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Raising children is challenging enough with two fully engaged parents, but what happens when the family unit becomes fractured? Sometimes love means accepting professional support to help to your child cope with the emotional trauma of a disintegrating marital relationship.

Elizabeth Berger, M.D. is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. She has spent over thirty years treating children and families in her own practice and in community mental health centers. 

Dr. Berger has been on the faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Northwestern University Medical School, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, MCP-Hahnemann School of Medicine, and currently at the George Washington University School of Medicine. She is a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

When your child is in emotional or psychological pain, credentials are important but you also need someone who is compassionate and can relate to you and your young one. Dr. Berger and her husband have raised two children to adulthood. She has the objectivity of the clinician, but she is also a mother, so she knows the anguish you feel when your child is suffering. 

Dr. Berger is the author of “Raising Kids with Character: Developing Trust and Personal Integrity in Children”. This book is a must read for every parent who want to enhance their child’s quality of life. Dr. Berger has also shared her insight and expertise on a number of panels and forums and as well as through various media.

Dr. Berger lives in New York City and works with students internationally through the George Washington University division of Global Psychiatry.  

First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Berger about raising children to become emotionally healthy people while going through a divorce.

I read a transcript of a program called "The Infinite Mind" where you talk about children and lying. You mentioned that children catch on to their parents’ hypocrisy from an early age. I know some parents who stay in an unhappy relationship because they don’t want to put their children through the trauma of divorce. Is that even advisable? 

Dr. Berger: It depends. It is hard to generalize advice about remaining in an unhappy marriage "for the children's sake," as it is often described. I think I would at first strongly advise skilled marital counseling to try to get to the bottom of the causes of marital unhappiness and to repair the problems directly. Then the counselor would have an opportunity to address the ways that the two parents communicate with their children about their problems. Counseling can help parents sort out their goals with one another and can assist in the decision process; it can certainly be a great aid to families whether the final outcome is divorce or a reconciliation of difficulties. Either way, inclusion of children in parts of the counseling often helps children feel that their feelings are respected and to reassure them that they are not deliberately kept in the dark.

Families are so different that it is impossible to give a blanket recommendation here. There is sometimes more emotional security for children (and especially, often, financial security) if parents remain together despite major conflicts; on the other hand, sometimes actual divorce clears the air and allows parents to develop into much healthier personalities--growing into better parents. Of course, it can be protective of children to separate them from a parent who is overtly abusive or neglectful, such as perpetrators of domestic violence. On the other hand, sometimes parents seek divorce because they have somewhat unrealistic goals for their own personal satisfaction. In that case, it can be the path of wisdom to accept the reality of the spouse's limitations with an eye toward the greater goal of providing basic family stability for the children. So there can be pros and cons in each situation.

Naturally, I do not think that it is good to tell lies to children. However, it is also a fact that the world of adults cannot be fully shared with children – first because children are not adults and second because (even if they were), adults are entitled to a degree of privacy regarding intimate matters. So that absolute honesty with one's children about every facet of the parents' marriage would be absurd. Having an honest relationship with one's children cannot possibly mean telling one's children everything. An honest relationship means conveying that the child can tell the parent anything that the child wishes to say, and that the child can ask anything that the child wishes to know. But some answers must be adjusted to the child's level of understanding and there are perhaps certain things that are best kept from one's children. 

Some parents do a terrible thing when they are separated or divorced by asking their children to lie, as in "Don't tell mommy you saw Jill at my house." How can a parent determine if this is going on without subjecting the child to further trauma by grilling them every time they come back from the other parent's home?

Dr. Berger: You can't. The parent who is determined to find out whether their ex is manipulating the children is also engaging in a manipulation--namely, using the children as a means to get dirt on the other parent. The goal of getting dirt is the problem. Using the child as a means to an end is just a consequence of trying to find out what the other parent is up to. It is really a misuse of the child.

If a parent needs dirt on the ex, the parent can hire a private detective. Being conscripted into revealing dirt on the ex is not an appropriate role for children. It is not appropriate even if the goal is to figure out whether the ex is manipulating the child, in the service of a high-minded impulse to protect the child from such shenanigans. There is really nothing that can be done to prevent the child from being manipulated by the ex in this manner. The more the parent raises a fuss about the ex's behavior, the more the child feels like an afterthought to the real action, which is the parents' efforts to spy upon and to discredit one another. 

The parent's goal is properly to be the best parent one can be. The focus here is on the child and the child's needs for support, for honesty, for integrity, and for trust in relation to the parent who happens to be right there right now.  What the ex said to the child yesterday is not relevant unless the child brings it up – here the parent should step in only if the ex is directly neglectful or abusive. Otherwise, the best approach to the ex's behavior is to ask the child how the child felt and what the child made of it. Criticizing the ex, prying into the ex's state of mind, or trying to extract information from the child is bound to backfire because all of these approaches clearly communicate to the child that the child is being used as a vehicle to bash the ex. The child will feel as a bystander to the real action, the tit for tat between the parents. 

If Dad is telling the child "don't tell Mommy," then there is nothing constructive to be gained by trying to find out whether this is occurring. 

Is there a certain age where children are more affected emotionally by a divorce or conversely, more able to handle separation? I know adults who seem more affected by a parent's divorce than some children, especially if they find out one parent was cheating on the other one.

Dr. Berger: Here too the specific circumstances of each family – and in addition the specific personality and family role played by each child as an individual – are so important that it is impossible to speak in generalities about the best age for parental separation. What the divorce will mean to the offspring is dependent upon many factors. A particular child may have very different interpretations of the parental divorce at different ages, at one point perhaps taking the "side" of one parent and at a later point taking the "side" of the other. 

The kind of loss that children experience with separation and divorce depend not only on the child's developmental age but on the meaning of the event for the child. This is why adult children can be so devastated by a late divorce between parents – because the adult child may see in a very different light the entire sum of his or her past experiences with the parents. A later disillusionment with the character and integrity of a parent can destroy not only the adult child's present relationship with this parent but retrospectively destroy the architecture of the child's lifetime relationship with that parent. The adult child, thus, may feel "I was a chump to have been taken in." In this way, discovering that idealized and loved figures have distinctly clay feet can be very damaging to the adult child's own self-esteem. 

What is the best way to break the news to a child, depending on their age and understanding? 

Dr. Berger: The best way is if both parents can sit down with the child and deliver the news of the divorce together, reiterating that the problem is between the grown-ups and have nothing to do with the child or the child's behavior. Both parents should emphasize that they love the child as before and will continue to love the child for the rest of their lives. Parents should be prepared for shock, disbelief, anger, and many questions, all extending indefinitely into the future. A bland response may hide a great deal of inner turmoil. The younger or more psychologically immature the child, the more concrete the child's thinking and reactions are likely to be. It is almost universal that children feel guilt and responsibility for the divorce, as if the parents' marriage would have been less troubled if the child had never been born. It is not unheard of for parents themselves to convey this notion to their children –especially if one of the parents was very ambivalent about having children to begin with or if the children were perceived as particularly difficult, both of which are of course not too unusual in homes where there is a great deal of underlying conflict between the parents. 

The "news" is not just a specific bulletin but a challenge for each family member which will need to be addressed in an ongoing way, because both practical and emotional implications need to be worked out one by one as a process extending over time. 

You wrote a well-respected and valued book, “Raising Kids with Character: Developing Trust and Personal Integrity in Children.” There have been some members of the media who blame single mothers for everything from the crime rate to the decrease in newspaper sales. While two parent families are the ideal, do you think it is possible to raise an emotionally stable and moral child as a single parent and how should a single mother or father focus on helping their children to become loving people who are able to cope with the challenges of life?

Dr. Berger: I very much oppose blaming single parents, who in my opinion deserve much more support than they receive. Of course many single parents raise wonderful children! 

The problems with single parenthood are generally speaking two-fold. The first problem is simply practical: it is very hard for one person to run the whole show because the demands of raising children are so intense and so broad. Raising children requires money, time, space, energy, and patience. It is difficult for one person to be everywhere at once. A family group is a more resourceful backdrop to meet these needs. The isolation that many single parents experience is a huge difficulty and makes their role as parents so much more demanding. 

The second problem with single parenthood is that it is often the result of a tragedy: the death of a spouse or the failure of a love relationship that ended in separation or divorce. So the disappointment, anger, grief, and helplessness that are the result of these losses are often a huge elephant in the room that preoccupies both the single parent and the child left behind. The single parent and the child can be left with a thousand questions and resentments. Why me? Why can't I have the family that I had dreamed of having? Whose fault is it anyway? 

My best advice for single parents is simply to try to provide all the ordinary things to the child, as best one can. The great enemy for single parents is their own stress. The need to be perfect, to be all things to all men, to accomplish the same financial goals as a two-parent family – these unrealistic ambitions can make it hard for single parents to experience the joy and fulfillment in parenthood that they deserve and that their children deserve. 

Children act out in different ways when they are going through emotional trauma, as you’ve pointed out. Are there certain signs a parent should look out for that indicate something serious enough to take their child to a psychiatrist?

Dr. Berger: Parents often feel that they are the last to know what their offspring are thinking and feeling, so I would encourage parents to concentrate not on special severe symptoms on a check-list but on the quality of their ongoing intimacy and communication with their children. Marital difficulties and divorce are bound to shake a child's faith in the trustworthiness of the adults upon whom the child is dependent. So making sure that your relationship with the child is open and genuine on both sides is especially important. 

Red flags of a troubled youngster can be subtle but are mostly common sense: a downward turn in grades, unusual moodiness or irritability, poor sleep, signs of drug or alcohol use, lack of energy, withdrawal from friends or hanging out with the wrong crowd, lying, excessive isolation, changes in weight, or expressions of hopelessness. Parents should start with talking with their child about the parent's concerns using a respectful and empathic approach. Problems that resolve in a few days may be part of normal ups and downs. Problems that last more than two weeks are more serious. Naturally, threats or acts indicating self-harm or harm to others, running away, or disturbing changes in personality need prompt evaluation by a mental health professional. 

Do you suggest that parents tell their children’s teacher if they are going through a divorce or other serious life change that may impact the child, so the teacher can watch for signs of depression or other emotional stress?

Dr. Berger: I think that all parents should try to establish an informal team with their children's teachers, especially parents of younger children. A teacher is not a diagnostician or gate-keeper for emotional symptoms, but most teachers can make helpful adjustments to their approach to an individual youngster if they are given a heads-up about special stresses a child might be undergoing: a death in the family, serious illness, or divorce. A good teacher can reach out to a student who may be having a hard time and offer support and understanding. Alerting the teacher can help the school step forward with special arrangements such as informal drop-in conversations with the school counselor or temporary flexibility around school work-load. Of course, teachers often quake at the prospect of confronting a parent when the child seems emotionally troubled, so that a friendly chat with the teacher indicating that the parent would welcome feedback during a stressful period in the child's life is generally very much appreciated.

Obviously smaller children may not be able to articulate their pain or worries. As a child psychiatrist, how do you find out what their concerns are and since they can’t be treated in the same way an adult would, with psychotherapy, how do you treat young children?

Dr. Berger: It sometimes surprises people to hear that child psychiatrists are able to engage in psychotherapy with children as young as two, through a combination of talking and symbolic play; child psychiatrists also evaluate younger children and even infants in terms of assessing their behavior, their development, and their mood. However, it is fundamental to child psychiatry to evaluate every child in the context of the other people in a child's life, especially the child's parents. So helping children psychiatrically almost always involves getting to know the parents and the parents' point of view as well as involving the parents in the child's ongoing treatment. Often child psychiatrists see their role as helping parents to understand their children better and to communicate with them more constructively. So parents are part of the treatment team and sometimes truly the key element in treatment success. 

Are you planning to publish any more books in the future?

Dr. Berger: I hope so! And I appreciate the opportunity to share my views and your kind remarks!

Thank you, Dr. Berger, your advice and insight is appreciated!

Are you worried about the effect your relationship is having on your children? Please share your story in the comment box below. 

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Thomas Hanes Sunday, 05 January 2014 21:55 posted by Thomas Hanes

    Wonderful Post, thank you! I'll have to keep this in mind as I'm in the throes of a messy divorce. Huge affair, legal representation. Anyway I'm very concerned about the well-being of my children through all this.