As if splitting the assets, adjusting to the single life, and sorting through the uncertainty of what lies ahead wasn’t enough, the worry piles on as you think about your children. Accounting for their physic al need seems clearer, but what about their emotional wellbeing? If you’re not even sure where to start, here is your quick guide to mental health awareness.
Divorce Affects All Children Differently
That’s right, there isn’t a one size fits all reaction to divorce. There also isn’t a cookie cutter solution to address struggles along the way. Age, maturity, awareness of the issues between mom and dad, disruption of routine, internal and external strengths and supports can all impact response to this life change.
To add an additional layer of complexity, the timing of issues presenting themselves may also vary. One child will move seemingly well through the life changes while another is in a state of total meltdown. Yet another child has issues that seem to come and go, both in timing and intensity. And then there’s the child who leaves you confused as to what’s going on inside that beautiful little head.
Mental Health Awareness: What to Look For
Now that you are completely freaked out about this lack of “one size fits all,” let’s ease some of that anxiety by identifying what you can easily be on the look for with regards to your children’s emotional response and behavior.
Symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and/or disordered conduct are the most commonly experienced for children who are adjusting to a divorce. For an understanding of what those symptoms might resemble, the following list, derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) breaks it down in short order:
- Excessive feelings of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, irritability, worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, worry, and anger, are either observed or reported by the child.
- Interest or pleasure in formerly enjoyed activities is diminished.
- Changes in appetite are noticed. Significant changes in weight as a result of eating more, or less, can indicate a problem.
- Sleep problems or changes in sleep habits arise on both ends of the spectrum: inability to fall and/or stay asleep or a desire to sleep all of the time.
- Diminished energy and extreme fatigue are reported or observed.
- Your child is easily agitated.
- S/he has difficulty concentrating or paying attention.
- Aggressiveness toward others, including animals, is noticed.
- Serious violation of rules including deceitfulness, theft or destroying property becomes an issue.
- Your child begins, or increases use of substances.
- There is a decline in academic achievement.
- Regressive behaviors are observed (Your older child is suddenly behaving in a way more reminiscent of a younger child. Examples include: wanting to be swaddled and held, asking to drink from a bottle, accidents after being potty trained, etc.).
Parents should be looking for emotional responses that are more than what might be expected given the circumstances, and behavioral responses that were either not present before the divorce, or may have been present but have gotten worse since the life change occurred. Of course, a significant life change like this needs to allow time for adjustment to be made, but if your child doesn’t seem to be adjusting after the dust has settled for a few weeks, there may be a need for additional support.
Mental Health Awareness: What to Do
You are now armed with an understanding of what to be on the look-out for, so now what?
Strive to keep as much consistency of routine as possible. This is where effective co-parenting comes into play. Understandably, this can be difficult when the divorce is riddled with contention or one parent strongly disagrees with how the children were managed before the split and had decided to do something differently. As much as you are able, hold off on other significant changes to routine. For example, if your child is used to a bath, followed by a story, followed by lights out by 8:30 pm routine, strive to keep that the same. If your child is involved in extracurricular activities, hold that schedule as before. If your child was always expected to take out the trash and help with dinner dishes, continue that expectation in both parent’s homes.
You may notice, or receive reports from others who interact with your child (i.e. school, daycare providers, etc.), some of the markers indicated above. You wonder if this is a normal response given the situation, if resiliency will kick in and your child will pull through on his or her own, or if you need to seek help from a professional. A good rule of thumb is this: if you have done what you can to maintain as much consistency as possible and your child continues to struggle in a way that is having a significant impact on life, get the opinion of a professional.
Not every child and his or her family will require professional intervention, but a mental health professional can help give direction and make recommendations.
Inside the Office of A Mental Health Professional: Assessment
Seeking assistance from a mental health professional can be scary when you aren’t sure what to expect, and couldn’t begin to explain to your child what will happen. So, let’s walk through what that first appointment may resemble.
Every professional operates a little differently, but one thing remains relatively consistent: the first appointment is all about assessment. The professional you work with is going to have you and your child come into the office and will strive to learn about you, your situation, and your concerns. Depending on the age of your child, the professional may spend some one-on-one time getting to hear their concerns.
The aim of this appointment is to gather enough information to determine if ongoing professional support is needed, or if the behaviors of concern that brought you in are age-appropriate given the circumstances. If it is determined that ongoing professional support would be beneficial, recommendations for services will be made at that time and you will be engaged in a discussion about a plan for treatment.
Treatment And Support
The type of treatment/support recommended varies from client to client. Here we go again with that “no one size fits all.” The most typical referrals are going to fall into three categories: therapy, medical, and external (i.e. community) supports. Let’s give some definition to these categories, shall we?
- Therapy: therapy provides an opportunity for folks to process events and learn new ways of coping or functioning. This can be done individually, with the family, or in groups. Depending on the situation, a recommendation will be made for any or all of these formats to be utilized, and you and/or your ex will likely be called upon to participate. This article by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents: Different Types, does a nice job further describing the different techniques that may be used in therapeutic sessions.
- Medical: there is a strong link between physical and mental health. If your child hasn’t had a recent checkup with a physician, a mental health professional may make a suggestion for this to be done. The purpose is to rule out any physical health conditions that may be linked to, or exacerbating a mental health issue. This mind-body connection is called “psychosomatic”. The article Psychosomatic Symptoms, written by Alex Lickerman, M.D. for Psychology Today gives further definition to this concept. Additionally, in some cases, medications may be discussed that can help in conjunction with the therapeutic process. Sometimes a primary care physician will be willing to discuss and prescribe these sorts of medications, other times they may refer out to a psychiatrist who specializes in prescribing for mental health conditions.
- External/Community: external/community supports are often as valuable as, if not more valuable than, therapy. Tapping into these resources and engaging your children in prosocial activities provide an outlet for them and can remain a support when therapy ends (therapy is never meant to be forever). Mentoring programs, social groups, organized arts and athletics groups are examples of external resources that can have a lasting effect on youth.
So what happens if the professional determines that the behaviors are age-appropriate and don’t require professional intervention, but you’re still concerned? Ask about recommendations for external/community resources and supports that might be appropriate for your child. Mental Health Professionals often have lists of these resources in your community or can point you in the right direction for gathering more information.
If you still aren’t satisfied, it is well within your right to seek a second opinion. Do keep in mind, however, that not every child is going to require professional intervention and forcing them into treatment can have an impact opposite of helpful.
Divorce is tough on families, and children are no exception. There is no way to predict how, or when, your children are going to react to the circumstances. Rather than assuming something is or is not going to happen, keep mental health awareness in mind, pay attention and take appropriate action when needed.
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