Healthy family dynamics help keep kids and parents running on the right track. Parents are in charge, kids follow until they leave the nest. Parents take care of parent issues, kids come to parents and don’t run the show. That is, until a divorce or long separation takes place.
When this happens, the family dynamics can get all turned around. An oldest son might be expected to be the “man” of the family for a while. Or they may simply go into that role believing it would help. A daughter might become a close confidant (friend) of a mom who’s been left behind. A dad and daughter may act more like companions after mom has moved out. All of these arrangements can cause kids to leave their childhood behind before they are ready.
No matter how amicable a separation or divorce may be, such a huge change has inevitable impact. Where there was someone taking a role before, now there is no one. Or there is someone, but they are different (girlfriend, new spouse). This different person may or may not be well liked by all the kids or parents.
In cases where this goes as well as possible, the negative impact makes a less damaging blow. Don’t underestimate a child’s sense of loss when this happens. But overall, they have a better chance of making the adjustment. Openness and free expression of emotion help the child keep their footing.
If there has been a lot of yelling, cold silence, slamming doors, name calling, or other ongoing drama, a separation or divorce is likely to be more difficult. For a child, the atmosphere doesn’t feel too safe. They might hold back their feelings to not upset others. Or, they might get out of control and start acting out themselves. Family dynamics like this can cause a child to stop in their tracks with emotional development.
When a child loses their sense of security at home because of dramatic change or loss (for whatever reason), there is a good chance they could become stuck emotionally. If a divorce happened when they were in elementary school, they might be stuck on attention seeking behaviors into their adulthood. If the separation occurred during middle school years, they might keep many of their teenage traits or thinking patterns.
With good family or individual therapy, a child with this much adjustment can move forward and regain their sense of trust and security. However, if this strained period of time is simply pushed under the rug, it can surface again when adult concerns arise. Their teenage or childhood coping skills won’t serve them as well, and they can be more prone to depression or anxiety.
You know, divorce and separation happen. Sometime things really turn out OK and sometimes they don’t. In any case, just know that disruptions like this can keep a child frozen in a certain emotional age. Be sure you allow them ways to communicate with you and express themselves. This may not change the family situation, but it can help them get through it with you.
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From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
Divorce Hurts Not Only Emotionally, But Also Physically | World of Psychology (July 28, 2009)
Last reviewed: 24 Apr 2009