My wife and I are in the middle of an amicable divorce. At least, it would be amicable, except for our son. His mood swings wildly from anger to tears to withdrawal. He swears violently and threatens to smash things. He wants nothing to do with either of us. He‘s thirteen. What should we do?
You are going to have to ride this out and it looks like it is going to be tough. Lots of patience and understanding are required.
Divorce is a dirty word to children. None of them want to experience the disintegration of their family. You can tell them, over and over again, and you should, that they’ll continue to see you both and that they’re loved and will be cared for. But that won’t stop them wanting you back together.
Children, like everyone else, hate change. They need and value security and stability. Divorce means major change and children suffer most of the fallout. The parents undergo great change when the separation occurs. The children do too. But after each parent has settled into their separated household, change for the parents often subsides. Not for the children. They have to travel between homes and negotiate different rules and conditions, often on a weekly basis.
Of course, most children adjust. Over time they experience the quirks of each household and figure out ways of managing. But that doesn’t mean they will forgive you for putting them through it. They didn’t choose separation. So if they are unhappy they will blame you.
As well as going through the separation and divorce, your son is also dealing with adolescence. Adolescence is one of the most stressful periods of our lives. Young adolescents experience physical and emotional changes and often they feel they don’t fit in. Being in between childhood and adulthood is uncomfortable. It is a transition. These lost feelings are exacerbated by new surroundings. It is likely that your son recently started high school. So he is dealing with all of these insecurities at the same time as losing his family unit.
Luckily there is an approach that always works if you stick to it long enough. Just note that ‘long enough’ can be years.
- First, understand the pressure he is under and the unhappiness he is suffering.
- Second, remain loving and understanding no matter what. For example, never react to his tantrums. Remain calm.
- Third, make clear, reasonable rules about his behaviour. For example, breaking anything deliberately is unacceptable.
- Fourth, determine reasonable consequences for broken rules. The best consequences relate to the offence and are relatively easy to live with. For example, loss of half of the weekly allowance until the broken item is replaced.
- Fifth, communicate with your son. You acknowledge the pressure he is under and his unhappiness at the divorce. You tell him it is not his fault but that he has to learn to live with it. You reassure him that you will always love him no matter what. You give him the household rules and the consequences for noncompliance. Then ask for his comments and, if reasonable, take them into account by adjusting the rules and consequences.
- Sixth, enforce the rules consistently with love, tranquillity and understanding.
Be confident with this approach. Don’t let your own insecurities be triggered. The child still loves you. Children are very forgiving as long as you are accepting of their emotions.
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