Mike: In a perfect world, if people go through a divorce as caring adults and try to put the good of the family unit ahead of their own personal satisfaction, then I would imagine things can go fairly well, but these situations unfortunately do seem to have the ability to bring out the worst in just about the best people.
Is this something that you see reflected when you deal with children? Can you tell that maybe somebody is trying to use a child to maybe take revenge on a spouse, and how do you approach that with them?
Kristine: Like I said, when a child sees that their parents are being criticised, they’re going to internalise it. So you start seeing guilt and confusion about the guilt because it doesn’t necessarily make sense that it would be their fault, but they still feel that it is.
So kind of revisiting that it would be nice if we could make it okay and understand how to make it all work, but we can’t do it all. Kind of what can we do?
Mike: No, obviously when we’re dealing with different age groups, when we’ve got different emotional things going on, I would think this has got to be incredibly difficult for teenagers who are fighting their own battles with their own changing worlds and their own way of looking at the world and dealing with adolescence.
It has just got to be so much more difficult in some ways for them than even younger children, possibly.
Is there a difference in the way you approach therapy with teenagers/adolescents as opposed to pre-adolescents?
Kristine: I do work well with teenagers, and I think any teenager’s relationship with each parent gets a little more complicated when they’re a teenager.
A teenager’s building their own identity and struggling with integrating the model that they’re getting from both of their parents often new ideas about how they want to be in the world.
So when there’s another disruption, at this developmental age, they might be more likely to be reactive, so based on their personality, they might show a lot of anger towards one or both of the parents or they might start displaying more passive types of behaviour like staying up late or letting grades slip.
It’s crucial that parents focus on finding solutions rather than picking out specifically the content of some of this acting out, because that can kind of make it viral and they’ll act out a little more.
So how to deal with a specific behaviour that kind of be sure that the tone and topics of the conversations are around accepting the feelings but not necessarily accepting the behaviour.
So looking for opportunities to help a teen express him or herself in a healthy way is important because when they’re already dealing with so much transition and trying to find their own voice, they might over-react.
Mike: One of the things that I think probably complicates things a little more than perhaps when I was growing up–I’m in my mid 50′s–and there were just not as many overtly sexual messages as we have and there were not as many things talked about in front of children either personally by adults or through the mass media.
So where we’re just a little more sheltered in some ways, and today it’s probably very easy for bright, young teenagers to find out very quickly that there is a problem first off in the relationship and it’s probably not that difficult for them to put 2 and 2 together and figure out what that problem is.
I would imagine that it’s harder when somebody’s trying to discuss a problem with a teenager and they’re maybe trying to sugarcoat it, and the kids have already said, “Look, we know.”
And I would think that that’s got to be a really difficult conversation because sort of the cat’s out of the bag, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it.
Kristine: I run into that a lot in general, so sometimes it’s walking a balance between being a directive and firm parent as far as what behaviour is acceptable kind of like I said, but also there’s something wonderful in just saying, “I don’t really know what to do all the time either.
I’m just a person, too. I’m doing my best.” And really to mean that, and that part comes out as always whatever you feel is acceptable and I can handle whatever it is that you’re feeling, which goes back to getting your own support so that you can.
Mike: Have you ever run into a situation where a child has asked a parent and said, “Why did you do that?”
Does that question ever come up?
Kristine: Yes and that can be the fine line between appropriate anger and frustration. That will be hard for that parent to deal with, but it’s important that they can.
Between that and then anger and cruelty from the teenager where you can ask them, but it can go onto other things like the blaming and the name-calling, and if that’s not being modelled by the parent, of course, hopefully that part will subside, because that’s the part that’s not constructive.
But “Why did you do that?” and talking about how that impacts me as a child, it’s really important, and a parent who is the one who has made the exit–you need to talk the problem as far as actually the identifiable affair, so like you said, everyone contributes to it–it can be really hard for that person to hold onto that.
So it’s important for them to have support in order to not distance themselves from their children because they’re feeling guilty.
Mike: That’s got to be something that I also think is very very difficult. You’ve got to face your adult friends, you’ve got to face your spouse, but facing your children’s got to be the hardest part of all this if you’re the one who’s stepped off the path and then you’ve got to talk to the children about it and that question comes up, “Why did you do that?” That’s got to be awfully tough.
But I would think that there’s got to be at least some idea on your part as a therapist of a way to positively handle that question. I’m sure that it’s never an easy question and there’s never an easy answer, but I would think there are ways to approach it.
Kristine: A lot of it really goes back to blame because many people put in that position would either go to blaming the other spouse and saying, “Well, it wasn’t all me, this this and that about them,” or blaming themselves and saying, “Yes, I’m terrible,” and really retreating because they feel as though there’s no way to repair it.
So essentially staying away from that blame and acknowledging the mistake, but also offering ideas about how to constructively repair the trust or saying, “I understand if you’re not ready, but I want to be here,” again not having to know all of the answers, but trying to look at it as an opportunity to have an obstacle to overcome and hopefully become closer throughout it.
Mike: And say we’re in a situation where the parents have decided they are going to try and put the relationship back together, then probably I would think another incredibly difficult question would be, “How can you go back to mom?” or “How can you go back to dad after what she did to you?”
I would think that that’s something that’s probably been known to come on. And just an incredibly touchy and difficult question. What do you think a parent could tell a child in that situation?
Kristine: Acknowledging that maybe the child will understand is really important, but if a parent talks about their own values and a child’s safety being consistent with those values, even if they don’t agree, that’s a really great message.
So if I’ve decided as a parent that my value is sticking with my marriage, that I value forgiveness more than anything, I’m going to really work on this, expressing that to my child, and if you don’t agree, I understand, but being really clear about it and being really consistent with that as much as possible.
That, even if they don’t agree, will teach your child to trust you, especially if they’re allowed to have their own feelings about it, like I said.
Mike: And I would think that it’s well to remember that the person who had the affair and betrayed your trust is also a person that you did come to love and respect and was willing to marry, and I guess, really, it’s so easy to forget all that when the anger and the bitterness and the sense of betrayal start taking over.
I guess it’s another reason to pause and reflect and say, “This is not just some terrible person, this is someone I love, and respect, and married,” and I guess thinking that through for yourself will also help you discuss it with a child.
Kristine: And that’s nearly impossible to do in the beginning when you’re so reactive. Who really could keep that in perspective? Which is why it’s important not to involve the child in that emotional chaos at the very beginning when you’re first deciding how you are going to proceed.
Not burdening them with that fate as much as you can avoid it.
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples.
She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com
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