I am a faithful reader of all things Gottlieb, so I am hoping you can advise me.
How can I go about helping my daughter find a therapist for my grandchildren, ages 8 and 5? Their parents recently divorced, and the older child is having real problems with sleeping overnight at his dad’s house. He says he is OK with spending time with daddy but does not want to stay away from home. He has no trouble sleeping overnight at my house.
My daughter says that her ex tells her that the child “has to learn to cope” and that is what they have been doing. I think it will take time and will resolve itself, but I also think they could use some counseling to deal with this issue and other divorce-related things. Can you guide me so that I may guide her to find a compatible counselor?
– Concerned Grandmother
Let’s talk first about what needs to be done and then about what you can and cannot do to help make it happen.
Although divorce harms all children, according to a friend that’s a couples counselor in the West Palm Beach area, only 25 percent of children of divorce have serious long-term emotional difficulties, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Although this is a very high percentage, keep in mind there is a good chance your grandchildren will be OK without intervention.
But parents can do many things to help mitigate the effects of divorce. The first and most important issue is safety. All children need safety in the wake of this upheaval, especially young children. And children find safety in consistency and predictability. As much as possible, schedules should remain the same week in and week out, especially in the months after a divorce.
Most children of divorce feel that the bottom has just dropped out of their lives and that everything they knew to be true is no longer true. So your grandchildren need to be reassured with words and actions that they are loved by both parents and both will take good care of them. Both parents must be very careful not to cancel plans and to show respect for each other in front of the children.
I often tell divorced parents that they must love their children more than they hate each other. Therefore they must develop a workable plan that gives children easy access to both parents. And of course, no parent should ever speak angrily about the other. At best, it sets up a loyalty conflict for the children. And at worst, children feel they have lost both parents.
I would not recommend counseling unless they are showing signs of distress, such as:
Acting younger than their chronological age.
New ways of acting out.
Problems with friends or school.
Irrational fears and compulsive behavior.
Many children of divorce will show some of these symptoms in the short run, but seek help only if they persist.
Here’s why: Children of divorce already feel pretty alone and wonder if there is something wrong with them that may have broken up the family. If they are “sent” to therapy, the process itself could reinforce that belief. I believe that if younger children of divorce need therapy, it should be family therapy unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.
Finding a therapist? Make sure the therapist is trained in marital and family therapy and has worked with small children. You need both. You should find one nearby through the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. You could also look up your state psychological association or National Association of Social Workers.
Now we come to what you can do. First, divorce is traumatic for grandparents too. Just like your grandchildren, you may have gone through these years thinking that your children and grandchildren were safe and secure. And now this.
So many grandparents in your situation tell me their hearts are broken by what’s happening to their children and grandchildren. The stakes are so high, and you feel so powerless.
I assume you have good rapport with your daughter, but it’s also important to maintain at least a respectful relationship with your son-in-law and avoid criticism or blame. If your daughter wants to talk, listen with compassion and empathy, but try not to reinforce her resentment or help her feel like a victim.
As I am sure you know, if you get in the middle, the outcome is never good. I have said before in these pages that within broad limits, we have to respect the resilience and problem-solving skills of our adult children. But when grandchildren are involved, it gets more complicated.
Feel free to tell your daughter about your concerns, but don’t push, as your daughter feels vulnerable enough. Offer to be an additional resource for her, the grandchildren, and even your son-in-law. If you can, spend extra time with the children; it might help everyone. And perhaps you could even include the other set of grandparents in some social activities. It would certainly make the children feel better.
I hope this helps, and I wish everyone healing.