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Ask an Expert: Helping a child cope with parents’ separation.

Q. My wife and I separated this past year. Our ninth grade daughter still seems very upset. Her grades are dropping and she’s becoming more uncommunicative. It’s been tough on all of us but my wife and I are amicable. What can we do to help our daughter cope?

A. Children are expected to be upset following parents’ separation. They generally experience a grief reaction.  Common feelings include mixed emotions of anger, guilt, confusion, disbelief and sadness. The feelings generally come and go in waves, as in any grief reaction.  A normal response to this is that the child is able to continue to function in school and socially and is able to laugh and enjoy usual fun activities. Additionally, during a “normal” grief reaction a child will express hopeful and optimistic feelings that he or she will feel better.  Often symptoms will persist for months or longer but basically decrease in a gradual but consistent way.  There are times that a grief reaction can evolve into depression, anxiety or other mood problems.

In this paticular instance, it sounds as if you daughter is not experiencing a normal grief reaction.  I amconcerned that she may be depressed due to the problems you mentioned in the question.  My feeling is that she should be evaluated professionally for depression. I am guessing that the holidays have been a brutal reminder to her that the family that she has known will never be the same again. She may be experiencing a depressive episode due to the situation and that would be termed “adjustment reaction.”

Whether this is a true depressive episode or an adjustment reaction, there are ways you and your wife can help her cope:

  • I suggest that you recognize the fact that she is not feeling well and provide empathy and support around that.
  • Don’t challenge her feelings but listen to them and accept them. You can validate her by recognizing that a separation is a very difficult thing for a child to deal with.
  • If she is angry, let her air her frustrations. Encourage as much physical and fun activity as possible to keep her distracted. Time with friends is very valuable in helping cope with depression, whether situational or biological.
  • Encourage a consistent routine that includes three healthy meals per day and regular bed and wake times.
  • Therapy can help greatly as well, especially a specific form of therapy called “Cognitive Behavior Therapy.”  It is a terrific coping skill that can be used for all sorts of life stressors including depression, anxiety and anger problems.
  • It’s also critical to make sure that your daughter is not using drugs or alcohol to help cope with her grief.

If you want more information, find additional resources through the Colorado Psychiatric Society. For referrals from the Colorado Psychological Association, call 303-692-9303.

Good luck to you with this.

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