Adjustment Disorder in Children of Divorce
The phrase ‘children in the middle’ is one that is often used when discussing the behavioral issues that develop when a child is going through the separation, divorce, and the aftermath of divorce of their parents. This is an apt description of at least part of the cause of what in reality may be the mental health diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder. While there are some stressful aspects of divorce on children that are inherent in the process and reality of divorce, much of the stress for the child can be mitigated quite readily by the parents if they are willing to learn about the disorder and what causes it.
There are, of course, degrees to the ‘messiness’ of separation and divorce. Some couples are able to go through the process in a fairly civilized manner that greatly reduces the negative effects on the children, while other couples who are hotly contentious can create real damages that have lasting effects in their relationship with their child, and for the child’s future relationships with others. Though a child with contentious parents is more likely to be diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder, children who’s parents are more civil can also become stressed enough to develop it.
Adjustment Disorder is quite self descriptive: it means that a child is having a difficult time adjusting to recent and significant changes in their life. As a result of the difficulty, there are accompanying behaviors that pose some problems for the child. It is ‘acute’ if it has been going on for under six months, and ‘chronic’ if it lasts longer than this. In addition, the disorder can also be accompanied by a depressed mood, anxiety, conduct problems, or a combination of all of these.
Resistance of the child in going from one parent’s home to the other is a hallmark of Adjustment Disorder for children of divorce. Parents often interpret the child’s whining, crying, or general resistance as something bad or frightening that must be occurring at their ex’s home. In fact, children simply get tired of making transitions from one home to the other. The average child living in a family with both parents may have some transitional difficulties; children in divorce situations have a particularly tough go of it. The problem, is, one or both parents do not or will not hear what the child is communicating to them about the transitions.
The general observation is that the younger the child, the more difficult it is for them to accomplish stress free transitions. If the child is under the age of two, these stresses are not so evident in their behavior. And by age ten to twelve, the child usually has far better coping skills based in their life experiences to manage the stress of living in two homes.
Some custody agreements add to the problem as well. Folks who insist on “50-50” custody are making a grave mistake. A child especially needs to be in one home Monday through Friday during the school year. In addition, some parents add to the child’s stress by having them spend overnights at their extended family’s home, compounding the adjustment stress. The younger the child, the more stressful it is to them to be going to multiple different environments.
Expecting a child (again, the younger the child, the more significant this is) to emotionally cope as well as an adult to changes of homes or visiting environments is not taking into account the developmental reality of their limitations. It’s kind of like placing a T-ball league child into a high school baseball team, or the little leaguer into a pro baseball game. They are just not developmentally prepared to do so.
So: a basic approach for parents to take, if they want their child’s Adjustment Disorder to ease and even disappear is outlined below:
1. Both parent should follow the “Terms of Engagement’ rules for contact with each other. (See this article on this site.
2. Agree that during the school year, the child lives at (sleeps at) only one home during the school week.
3. When possible, have only two home environments that the child ‘lives’ (sleeps) at or even ‘visits‘. When possible have family and friends visit with the child in one of the homes.
4. Try to set up the child’s two bedrooms as similar as possible.
5. Make sure the child is reminded and helped to bring favored toys (especially comfort items, like stuffed animals or blankets) back and forth between homes.
6. Simple small things, like having the same color toothbrush at both homes is often a great help.
7. Both homes should have the same exact calendar system posted in a place where the child can easily view it. This system should be color coded if the child does not read. The child needs to know when the transitions are going to occur, and how long they will be at each home.
8. The child should be reminded gently about the upcoming transition. How often to remind and how far in advance to remind can only be determined by the particular child’s needs. Some children need just and hour, some need a day or more.
9. Allow the child to have phone contact with the other parent on a regular basis, unless the contact results in a stressed child.
10. Be sure to reassure the child that it is O.K. to talk about their other home and other parent, but do not be tempted to pry with the child about the details of your ex’s lifestyle and activities.