My husband and I recently divorced, and our three children have been having "anger" issues. I cannot afford a therapist, and I also find myself not having the energy to discipline them and wonder if this could be a part of the problem.
At a loss
Dear At a loss,
When a child is frustrated, there are only two possible outcomes. In the first, his hurt or disappointment will express itself as anger and aggression. This may manifest as slamming doors when he doesn't get his way, defying you when you make a request or turning his aggression on himself with comments like, "I hate my life."
The other possibility is for a distressed child to feel his sadness -- usually with the support of a caring adult. When a youngster is able to drop into sadness or has a good cry about his upset, he becomes able to make peace with whatever isn't going his way, and accept life on its new terms.
Now, when I use the word "frustrated," please understand that I'm speaking broadly. A youngster can be frustrated about a broken toy, a difficult homework assignment or a significant loss, such as divorce. Any time a child experiences things not going his way, he will be frustrated, paving the way for him either to adapt to the situation as it is, or express his discouragement as aggression.
Your children have suffered a great loss. It's impossible to imagine they wouldn't be experiencing a great deal of emotional turmoil. Children are very resilient; with the right kind of guidance, they will get through this difficult time. But the "anger issues" you're referring to are really an appropriate manifestation of the fact that the world as they knew it has turned upside down. They need to grieve.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross worked extensively with the grieving process, and created an acronym -- DABDA -- for the stages that people go through in adjusting to the death of a loved one.
The first stage: Denial. There's a disbelief that someone -- let's use Great Grandma as an example -- has truly passed. The second: Anger. "Those doctors shouldn't have given Great Grandma that surgery!"
The third stage: Bargaining. "Dear God, if you bring Great Grandma back to life, I'll stop smoking!" The fourth stage is Depression; when someone is truly feeling the loss emotionally, there is an inevitable period where they simply feel sad. And the final, or fifth stage, is Acceptance. This is when one finally comes to terms with the loss, and adjusts to life without the loved one.
While your children haven't suffered a death, they have suffered an enormous loss, and it sounds as though they're stuck in the Anger (and perhaps the Denial and Bargaining) stages.
Anger is always a mask for hurt. Until your children can express their feelings openly with you, without you trying to cheer them up or understand why the divorce had to happen, they will continue to be angry. They need to feel sad, cry and be comforted by you as they navigate the difficult terrain of life without both parents living together.
While it may be necessary to find the energy to provide more discipline and structure for your kids, I would start by creating opportunities to let them offload the pain in their young hearts.
Some children deal with divorce by becoming withdrawn. Others, like yours, express their unhappiness through anger. And others may develop sleep problems or loss of appetite. All children need the loving support of parents to help them adjust when life is challenging. With your help in making peace with this loss, your children's anger should subside. Do make sure you're getting the support you need, so you can be there for them.
Yours in parenting support,
Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.