Behavior issues due to a separation

Mar 29, 2010

I recently received a question from a grandmother with her concerns regarding her grandson’s behavior since his parents separated. There were several issues she was facing so, I would like to address some of those issues and hopefully it will be helpful to all of you.

If you are dealing with parental separation where the child is going to be living in two different homes or dealing with the effects of the separation as a whole, there are a few behavior changes that you will be probably notice in your child. First, they will typically either act out or withdraw. It seems that children tend to do one of those two things , so you may see them more reserved and more internalizing in their behavior, or you may see them more aggressive or more emotional which would be the acting out. That is relatively normal and it tends to come at worst early on and tends to get better with some adjustments.

You may also notice the children struggle in school, as a result of separation and often because children spend so much time in school it takes a lot of mental energy, that they don’t have the mental energy to give to their school work and they tend to take the lazy attitude where they don’t care about their school, they don’t care about their grades so teachers and guidance counselors will often notice differences in their behavior at school as well.

Another typical issue that children will experience is they tend to want contact with the parent they’re not living with, so, lets for an example, say that the mother moves out and living with the father. They will consistently want attention and interaction from mom but what happens, unfortunately, after that contact is they tend to seem more confused about the situation so, it’s almost as if they have a hope that things will be better once they interact with that parent but then they just end of feeling hurt because things really don’t feel better for them.

So, it’s interesting to deal with those types of problems for kids and here some of my suggestions. First recognize the root of the problem, so as the behaviors are changing its easy to get frustrated and want things to go back to normal or the way you use to be. But it is important to recognize that it is a very difficult transition for kids so they are going to need to deal with things in their own time and in their own way and they are going to need have a little bit understanding with the root of the problem.

Another concern you may have is that the child wants to live with the other parent so in the situation before where mom might have moved out and they are living with dad but it seems that children will typically say “I want live with the other parent”, “I want to live with mom instead”, even, often if that means that they would be in a more difficult situation or one that is less favorable for the child and what’s interesting about kids is it seems the that they want to express their ideal world and avoid their actual world. So, ideally, mom and dad are still together, ideally they can go back to the happy life that they had before where every thing made sense and in parents were still in love and taking care of them jointly. so, they would rather express the ideal world instead of the actual where they confused, they’re hurt, their sad, they’re angry, so that can be a pretty normal issue as well, and kids still love parents no matter what has happened no matter what has gone on so, even when things have been bad, when things have been you know less than ideal at home, children will still want to communicate that they love their parents and they wants the other have one in their life as well and kids often will believe that the change would fix the problem so “if I could only live with mom, I will feel better”, “if I could only live with dad” who is not longer around “I would get my way, I would be happier, I would be able to see my friends more” whatever they conjure up in their mind would be better then what it is now. And so unfortunately, that’s usually not the case even if they were to get what they wanted it would not always work out that way so what you can do, obviously reflect understanding of their feelings, so you might say “Johnny I know that you must wish that you could see your mom more” and notice that’s a very neutral statement. There is no attempt to convince that that’s a bad idea. It’s not, “I know you’d like to live with mom, but…” It is just an acknowledgement of their feelings and you understanding that they do wish that they had more time with that other parent. And another way you can potentially get more information from them is use an “I wonder” statement, which might be, “I wonder what would be different if you lived with mom” and that can open up the discussion for them to explain what they really would like or what they would prefer and it may be something simple as I’d be closer to school or I could be driven to school instead of riding the bus. So that would be a way you can be more aware of making accommodations and maybe helping him get to school instead of having to ride the bus once or twice a month if that’s really what they’re after.

Another issue that this grandmother expressed in her question was that parent that has left is seemingly not keeping promises that are given to their child so the example she gave me was they promised a Christmas gift and the Christmas gift never came. So, I would like to quickly address how you can handle if the child feels that they not getting what they need form their parent. You can obviously reflect the disappointment so “I know that must have disappointed you, you were looking forward to that gift” or “that must some if you feel sad that the gift didn’t come”. Do not, I am encouraging you strongly for this one, Do not bad mouth in response. So it would need not to be appropriate to say “well, that’s the way your mom is, she doesn’t follow through with things” because that forces the child to choose, it forces the child to side with mom, who they really wish they would have gotten a gift from, or side with you, and then therefore, feel negatively towards mom. So make sure you are not bad mouthing the other parent, even if you’re frustrated which is perfectly understandable.

Another suggestion I would have is don’t make excuses for the parent. It’s easy to try to explain away why that might have happened. “Well, she probably got busy” or “you know, she’s probably going to send you your birthday gift instead. And that just gives the child that they can’t trust the other parent and they’re not accountable, so you don’t want to make the child feel that way also.

And finally, make sure that if the other parent is not being consistent, that you, as the person that is in their life consistently, are very consistent, very direct, you set clear expectations, you follow through, because especially if they are not receiving that from the other parent, it’s imperative that they are getting that from you. So I would encourage you to just make sure that you are aware that you keep your promises, you are effective in communicating in what you need and expect from them so that there aren’t surprises, and making sure that you are just the best that you can be with spending time and energy and effort to make the transition from joint marriage into separation a little easier for your children.

Until next time, go hug your kid.