By William Schacht, MS, LCSW
We are doing some of our kids a major disservice.
For thousands of years, human beings have prescribed to a primary family structure: a father, a mother, and child(ren). This is rapidly changing. Due to decades of a near 50% divorce rate, over one-third of all Americans now live in blended family structures. By the end of our generation, this is projected to increase to half of us.
Fueled by a reduction in religious influence and a more permissive, self-indulgent society, the departure from the basic family structure via separation and divorce is almost always the by-product of adult desire to end a painful current existence or create a perceived more pleasurable one.
Through the adult pursuit of a “better life,” our children are thrust into the scary dismantling of what they have known as their home and are faced with the challenge of new life structures and relationships they are not choosing for themselves.
Most adults, including the parents creating these changes, realize that family separation, divorce, and family re-blending can have a serious, terrifying impact on kids, even when their best interest may be at hand. It is common for such parents to hear themselves say, “This is going to be to be tough on the kids.”
It is obvious that a baby bird thrown from the nest or a bear cub separated from its sow are in deep danger and will overcome great odds even to survive. And, we accept that this chick or this cub will shriek in pain when suddenly the victim of such loss.
Our children, too, naturally react in crisis when the nuclear family is threatened or dissolved and many times when blended families are formed.
Too frequently, children in these situations will not outwardly show this internal distress. Because they are angry at their parents, or they believe their thoughts and feelings will be dismissed as trivial, or because they sense that sharing their true thoughts and feeling might cause further pain for their parents, often kids will choose to keep what they are going through to themselves.
Other children will show one or multiple symptoms: moodiness, anxiety, anger, rebellion, withdrawal, reduced school performance, lost interest in previously fun activity, and more. These are all NORMAL responses to this difficult life challenge.
When they respond in such normal ways, parents don’t always know what to do to help. And, because sometimes kids are scared or angry at their parents for breaking up the family or catapulting them into a new one, in some instances the kid won’t let them help.
These situations usually end up with the parent(s) thinking, “My kid needs to see someone,” because there is no other obvious help anywhere on the horizon. So, off to the psychologist’s office they go, more times than not with the kid being the one labeled as the “patient.” Sometime the child is willing; sometime the child resists.
It is important to understand that American insurance companies do not pay for marriage counseling or family counseling of any form. Insurance companies pay for medical diagnoses, one type being a “mental disorder.” And, most parents don’t have the financial wherewithal or psychological insight to pay cash for the therapist’s time.
The therapist could assign a non-mental disorder diagnosis (called a “V” code: V62.89 Phase of Life Problem, for example), but insurance companies will not pay for this. So, the child, who is now even more thinking that he/she is the “problem,” is nose to nose with a therapist who, to get the insurance company to pay for the counseling, assigns the kid with a DSM-IV psychological disorder diagnosis. This becomes forevermore a part of that child’s medical record. And, when the child is told about this diagnosis it is further suggesting that, “Something is wrong with ME!”
For an “Adjustment Disorder” to be accurately diagnosed, the client must present responses to the stressful situation which are “marked distress that is in excess of what would be expected from exposure to the stressor” (DSM-IV criteria). If you awoke to a grizzly bear standing over your bed, would you consider your mad dash to the door or nearest window as an “abnormal” reaction to the stressor? Surely not!
Yet, mental health professionals are doing just that in diagnosing children responding normally to stressful family changes.
Such diagnoses can have devastating consequences for the child later in life when applying for certain jobs (i.e. government classified, etc.), licenses (i.e. pilot, etc.), and insurances (i.e. health, life, disability, etc.). Inadvertently, the “do good” of diagnostic based psychotherapy can result in unforeseen future unqualified candidacy and higher premiums or insurance rejection.
Children in these situations do benefit from and many times require significant support as they face the challenges of family separation, divorce, or blending of families. It is critical that these kids…
- Learn that they are experiencing the challenge of a significant life changing event. And, that periodic life change is a part of life itself.
- Have their thoughts and feelings acknowledged and validated.
- Understand that what they are experiencing in this life changing event is NORMAL.
- Be supported in keeping communication active and effective within all important relationships.
- Learn coping strategies and skills for challenging situations (i.e. “What do I say when dad introduces me to his new girlfriend for the first time?” etc.).
- Realize that they have a responsibility to continue the pursuit of their personal potential, even in the face of difficult life situations. They must refrain from being a “victim” to what is happening around them, and keep focused on creating the joyful life they desire.
- Create and act upon a life plan to actualize into their personal potential.
Without such support, some of these children can and will become lost in a myriad of scary thoughts and correlated bad feelings about their family change.
As a culture, we must stop the pattern of these children who are having normal responses to challenging life change inappropriately diagnosed and told they have a mental disorder.
We must provide safe and effective educational opportunities for these children to get the support they need in these family transitions.
All of Canada and American states such as Connecticut and Utah require adults going through divorce to take a course on effective parenting in a divorce situation. Interestingly, no states provide such educational experiences for the children in divorcing families, even though they are the ones most psychologically vulnerable.
The process of Americans adults seeking better lives for themselves must not lead to their kids losing a joyful childhood and family experience due to the natural chaos associated with change.
Organizations like PEOPLE OF DIVORCE – The Association (CALL 1-866-724-2000) or Performance Enhancement Health Services, SC (CALL 1-414-858-1014) out of Franklin, Wisconsin are recognizing the need to provide support and education for children and adults in evolving family structures. This companies offers educational program for children in separations and divorce and for adults and children who are entering or have entered a blended family situation.
Such offerings will become increasingly needed as the structure of “family” continues to evolve in America. Their goal, as should be the goal of all Americans, is to help these kids feel normal and remain successful through the natural challenges of significant life change.