Children and Divorce, Stepfamilies

Being a child is not an easy task, and only adults with particularly poor memory consider childhood as perpetual bliss. Children have to adjust to a body that changes all the time, as well as to a mind that expands continuously. They have to rely on adults to make decisions for them; they have to follow rules established by adults, all the while learning a great number of important skills and acquiring and retaining inordinate amounts of information, academic and otherwise. Somehow in this process, our children also have to learn how to make friends and keep them and how to become successful and efficient adults.

All of the above seems like a difficult enough task, even if a child has supportive parents who work as a unified entity most of the time to create a safe atmosphere. But what if this child, just like about 50 percent of children in our society, is being raised by parents who are in a state of perpetual conflict with each other, who are getting divorced, or who are trying to establish their new family? How difficult it is for a child to juggle appropriate developmental tasks while being stuck between his fighting parents or parents who are trying to use him as a weapon against each other. The fact that half of the population is in the same position does not make this position less painful for this particular child.

The child may start to act out at school or at home in an attempt to make others feel the way he feels or, on the contrary, he may become too quiet and too compliant: "my dad left because mom and me...;we were bad; now if I am bad, mom is going to leave me, too,"; as my 7-year-old patient put it in such an eloquent yet heartrending way. In this situation, therapy serves as a training field and a cushion at the same time. This training field would be a place where the child can try new behaviors and new skills without a pressing need to fit into his mother's, his father's, or their new families' agendas; this is precisely the type of pressure children often experience in divorced families, since they feel they need to be someone's ally at all times. In addition, these children often appear to be more mature and more socially attuned compared to kids who did not go through a harsh family turmoil. What at first glance may look like an advantage turns out to be a curse for the same individuals later in life. As children, they were too busy reading adults in an attempt to foresee what may be coming their way in an unpredictable situation. Therefore, many of them did not have a chance to develop a sense of their own individuality, and, as a result, they may live according to somebody else's script. In therapy, these children get a chance to explore and develop their personal needs and proclivities, thus forming a functioning and independent personality structure.