Divorce is hard on everyone involved, even if you and your spouse are parting on the best of terms. In most cases, there are a lot of difficult emotions and situations to navigate for the entire family. Children of divorce can be affected for the rest of their lives. Changing their family situation can force them to move to a new home, go to a new school, and leave their friends behind on top of not being able to see both parents as much. However, you don’t have to accept that divorce will ruin your child’s life. Taking them to a child psychologist is the best thing you can do for their immediate and overall mental health.
If you’ve never been to a therapist or psychologist before, the thought of taking your child to a doctor who will talk to them about what is going on in your family life can be scary. However, when you know what to expect, it’ll be easier to see the benefits that will come from getting help for your child.
What is a Child Psychologist?
A child psychologist is someone who has gone to school to study developmental psychology. They have spent a lot of time studying how children see the world, and how a variety of social situations can impact their development.
There are dozens of ways in which a child psychologist can help. The exact methods used vary depending on which clinician you decide to see and what issues they treat. Because most parents don’t know how to tell behavioral problems apart from psychological disorders, child psychologists need to know how to spot and treat issues like anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and navigating major life events.
Child psychologists undergo specialized training to help them understand the mind of a child. The adult brain and the child's brain view the world very differently. Something that could make total sense as an adult can completely baffle most kids. Due to this structural difference in brain chemistry, psychologists who work with children must approach problems in ways that make sense to younger minds.
There are many different environments in which you might encounter a child psychologist. You can try to find one in a clinic or at your child’s school. You can also find them in hospitals and courts.
How do they help?
Up until their adult years, children are still forming ideas about who they are and what to expect from the world around them.
Children between the ages of 5 to 12 are most susceptible to the effects of divorce. They will likely have a hard time adjusting to the changes in routine and structure. If they don’t directly hear that something isn’t their fault, they are likely to assume that what is happening with their parents is because of something they did.
Along with helping children adjust to changes in their family structure, child psychologists also often meet with caretakers. That helps them discuss what sorts of behavioral changes they can expect and how to still be supportive.
What sort of training do they undergo?
Child psychologists are required to get a minimum of a master’s in psychology, but most of them have a Ph.D. They must also be licensed to practice in your state, which requires a few years of clinical experience and must pass an industry-specific test.
Many parents search for a child psychologist who has been practicing for ten or more years. Therefore, they have more experience treating children. However, older psychologists may also be unaware of some of the newer, more effective methods of treatment currently being used in the field.
How Does Divorce Affect Children?
It’s normal for your child to feel angry, hurt, betrayed, or even depressed when they see their parents fighting and parting ways. Divorce can affect every aspect of a child’s life, from their home situation to affect school performance and friendships as well.
When parents separate, it tends to make children distrustful. What was once a trusting relationship is put into question once they see you acting in an undependable way. Divorce can make your kids feel like the family splits in two, which can be hard to reconcile. Your children might feel like they must pick sides and can feel like you or the other parent is putting undue expectations on them to choose sides.
If your kids can see you’re upset or frustrated at your soon to be ex, they might not feel like they can talk to you about whatever they’re going through. This can lead to them repressing their emotions and being unable to work through them in a healthy way, both now and in the future. When your child doesn’t feel safe, they can develop destructive or maladaptive behaviors to get what they need.
One of the most common things that happen to children of divorce is behavioral regression. Things they used to be able to do before might suddenly become hard for them. They might refuse to go to bed, or if they’re young enough, they could forget the potty training you’ve put them through.
Regressing in behavior forces one or more of the parents to devote more attention to their children to deal with the problem. This can help younger kids feel like they are getting their needs met when they are causing more problems for themselves.
Kids of all ages might cry or whine more than usual or complain that they’re feeling sick when there isn’t anything wrong with them. Younger kids can become clingy and develop separation anxiety when staying with the other parent. Older kids can become rebellious by refusing to obey or disregarding your authority.
Children are incredibly dependent on caregivers for emotional, mental, and physical support. When they perceive any change in that support, they often cling tighter to try and protect themselves.
School performance can suffer because of divorce. If a child used to get good grades, but now doesn’t keep up with their school work, this is a sign that the divorce is affecting your child quite a bit. Kids can also be afraid of what their classmates might think, and withdraw from friendships or participating in their education.
Older elementary aged children can start to fight with their peers when their parents fight or get divorced. Teenagers are also more likely to try out risky behaviors with their peers or can have a hard time seeing a future for themselves.
Children Blaming Themselves
It’s also not uncommon for children to blame themselves for the divorce. This is because many children still don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Their imaginations are incredibly powerful, and often times, they believe their thoughts impact the real world.
Combine this with a need to make sense of the world around them, and you get the common side effect of children thinking that divorce is their fault. It’s easier for them to believe that they did something wrong than it is to accept that sometimes things happen outside of their control.
How a Child Psychologist Can Help Reduce Those Effects
Divorce is one of the major situations that child psychologists have trained to help children navigate. Since 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, psych experts need training in how to assist families in navigating this hardship.
Sometimes, your child could have difficulty realizing that the two of you are going to stay separated permanently. To cope with the situation, they could be fantasizing that the two of you will get back together. Thinking in this way can help them push the pain away. Child psychologists can help your kids realize that the situation isn’t going to go back to how it was before without making them feel unsafe at the same time.
Many children are anxious right after a divorce. Getting a therapist for your child can help them navigate that anxiety and develop a new sense of safety.
Child psychologists also have ways to help children understand that the divorce did not happen because of them. They can talk with your children and get to the root of why they feel that way. You will need to be involved in showing them that it isn’t their fault. The most effective way for you to do this is to tell them directly, and then act in a way that supports what you’ve said.
Methods Used in the Therapy Process
No one method will work in all divorce cases. Because of this, child psychologists need to have several therapy methods available at their disposal that appeal specifically to the way children interact with the world.
Most kids love playing with toys. If they can see that going to the psychologist’s office means getting to play with toys, they are more likely to want to show up and engage. Younger children learn to imitate their parents and often mimic situations that have happened to them. A good therapist will then ask why your child has decided to play in this way. Most of the time, these answers will be an expression of how they feel about the divorce.
Creating art is a great way to express difficult emotions without having to talk about them directly. Coloring can also be a great distraction to help your child speak their mind. Kids will often channel their feelings into their art. Child psychologists have the training to help them decipher what’s going on in a child’s drawing and how it can be related to the situation at home.
Children aren’t going to sit through a normal therapy session the same way an adult would. They have short attention spans and can’t sit still for very long. Child psychologists have ways of making therapeutic techniques seem like a game.
One way in which they can do this is to pull out picture cards and ask what your kids see. If your child says something related to difficult emotions, the child psychologist can use this as an easy way to talk about their feelings. Sometimes when asked directly, your child might be too nervous to talk about what they're going through. But when distracted, it's easier for them to open up.
There’s no formula that can tell you how long your children will need to see a psychologist. There are several factors that can influence the amount of time your kids will need therapy. Your child’s age and reaction to the situation will play a big part. If you and your ex continue to fight after you are separated, this can cause your children to continue feeling stressed and need further counseling.
How to Choose a Child Psychologist
Not all psychologists are created equal. You’ll want to do everything you can to make sure you get a great professional to work with your kid. If you have several options in your area, call around and ask each practitioner these questions before deciding on one that’s right for your family.
Getting the answers to these questions will give you a sneak peek into how each psychologist will treat your child, and what type of therapy you can expect.
- How have you helped children through a divorce before?
- What should I do if my child is scared to see you? How will you help them feel better about getting help?
- How do you involve parents in treatment?
- What signs should I look out for during treatment?
- What sorts of methods do you use in treatment?
Help Your Child Get Through Your Divorce
Some parents think they’ve failed their children if they need to go to a child psychologist. When in fact, taking your child to a psychologist that is trained to help them is one of the best things you can do.
Kids tend to blame themselves for anything bad that happens around them. But when you take them to a child psychologist during your divorce, they’ll hopefully learn that the problems between you and your spouse aren’t their fault. The psychologist can develop in a healthier way than would otherwise be possible.