Couples Therapy: Helping children cope with parents’ separation and divorce

Children do suffer much when parents separate or divorce. Read how couples therapy can help reduce the emotional stress and confusion in children who have to face their parents separation.

Children are wired to be ultra-sensitive to changes in their parents’ relationship.

Some children are so tuned-in that they pick up unhappiness within the couple long before the couple even acknowledge the gravity of their problems. How do we know this?

Family therapists have long understood — through working with parents and their children — how children’s developing symptoms can emerge out of anxiety over their parent’s state of mind or relationship. This is a known phenomenon from the field of the family system.

Secure parental bonds are important to children.

The younger and more vulnerable the child, the more important to them are the parental bonds. Stable bonds mean safety. When there is a threat to this stability, children get anxious. This anxiety can amount to panic. From the experience of working with adult clients, I have learnt how even older children in their late teens get affected by their parent’s separation.

Children face anxiety and panic when parents separate

“What will happen to my home?”,”who will take care of me?”,”will mommy or daddy leave me?” These questions speak the language of a child’s fears of being abandoned and left exposed to the environment. The resultant “symptom” is anxiety and panic.

Children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce

Older children and teenagers develop an added strategy to withstand this kind of anxiety. They blame themselves. Blaming is a way of assigning power to the object of blame. If being abandoned makes one feel vulnerable, the way to overcome vulnerability is to assign power to the self. The unconscious tendency is to assign blame to the self for what has happened.

There is a tendency for children to blame themselves for their parents’ marriage breakdown.

In their adult years, children of parents in conflict can bear symptoms such as depression, mood swings and anxiety. Many have difficulty with intimate relationships themselves and some even adopt self- harming behaviors. Psychotherapy sessions in my practice has uncovered oftentimes this link.

What can divorcing parents do to minimize harm to their children?

Be open and reassuring with your children. Even very small children can grasp parental conflict. This does not mean that you should fight in front of the children. To be open about conflict is to acknowledge that there is one, without explaining why, or who is at fault.

Be careful not to use the child to take sides.

Reassure the children that their parents love them, no matter what happens. Reassure them that they are good children.

Engage a professional whom the child can regularly talk to. This could be a counselor or psychotherapist.

Engage a marriage counselor or couple’s therapist to help you and your spouse separate with mutual understanding and respect. Psychotherapists provide the supportive environment for the couple to deal with the emotional pain that arises from the separation process. This relieves the child from being the incidental bearer of this pain.

The last point is worth taking seriously. We know that causing pain to our children is the last thing we want happen in the separation process. Unfortunately, without professional support, the unconscious takes over. In high conflict and stressful situations like divorce, people become unaware of themselves and oblivious to what happens.

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Scapegoating in Groups and Families

Scapegoating is a phenomenon that happens in almost all human groups. A. Colman (video below), begins the above talk by saying that it is the root of evil in humanity. Is he exaggerating this? Or are there truths in his remark?

bullying

What makes a group?

A group is made up of a bunch of individuals (and we are referring to human individuals here), who have to be together because of a certain task or function. A company of workers is a group. There are social groups, church groups, political groups, hobby groups, support groups and the like. Families are also groups.

In my article Bion: The Function of Myths in Groups, I explain that a group is a body that has a mental state and creates a phantasy. The group becomes more than the sum of people that come together to form it. The group has its own dynamics and it is its own organism.

Groups are like organisms, and they strive to keep themselves intact

The group connects the inner worlds of people. Narcissistic tendencies and psychological traumas get played out in groups. Like a living organism, the group strives to keep itself intact.

In order to do so, any form of aggression that naturally and unconsciously arises from the group becomes a threat to the status quo of the group. There is a tendency then for the group to move towards “doing something” to maintain harmony and equilibrium. The individuals then strive to retain their own idea of their “good self” and deny their part in the aggression that threatens the group.

Groups need scapegoats so that the members can disown their responsibility for the group’s destruction

The aggression that is latent in the group becomes disowned by the individuals (who do not want to be blamed for their group’s destruction), and transferred on to an external object of blame. This object of blame is the scapegoat.

Oftentimes the scapegoat is a member of the group. Sometimes it appears in the form of someone from outside the group– people from another culture, immigrants, women, etc.

Scapegoating in Groups

Scapegoating is the most ancient human rituals. It used to come in the form of practices such as child & animal sacrifice, adult sacrifice, witch hunting. Large groups of people can also become scapegoats, as we have witnessed during the Holocaust, Apartheid, and other genocides.

A Scapegoat is a person, subgroup, collective idea … who is made to take the anxious blame for the other people in their place.

The process of scapegoating is done in order for the rest to feel more comfortable, or to be more efficient, and whole.

The scapegoat embodies the transformational, creative and/or destructive potential within the group.

The scapegoat has often creative potential, and is often different from the others in the group. Sometimes this person has the potential to make changes in society.

Scapegoating is victimization of the other

Many who have been young victims of bullying in school or in the family have experienced from a young age, what it is like to be in the position of the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is usually the different / outsider. Not being able to bear the difference. Potential scapegoats are usually people who are racially different.

Scapegoat’s Adjustment

In order to survive being scapegoated, the person either turns into the

  • victim /patient (as in children who develop illnesses or develop behavioral problems in school).
  • avenger (someone who takes revenge)
  • the messiah / prophet (someone who saves the group)

09:10 Colman, in the video above provides us with literary examples of some of these scapegoat transformations.

In Families, the child who becomes the Scapegoat is also the Symptom Bearer

Scapegoating happen in almost all families. Most of the time a child in the families bears the brunt of the scapegoating. If the family is relatively harmonious, the scapegoat feels simply like a “black sheep”, and grows up to be an adult who can function well.

In families that are dysfunctional, or in families where mental disorders and/or addictions or illnesses exist, the scapegoat child develops symptoms or syndromes that affect his/her ability to function emotionally as an adult. Some of these scapegoated children develop psychological issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders. Some also develop the tendency to self harm.

This is usually seen (which I witness in practice) in a families where parents strive to stay together, despite the fact that one or both parents are abusive or psychologically unstable. What would have been a natural course of action, a break up, is avoided by members of the family at all costs. A superficial picture of stability is often seen in these families.

The “only” problem this family seem to have is a problem child — a child who is doing poorly at school, has behavioral problems, has eating disorder, self harms or has other emotional difficulties. When as therapists we see such children, we understand them to be symptom-bearers.

The experience of being a child scapegoat is one of Childhood trauma. There is immense feeling of loneliness because his/her feelings towards the family are negated by their own parents and siblings. These are the children who’d take the blame for their parents’ worries. Many grow up believing that they are flawed. Many introject the blame. Self blame lead to self hatred, self harm and sometimes suicide.

Psychotherapy for Child Symptom Bearers

Usually families bring themselves into therapy because of a “problem” or “sick” child. In successful family therapies, the therapeutic work centers around the relational dynamics between the family members, and not focussed on the “problem child”. Helping the parents and other members become aware of their roles in the family system releases the afflicted child of having to bear the intrinsic problems that exist in the family.

Psychotherapy for Adult sufferers of Scapegoating

One does not always know that one is being made a scapegoat. In the working environment, the scapegoat may simply find work in the office stressful with conflicts.

Sometimes, of course, in the course of therapy the client realizes that he/she was his/her family’s symptom bearer, or that he/she was a scapegoat in a group.

Being a scapegoat brings with it feelings of loneliness. You are being targeted as the cause of problems. Because of this, there’ll also be feelings of having done something wrong, or being flawed. This progresses to self blame. Psychotherapy involves

  • addressing these feelings of loneliness, shame, fear and betrayal
  • re-aligning oneself by being awareness of the group reality,
  • finding oneself again being independent of the group,
  • finding resources outside the group
  • getting support from others