Anxiety is a common, treatable problem among children and teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three children will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. Although anxious feelings can occur at any age, children will often develop short-term symptoms of anxiety when confronted with a challenging event, such as the recent outbreak of the coronavirus disease or even more recently, during the rioting associated with the death of George Floyd. Situational anxiety related to specific events such as these is different, though, from an anxiety disorder since the anxious feelings typically subside over time.
For some children, however, anxious feelings and sudden changes in behavior resulting from a significant life event persist, affecting their ability to return to normal day-to-day functioning. Take, for example, the worrisome feelings that children often develop when their parents are divorcing. While most children are able to work through their emotions, others may continue to experience adverse effects long after their parent’s divorce has become final. The ability to healthily adjust post-divorce is the result of a confluence of factors such as age, temperament, and cognitive capacity, but more significantly, by the attitudes and behaviors of their parents. In fact, it is well documented that one of the most important things a parent can do for their children before, during, and after a divorce, is to model a healthy coparenting relationship. It has been documented that the quality of the coparenting relationship is one of the most significant predictors of a child’s healthy post-divorce adjustment. Establishing a positive coparenting relationship with your coparent, however, can be a daunting task for even the most loving of parents when they are going through a painful separation and divorce. As a result, during a time when children need stable parents the most, many parents are ill-equipped to model the healthy emotional and behavioral skills their children need to feel safe, secure, and reassured about their futures.
Studies on mirror neurons (i.e., brain cells that mimic behaviors and feelings we see in others) tell us that human beings are genetically hard-wired to be influenced by others. The closer the relationship, the more easily one can be influenced. We call the phenomenon of spreading feelings from one person to another emotional contagion. One only needs to turn on the news or log into social media to understand how easily this can happen. A profound statement or even a mere slight from a stranger can alter our self-perception and shift our outlook on the world, often for life. Given that children learn by mimicking those closest to them, emotional and behavioral regulation is a crucial task of parenting that must not be overlooked. Think about what you remember from your childhood. What did you hear and observe that influences you even today? And, what does this have to do with getting a divorce?
The point is, if you are a parent considering a divorce, choosing a process that minimizes the adverse effects on your children is monumental. Because families are like a solar system, where everyone influences everyone else, it is nearly impossible for families not to infect each other with their emotions, positive or negative. In other words, how you choose to end your marriage will make a big difference in the amount of anxiety your whole family experiences during, before, and after your divorce.
In Texas, there are several ways for you to dissolve your marriage. In addition to the well-known adversarial method of litigation, you can choose a do-it-yourself divorce or the more amicable process of a Collaborative Divorce. The latter option is ideal for parents who want to minimize the risk of infecting their children with separation and divorce-related anxiety and provide their children with the best odds of being psychologically healthy and well-adjusted post-divorce.
So, what is a Collaborative Divorce? It is a confidential, highly-structured process where an interdisciplinary team works with you and your spouse – and sometimes your children – to engage in negotiations that promote mutual and creative solutions to solving the issues in your divorce. The team consists of an attorney for each parent, a neutral financial and mental health professional, and sometimes a child specialist for your children. The focus is on helping you to plan for your future through interest-based negotiations and problem-solving without ever having to set foot in the anxious environment of a courtroom. A primary goal is to provide you with the tools you need to avoid exposing your children to high-conflict divorce drama and infecting your family with anxiety. The mental health professional on your team helps you and your spouse to accomplish this by assisting you in managing the intense emotions that often interfere with modeling healthy coparenting. In the medical community, it is no secret that an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Similarly, in the legal and mental health community, an ounce of early intervention during your divorce process will save you a pound of judicial and therapeutic intervention if misunderstandings go unresolved and problems become entrenched.
The bottom line is this: Anxiety and all of our other emotions are contagious and can be spread easily from you to your child, quicker than COVID-19. Are you infecting your children with feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and toxic coping mechanisms? Or, are you infecting your children with a sense of hope about their future and the skills they need to move through future challenging circumstances? As a parent, you are the most influential person in your child’s life. Your children only get one childhood, and you get to choose what that looks like. Choosing a method to dissolve your marriage that will help you manage your feelings and behaviors more healthily is one of the kindest things you can do for not only your children but for yourself.