Dear Doctor Dan,
I am a faithful reader of all things Gottlieb, so I am hoping you could advise me about some distressing issues in my life.
How can I go about helping my daughter find a therapist for my grandchildren who are ages eight and five? 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 but has done that since birth quite a lot.
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 a matter of 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 in steps to find a compatible counselor
Your letter brings up several issues, so let's talk first about what needs to be done and then we can talk about what you can and cannot do to help make it happen.
Although divorce harms all children, according to the American Association for marriage and family therapy, only 25% of children of divorce have serious long-term emotional difficulties. Although this is a very high percentage, keep in mind there is a good chance your grandchildren will be okay without intervention.
But there are many things parents can do 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, but especially young children. And children find safety in consistency and predictability. Much as possible, schedules should remain the same week in and week out, especially in the months following 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. So both parents must be very careful not to cancel plans and to show respect to one another 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 never ever speak angrily about their child's other parent. At best, it sets up a loyalty conflict for the children. And worst, children feel they have lost both parents.
Believe it or not, I would not recommend counseling unless they are showing signs of distress. Signs to look for include
· acting younger than their chronological ag
· sleep difficulties
· acting out in ways they hadn't before
· 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 if they persist, it's time to seek help. But I wouldn't automatically seek counseling and here's why: children of divorce already feel pretty alone and wonder if there is something wrong with them which 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 not to.
Finding a therapist? Make sure the therapist is trained in marital and family therapy. But even so, not all family therapists are trained in working with small children, so you need both. You should be able to find one in your community through the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Alternatively you could look up your State Psychological Association or National Association of Social Workers. But please make sure whatever therapist you find is trained in both divorce and working with young children.
So now we come to you and what you can do. First, divorce is a trauma not just for parents and children, but for grandparents also. Just like your grandchildren, you may have gone through these years thinking that your children and grandchildren were safe and secure. And now this. I have spoken with so many grandparents of divorce children whose hearts are broken by what's happening to their children and grandchildren. It feels the stakes are so high and you feel so powerless.
I will assume you have a good relationship with your daughter, but it's also important that you maintain at least a respectful relationship with your son-in-law and avoid criticism or blame. If your daughter wants to do so, listen to her with compassion and empathy, but please try not to reinforce her resentment or help her feel like a victim. As I am sure you know, if you were to get in the middle, the outcome is never good. I've talked before on these pages about how and when to offer advice to our adult children, when it's respectful and when it is intrusive. And I have said that within very 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 her about your concerns, but please don't push as your daughter feels vulnerable enough. Offer to be an additional resource for your daughter, grandsons and even your son-in-law. If you are able, spend extra time with the children it might help everyone out. And perhaps you could even include the other set of grandparents in some of the social activities. It would certainly make the children feel better.I hope this helps and I wish everyone healing.