? Read on for tips on how to create a safe and contained atmosphere for your children to maintain their self-esteem and emotional equilibrium.
The Trauma Trilogy
Trauma, masking as stress and anguish, are usually the first to manifest in a child, causing them to feel despairing, hopeless, and lost. When the child suffers such a devastating personal loss with the divorce of her parents, depression and the erosion of self esteem is usually the first to occur. In many cases, the child blames himself for the demise of his parent's union and is overwhelmed with grief. Trauma experiences in children can produce oppressive feelings of sadness, recurring anger, self-blame, and even violence. A national study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services in the late 1990's concluded that:
Human physiological response is not unlike animals. Born with survival instincts, when we feel threatened or endangered, the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the flight or fight response, kicks in and ignites a set of physiological and neurological mechanisms to confront the situation and produce a stress reaction. However, in spite of years of extensive research and clinical studies, the understanding of trauma and its aftermath is still in its nascent stages. Though in 1966, trauma was characterized as "the neglected disease of modern history," it is now is recognized as one of the most enduring psychological problems. Only since 1980 did the American Psychological Association include a classification for post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and is recognized as a forerunner to clinical depression. Depending on the child's age, clinical depression and trauma may mask itself as aggression or sadness, which many parents mistake as aggression as a result of the divorce. "In this case," says Mary Cotchello, MA, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Omaha, Neb., "stressful situations are misdiagnosed, and the child is accused of 'acting out' and being aggressive for no known reason. Problematically, there IS a reason, but it goes unacknowledged."
Recognizing the difficulties in managing your child's emotions, and how differently they manifest themselves is a challenge in itself. According to Margaret Mearson, Ph.D., a family therapist who specializes in divorce cases in Palm Springs, Calif., and an extensive lecturer on the subject of human behavior, believes that children will respond to stressful situations in a variety of functional ways. "Keep in mind that 'functional' is what the child uses to cope. In some cases, they may act violent, other times, guarded and silent, and in rare cases, they may actually tell you how they really feel. The last, of course, is a novelty," laughs Dr. Mearson. "Usually it's the other two." Some signs to look for in children who are experiencing depression are:
Save your kids before you divorce
The point of any sane divorce is to get the children through it with the least amount of psychological harm as possible. One of the most damaging aspects of divorce, according to statistics from researchers and family courts, is open parental conflict. A study of more than 2,000 divorced people in 1999 revealed that more than 50% still argued in front of their kids. "Conflict of this nature creates a breeding ground for open warfare. This is the worst thing you can possibly do," says attorney Rose Cohen, a family law specialist in Woodland Hills, Calif. "Argue anywhere except in front of your kids. This kind of discord is very disconcerting and creates a more hostile environment. Children should never be within listening range when their parents are fighting." Such altercations create serious problems with kids, ranging from lack of trust to aggression. Exposing children to conflict also places them in what psychologists call "Loyalty Conflicts," forcing them to choose sides. According to Catherine Lee, Psy.D., a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and author of numerous essays on divorce and the emotional outcome on children, Loyalty Conflicts "damage a child's self-esteem and sense of emotional security. They feel they cannot be safe with one parent or the other. To whom can they turn?" If you are not able to communicate civilly with each other, consider doing it through your attorneys.
For yourself, that is. There is absolutely no shame in seeking professional psychological assistance. An easy referral source is through your divorce attorney or family doctor.
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Man of the House
The Fresh Start Recovery Workbook: A Step-By-Step Program for Those Who Are Divorced or Separated.
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The Visitation Handbook
Separate property is property acquired before marriage, property received after the date of separation, inheritances, and gifts. Separate property is not divided in the divorce. Debts incurred before getting married or incurred after separating are separate property debts. Spouses are required to file proof of community and separate property on a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure.
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