Children need a structure to survive and stay healthy.
This structure doesn’t necessarily come from discipline because predictability and discipline are not the same things.
Few years ago, I used to teach young kids at a school for some time and the first thing they unknowingly taught me was related to patterns. As teachers, we were particular about keeping the monotony in patterns of young children—even a slight change or unpredictability can make young children feel insecure and uncomfortable.
However, despite our aforementioned efforts, one particular child was a matter of concern in all our staff room conversations. His parents had separated on a good note quite recently then and there wasn’t any trace of disturbance between them—both parents bonded extremely well with each other during their post-separation parent-teacher meetings. More importantly, parents were next door neighbours and there weren’t any proximity issues. In such case, the outbursts and extreme anger of this seven-year-old child was difficult for us to understand.
It is difficult for our children to learn adaptability as swiftly as we do and parents considering divorce or separation may want to pay more attention to this fact.
Every family has a different story or set of pros and cons during parental separation. Every child may not be as lucky as my student was—living in such close proximity with separated parents. However, his luck didn’t go beyond that and we had to deal with his escalating levels of aggression. We could not understand his transformation from being an artistic and sensitive child into someone so volatile. He was the same kid who would not let me walk over the Autumn leaves because he believed they were capable of feeling the pain.
His parents didn’t engage in any kind of violence with each other or his elder sisters. The elder sisters were just as adorable and kind as this kid once was. His medical records and psychological evaluations were fine and we did not find any indication of bullying at the school either. The child’s parents simply grew bored of each other and the decision to separate was mutual—no heartbreak involved.
So, what exactly was going on with the child?
It is all about keeping the monotony in patterns that children—especially young children—are expected to follow. What we discovered is not exclusive for this child but it sort of applies to every child going through a period of parental divorce.
1. The child’s perspective.
Separated parents usually have a lot going on in their lives. They are preoccupied with their own emotional struggles, legal matters and added responsibilities—causing an abrupt change in daily routines, family rituals or child rearing patterns.
Children need a lot of structure and predictability to function according to our expectations. A slight disruption in their daily routine makes them insecure and they usually have no idea how to deal with that.
While the separation of my students’ parents was a quiet one, they still had a lot going on in their lives. The mother started working out at a gym after work and the father started spending a lot of time with his guy friends. Though both parents cared deeply for their children, the routine had been disrupted.
Our little boy did not get to watch the television with both parents in the evening now and had to wait for the night to consult mommy about his homework. His sisters had each other’s company so they did not think of giving an extra ounce of attention to the younger brother. The father assumed that the child could contact him anytime, but the child did not know that he was expected to do that. So, apparently, the separation was a great idea for parents but from our little boy’s perspective, the family had fallen apart.
One of our teachers came up with a brilliant idea of finding a pet for the child. We worked on the idea and his mother suggested that he—along with his sisters—could take care of his uncle’s dog in the neighbourhood, plus, he could learn gardening from the same uncle while his mother worked out at the gym.
Individual attention for children is crucial and nobody can replace one on one time with a parent. However, this may prove to be tough when we have to play the role of both mom and dad. Therefore, seeking opposite gender mentors for a child could prove to be a good idea. Also, establishing a solid routine could get the child into gear and smooth their emotional disturbances during parental separation.
While some of the teachers urged the mother to change her lifestyle, most of us considered her approach as healthy. Her new lifestyle was improving her as a person and helped her in becoming a better woman and a mother. She needed to figure out her life without a husband and her attempt to find resources of inner strength were legitimate.
The father had good intentions and was ready to invest himself in parenting, but he needed a slight improvement in communicating those intentions with the kids.
Anger or tempter tantrums tend to increase in children during or after parental separation. This is connected to a change in their routine and lack of predictability. If separation was really abrupt, the child might feel betrayed or lied to and this may severely affect their trust levels.
The escalating level of anger in my student manifested an unmet need or a defense mechanism to avoid painful feelings. Children may experience a sense of failure, fluctuations in self esteem and isolation during or after their parents’ separation.
Separation is a scenario where the child has absolutely no control and most of the time, anger emerges out of this frustration. Also, separation is not always black or white and most of the time, children may witness a lot of violence, aggression and heartbreak—which may not only act as a trigger for aggression but also as a life long approach toward marriage and relationships.
We had a really hard time turning our sweetheart into the same soulful kid he had always been. He needed to be reassured that mommy and daddy did not separate because of any of his mischief. He wanted to be told that mommy and daddy did not hate each other and most importantly we had to ask him to stop waiting for them to be together again.
It was heartbreaking for us to take his hope away like that but this endless wait was unrealistic and it contributed nothing except to make him more aggressive. He wanted to feel like a part of this decision which his parents had made. Just like adults, children too have a right to feel involved in major decisions and some times kids can recognise the violation—only they can’t communicate this in words and thus through aggression or sadness.
Research suggests that it’s crucial that children know the difference between being angry and mean. Anger always has a trigger and separation is an important one in the case of children. The parents’ task is to not repress or ignore their child’s anger but to help them channel and direct it to constructive ends.
In cases of severe or unmanageable aggression, parents can ask a paediatrician or school counsellors to help them seek qualified therapists or child psychologists. Sometimes, all a child needs is an outsider who can just sit and listen to them.
3. Touch, attachment and security.
Children need a single parent to demonstrate practically that they can still operate as a unit. They need a lot of emotional security to trust despite the uncertainty of life. They need to feel that uncertainty doesn’t always mean a bad news—just like mommy and daddy’s divorce.
Touch plays an important role in making a child feel emotionally secure. While adults may need a massage or a trip to the spa, children just need close proximity to their parents. They want to be held or curled up while watching television and they need to be hugged frequently.
Parents can also request the teachers to stay in close proximity of the children during this vulnerable period or to pat them on the cheeks if they are comfortable and seem to respond well to the touch.
In our case, touching the dog and being touched by the dog evoked the sensitivity of our sweetheart. He was an emotional child and that special bond with the animal filled his imagination in wonderful ways. His mother encouraged the elder siblings to show their affection for him through touch.
Children have certain vulnerabilities in common—no matter how painful or smooth parental separation goes. They may or may not know what they truly feel, or they may not express it in proper ways but, what they need from us is absolute reassurance.
They need their stable patterns and daily routines to understand parental perspective of separation. They need to feel like a part of this major decision in their family’s life. What goes on in a child’s mind may not be felt by them or the parents at that time but it may reflect in their major life decisions as an adult.
Author: ZauFishan Qureshi
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Yagmur Adam/Flickr