Monday, January 22, 2007

Divorce no divorce-your kid

Let's take the case of Ellie. (all names, all ages, all identifyers are made up in this post).

She's 9. Her parents divorced when she was 6 because they argued about everything and occasionally couldn't control themselves, pushed and shoved too much. Her father grabbed her mother's mother and bruised her badly in the final event that ended the marriage.

But Ellie thought all along (as I've said in other posts on parenting and divorce) that it was her fault that her parents divorced. Many of their arguments, and she heard SO many, centered around her. Drawing conclusions at that age isn't as hard as you'd think.

Well, Mom and Grandmom moved far away, taking Ellie with them, which is not at all unusual. Dad had to work the legal system hard to get his little girl back in Chicago. He still only had visitation every other weekend. But at least Ellie was here, living with Mom and Grandmom, and oh, yes, and Mom's significant other was never far away.

If you're thinking family systems and are not automatically villifying Dad, assuming he's a violent monster, then you might see that Grandmom played an inordinately large role in that marriage. In this case it was her advice about raising Ellie that conflicted with Dad's, and Mom could not extricate herself from the conflict, couldn't side with her boy.

There were other things going on, too. Usually divorce isn't a consequence of just one variable, especially not the enmeshment variable, which seems so normal to people. Couples will more likely blame their relationship problems on outside relationships. Other significant others are usually a function of relationship/family problems, like . . . enmeshment.

Knowing that Grandmom played a large role in the marriage, you can assume that she also will play a large role in the couple's post-divorce conflict. Divorce rarely ends the conflict, not without lots of smudging and dirt.

Should you bring Grandmom into the therapy?

She has an overly large presence in the narrative so certainly you want to see if and how Grandmom enmeshed Mom and how Ellie is also discouraged from developing into her own person. You can test that to a degree by finding out how well socialized Ellie is with other children, whether or not she does anything after school except homework and television.

But I'd bring Grandmom in just to confirm my guess and watch her in action, give her power to decide that Ellie needs more running room outside the family and how that should happen. Rather that fight a system, I work with it.

I'd try not to see her too often, though. She wouldn't be one of my favorite persons and she's not my patient. I'm not changing her or her world view and wouldn't begin to try unless she really wants to work with me. I really don't need her to get results, but she could, ultimately, really help the situation if she were amenable.

The judge ordered therapy in this case because Ella stuttered and was failing in Chicago, even though she did quite well in school prior to her move back into town.

I taught her some assertiveness, encouraged her to speak her feelings to her Mom, Grandmom, and Dad, more often, to make it a general habit.

See, and people wonder, why don't you do much play therapy, Therapydoc? I feel guilty stealing, is why. Most kids need social skills training, not to play with a grown-up person, unless it's their Mom or Dad. Truthfully, I will do play therapy when a kid isn't verbal, but Ellie could talk and wanted to talk.

I coaxed her to ask her teacher for help. When the teacher said, Try it first on your own, she was to answer back and say, I already tried. I just don't get it. Please help me. That worked, by the way. It made the teacher more aware of Ellie as a person, put her on the map.

How do I know? Systems therapists talk to teachers who are key players in a kid's ecosystem. I don't get it that other docs can't spend ten minutes on the phone with teachers. You know who you are. Sorry if this is becoming a rant. Ignore me.

But don't ignore this.

I titled this post Divorce or no divorce-your kid because I'm sure Ellie would have stuttered and had problems in school no matter her parents' marital status.

Just being married is no lock on your kid's sense of security and well-being. You have to be on top of that as parents. Security doesn't come with the umbrella of "marriage" or even "committment".

I bring this up here because one of the things Ellie told me in private was that her father didn't call her very often. Dad SAID he'd call to help her with school work twice a week, but he forgot. And Mom didn't have the skills to help her and very much left the job of teaching to the school. She also had a one-year old baby.

So when Ellie would be sitting at her desk and the teacher would pass back the homework and hers would have a big ZERO or a big fat F at the top, she would cry there silently, then force herself to smile and to try to socialize as if there was nothing wrong.

And at the end of the day, her Mom or Grandmom might ask, I really think they did, How was school? How were your grades? But Ellie wouldn't share that experience with them.

After all, how easy is it to talk about failure at any age?

Then there's Dad, forgetting to call. Yeah, I could have strangled him. He was the one bringing Ellie to therapy. He was the one with insurance, a house in the burbs, the better communicator.

So here's the real universal parenting truth, Divorced or not divorced, your kid needs that emotional check up at the end of the day.

Like you, your kids need to hear questions like, Did the world give you a beating today? How are those kids in your class? Any mean ones? Anyone mean to you? How 'bout that teacher. Nice? They're not all nice. Are you scared to ask for something if you need it, like a pencil?

If you act like you care, they'll answer you honestly. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to run right over and fix the problem. But you have to take your kid's emotional temperature. Then you can go from there.

By the way. Start this while they're young and you won't seem like an alien to the kid during adolescence, all of a sudden going, Why in the world are you hanging around with THAT kid!

For kids, learning to talk about their lives, their day, is liberating and intimate. That's why once they get into it, they want a PHONE. Academic (work) intimacy is key and it's your job as a parent to foster the process, the skill of communicating events and feelings.

We don't all do it naturally, you know, talk about ourselves.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Mark said...

Excellent article! This should be required reading for all parents. The conversations that you have with your child in the evening after school are critical to their mental/emotional well being!

TherapyDoc said...

yup, it's hard, too, if they actually do talk. I can remember one of my kids, the female of course, catching me not listening when she was about ten. She'd deliberately trip me up with dialogue like this:

I got an A on my spelling test, and S. got a B, and oh, you know, it was interesting, like then that cow that we all saw at recess, hanging around, making friends, well, she just jumped way over the moon. Oh yeah. It was awesome.

J said...

I convinced myself that I convinced my parents that my kindergarten teacher was a monster and that if they loved me they would never send me back to that school.

They listened, but they apparently didn't love me. Lot of good talking does!

Yvette said...

Another great post!!! Still, I fear that you are preaching to the choir. Parents who are struggling to communicate with a partner (spouse, significant other, etc) are probably not much good at communicating, period. And kids -- being the sponges that they are -- follow the parents' lead.

As for Ellie, well, it sounds like her dad could use some therapeutic insight/encouragement. If he is bringing Ellie to therapy and making the effort to get her help he's already halfway there -- and it sounds like he would benefit from a little "instruction" that might help him communicate with Ellie. (Is it possible that there is something else going on? For example, are his calls "screened" by grandma or mom, who conveniently "forget" to let Ellie know that Dad called?)

Finally, maybe Ellie would benefit from assertiveness in telling her father what she wants and needs from him -- similar to what she is asking from her teacher. Is there a way she can ask her father for what she wants from him (maybe in the safety of your office)? It gives her the chance to make it known what she wants from him, it gives him the chance to respond to her request, and if, ultimately, he can't follow through, then she knows that it really really is all about him. Same thing with "grandma" -- the heck with wasting time and money bringing grandma into therapy. Better to give little El the skills she will need to recognize what Grandma is doing and to protect herself from Grandma and others like her. Ellie will desperately need those insights when she gets a bit older and moves on to intimate adult relationships of her own.

Divorce sucks. Bad family dynamics suck. That's why therapy thrives -- and I would give the Dad tons of credit for taking the initiative and letting his daughter know that help is out there and that it is OKAY to get help when you need it.

Wow... longer than I intended. Sorry for hogging comment space -- you inspire me, doc!

TherapyDoc said...

J- I'm missing this. maybe send me an email and clarify, okay?

TherapyDoc said...

Y- Quickie response.

1. Having difficulty communicating with a spouse may have no bearing upon a parent's ability to communicate well with a child.

I stay away from absolutes and certainly, assumptions.

2. Father's doing just fine, needed someone in his immediate env (like HIS S-O) to reinforce the treatment objectives. This happened. Ellie was plenty assertive in my office, but your recommendation would be right on if that were not the case.

3. When I talked to Ellie alone I was informed about the context. More importantly, since Mom and Grandmom wanted E. to succeed in school and knew Dad could help. They haven't sabataged his calls from the moment I started working with the family.

The magic of family therapy is only magical if you have the confidence of everyone in the system. Otherwise it's much more work. In fact, most of the work is gaining that confidence, not so easy in our psycho-therapy, self-help glutted world.

This kind of post is to get your wheels turning, and yours are great. Thanks for reading and adding to the dialogue with so much insight.

socialworker/frustrated mom said...

You are so amazing I need to learn from you. Awesome post.

TherapyDoc said...

Aw thanks.

Lisa said...

Great post, and inspiring story. Kids are very resilient. I am a child of divorce and seeing how the divorce impacted each of us kids differently really taught me a few lessons. I really like that you bring the family into it, you can't help change anything if the family isn't on board.

Here via the carnival of family life.

TherapyDoc said...

Right Lisa. People want rules about divorce, statistics about what will happen to their kids, etc. Each family is different. Family therapists are helpful here in that we can explore what might happen and help prepare kids for possibilities.

They like that.

J said...

I was thinking about this on a long drive tonight, and I started wondering about something you hear about frequently: parents who stay together "for the kids." Do you think it's worse for the parents to divorce (and maybe date and find a healthier relationship) or is it worse to continue to model a dysfunctional relationship that may be very strained, possibly verbally abusive, or what have you?

TherapyDoc said...

J- I'd want to hear about all of the variables, meaning what's the kid like, what's the kid want, how does the kid perceive that relationship, do the parents EVER show affection to one another and genuine respect, are they ALWAYS depressed, angry, or is the balance of family life okay. Is the negative emotion ever discussed and labeled as just that? I.e., I know I just hurt your mother's feelings, I hope she's okay. Or, Your father's angry, but that's the only kind of emotion he knows.

Separating kids from parents messes with their emotions and thoughts and should be discussed openly. When that happens, when a child recognizes that indeed, his parents are better off NOT staying together, then it's easier and can be healing. There might still be very tough times, much resentment, etc.

All that has to be talked about before it happens, preferably. The potential for missing Dad, the potential for missing Mom, the phone calls, the new step-parents, the reasons for the divorce (YES, kids DO understand them, it's parents who have trouble understanding them).

So there's no one "right" answer for every family with dysfunction.
I'm of the opinion that every family has at least a little dysfunction. That's why everyone needs therapy. Why guess at it when you can find out what it is and how to take a stab at fixing it?

bjurstrom said...

Dear Doc,
Sometimes it is just about learning the basic stuff. I've been reading, thinking, and hearing your stuff about enmeshed families...but somehow I didn't listen....I thought I was listening...but I was actually waiting for a DIFFERENT now I'm trying to accept what I have is. It seems (if you share stuff) that every family has stuff in common with every other insighs abound...if you see them. And clever insights are just more fun(Indexed). About kids...when my guys were young I discovered the existence of the Homework Dialect....(a subset of Kid Speak) An example goes like this- "Hey A--- do you have any homework?" A---"No". Translation= I left it at school. Or, "How's your math class?" A---"I don't know?" Translation= I think I'm failing. So we invented the Kitchen Table Rule. Sit down at the kitchen table and start something or your Dad/Mom will give you something to work on....The kitchen table knew the truth....sometimes school work was too hard to do alone....

TherapyDoc said...

Love that kitchen table knows the truth idea. Brilliant, BJ.

yvette said...

Hey doc,

Thanks for your reply to my comment. I guess I was confused by some of the "pieces of the puzzle" in your post. Court-ordered therapy seemed like a sign that the parents were not working together to make things happen -- since someone would have to alert the court to the need for therapy, non? Combine that with a father who goes to great lengths (and expense) to get his daughter back into the state -- and then doesn't call her (was he trying to punish the mother? or was it really about the child?) Something just didn't fit in this picture...

Just trying to get my head around this -- having talked through divorce both as a parent and a step-parent. I know you don't like absolutes, but when a marriage doesn't work there's often behaviors that each parent contributes and often continues in their relationship with the child(ren). Getting people out of that "rut" and relating to children (and former spouse?) differently seems part of the eco-system to me...

Ellie is lucky someone saw the need and got her the help she needs. And she's lucky that someone took the time to find a therapist who sees the whole eco-system.

TherapyDoc said...

No question, Y it would be great if this family had the financial resources to devote to fixing everything. But it's not going to happen so I shoot for the changes between the kid and her parents, not the interactions between parents. Most divorced couples aren't going to fix what was broke in the marriage, that's why they're divorced. BTW, Dad did call E, just not as often as this either E or this doc would have liked. Remember. I CHANGE the facts on these cases, so discussing them in depth in this way can be a little bizarre.

Anonymous said...

ust trying to get my head around this -- having talked through divorce both as a parent and a step-parent. I know you don't like absolutes, but when a marriage doesn't work there's often behaviors that each parent contributes and often continues in their relationship with the child(ren). Getting people out of that "rut" and relating to children (and former spouse?) differently seems part of the eco-system to me...this article is very interesting for Divorce Help, click on the link
to find similar article Divorce Help

TherapyDoc said...

You're absolutely right. As a therapist, tho, treating THAT person isn't always so easy. The one that's most difficult to treat is often only there for someone else, like the kid. But you're right, changing people and how they relate is the ultimate goal.

Patrick said...

Great post, thanks for sharing. Seems this scenario happens much too often. My ex-mother-in-law was too involved and it caused many arguments. While I don't advocate divorce I do feel that sometimes it is inevitable. I tried everything I could to save my marriage and it didn't work. Now I am a single Dad (yes I have full custody) with 3 kids. The divorce was hard on them but they are so much better off now. I got a lot of information and advice for divorce from

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