Over the years Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., who is a local child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton, has allowed us to republish many of his “Family Wise” articles from the Dayton Daily News. He included an interesting question and answer in his column published in the Dayton Daily News on Sunday, August 28, 2011, that caught my attention. Here is the question and Dr. Ramey’s answer:
My parents fight all the time. I know they are only staying together two more years until I leave for college. I hate being at home. Should I tell them to get a divorce?
Whether your parents stay married is their decision, not yours. It’s inappropriate for you tell them to get a divorce, but you should discuss the impact that the family turmoil is having on you. Don’t pick sides, offer advice or threaten them in any way. Simply tell them how you feel living in a home with constant arguments. Don’t forget to reassure them that you love them.
I shared Dr. Ramey’s advice with Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC, a licensed psychotherapist in Connecticut. She, too, has kindly posted many articles on our Blog and understands the complexities of divorce and parenting issues. Ms. Ferber agreed completely with Dr. Ramey’s answer. She went on to add that while the children’s “input” may help the parents feel more comfortable with their decision-making process, by no means should the kids have the final word. “I use this analogy with parents – if you are shopping for a new car, you might ask your kids for input, maybe on the color, but you don’t send them to the dealership with a blank check. The adults are still in charge and make the important decisions.”
I thought about Ms. Ferber’s comments and inquired somewhat facetiously, “So how would getting the child’s ‘input’ occur?” Would both parents say to the older teen, “It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that we’re fighting and not getting along. We may be getting a divorce. Do you think it’s a good idea for us to stay together X years until you finish high school or pursue it now?” Without missing a beat, Donna responded, “I think kids give input without direct questioning (which would give them too much power). Parents should not be asking for permission or even their children’s opinion.
Instead, parents need to watch for the signs that the marital discord is upsetting their children – sleep disruption, plummeting grades, decreased appetite, moodiness, isolation, clinginess, anxiety, lethargy, nightmares, etc. Clearly, these differ based on age of the child. It is important to remember these symptoms can be attributed to other concerns in the kids’ life. We look for the severity, the duration and number of symptoms that are occurring simultaneously to help discern if the child is just having a bad couple of days or reacting to something bigger.”
Ms. Ferber stated that she recently read that the single biggest reason for sleep disturbance in kids is marital discord of their parents. “A savvy parent pays attention to the non-spoken clues. In some cases, kids will offer info – ‘I wish you didn’t fight so much’ or ‘Are you getting a divorce?’ are verbal clues that make it so much easier for a parent to decode. If you ask the question directly, ‘Should Dad and I get divorced?’ (or some variation of that), then the child will always blame themselves for whatever decision is made.”
In her practice, Donna frequently hears stories from adults who recall their parents’ divorce. Even though they are adults now, they tell the story from their perspective as a child. One such case involved a 40-year-old unmarried teacher who blames herself for her father leaving. One evening at dinner when she was five, she spilt her juice and he had a fit. The next day he was gone, and she never saw him again. She still correlates those two things. Intellectually she can see that she had nothing to do with her father’s leaving, yet emotionally she still feels that if she hadn’t spilt her juice, he would not have left. Had her parents handled their split up in a healthier way, she would have been able to process those feelings of blame at the time. Engaging in therapy as an adult has helped her see that her childhood interpretation of these events created a false sense of guilt and over-responsibility that continued to manifest in her adult relationships with men.
I asked Ms. Ferber when it makes good sense to “ride out” the marriage for the benefit of the kids. Her answer was that “a bad relationship, like any relationship, is not static. Chances are a marriage will deteriorate no matter how ‘civil’ the parents try to be. I do not believe staying together for your kids is enough of a reason. However, it is a good reason to try to keep it together with marriage counseling, but kids have great radar and they will feel the stress and it will manifest negatively in some of the ways described above.” “Many parents tell me that their marriage is unacceptable but they do not leave for the sake of the kids. Daily they tell their children, ‘This or that is wrong’, yet by staying in the situation they give mixed messages. The old adage is true, ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ We must ways be mindful of the role model our own actions create for our children.”
I appreciate the advice from both Dr. Ramey and Ms. Ferber regarding this common situation that I regularly see in my domestic relations practice.
Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit www.childrensdayton.org/ramey and join Dr. Ramey on Facebook at www.facebook.com/drgregramey. The question and answer was reprinted by permission from the August 28, 2011, edition of the Dayton Daily News Family Wise Article, Gregory Ramey, Ph.D.
Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC, is a licensed psychotherapist in Connecticut. She is the author of From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce. To learn more about Ms. Ferber, view her website and her excellent blog at www.donnaferber.com.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.