Feeling the Conflict in a Divorce

  This picture of a beach ball, blown by the wind and rolling along the sand, was drawn by a 12-year-old girl. Molly
  “I think divorce is a big beach ball that goes round-and-round and never stops, never ending.”

Figure 11: Beach Ball


  Molly, in seventh grade, is at that age of uncertainty. Although she has been a child as long as she can
remember, we can see that she is perched on the cliff of change. She cannot know what that change through
adolescence to adulthood will be like.

  Her parents have been divorced for four years, but continue to argue over every issue--money, custody, rules,
discipline. They will argue over Monday following Sunday. She feels that divorce means a never-ending argument.
Her light blue eyes roll upward as she describes her feelings of frustration with her parents’ behavior. She tugs at
her blonde hair as she likens the frustration that she is experiencing to that of chasing a beach ball on a windy
day--you never quite catch the ball. Her parents can never stop the bickering.

  The quarrelling between the parents is fostering and maintaining a depression in Molly. Rather than
experiencing each day as new and exciting, she sees each day as a skirmish between her parents. Their voices
arguing are never far from her consciousness. The parents are constantly fighting in front of her and look to her
to win points. She is sought as an ally and a judge in an endless attempt by each parent to prove that he or she is
the better person.

  Molly was especially frustrated because her parents’ arguing was preventing her from participating in
cheerleading activities after school. Her parents were sabotaging her attempts to enter after school activities such
as cheerleading, by quarrelling over who has to pick her up where and at what time.
A parent will say, “No, you have to be back now, because I have to take you to your father’s or mother’s because
the courts and he or she have said so.” It only takes a few of those experiences to make Molly feel what is the
use, and discourage her from attempting cheerleader activities after school.

  Another girl in that divorce group echoed Molly’s frustration with her parents’ constant fighting. In keeping with
the beach ball theme, she drew the picture of a beach volleyball net with the words “TEAM 1 and TEAM 2”. One
side is her mother and the other side her father. She said that she feels like the volleyball.

Figure 12: Team 1 and Team 2        

Additional Effects of Fighting on Children

  In the previous section, we have seen how fighting during and after the divorce can be a contributor to
depression in children. One of the symptoms of depression in children is mood irritability. Frequent parental
conflicts are also a role model, setting a tone of anger and temper tantrums.

Figure 13: Steam from the Ears

  Loki was referred to me because her temper was creating problems for her both at home and at school. In her
expressive drawing, Loki has steam blasting out of her ears and a caption reading, “I wish my parents don’t fight
with each other!” Her parents’ conflict was depressing Loki, contributing to her irritability and giving her a poor
role model. Instead of parents teaching problem-solving and coping skills, Loki was seeing that getting angry,
lashing out and blaming others were how you dealt with problems and frustrations.
  Anger is perhaps the most difficult emotion to deal with. Anger can be a very useful emotion. It can help save
our life. I had one client who was attacked in an elevator. She became frightened and angry that someone would
try this on her. She used her anger to scream, push the creep away and hit all the buttons on the elevator. She
jumped off at the next floor, upset but intact. Had she not used her anger to defend herself, she might have been
raped and robbed, and she might have had to deal with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Because she used her
anger effectively, she realized that she could protect herself and react well in a stressful situation. That knowledge
helped empower her to speak up in other situations.
  The American colonists used their anger at being taxed without representation to throw off British rule. Many of
us have taken the anger of rejection or defeat as a motivator to work harder to become successful. Anger in itself
is not bad; it is how we recognize it and use it.

  If we use our anger to lash out at others unfairly or if we allow the anger we feel to turn inward and become self-
injurious or suicidal, then the anger becomes very destructive. Loki allowed the anger initially to turn outward. She
was quick to anger and quick to fight. Other children noticed this reaction and would tease or provoke her. Soon
her reaction became a source of amusement for other discontented students. When Loki returned home, she
would take out her frustration on her younger sisters.

  The old adage that misery loves company is true. Some students who feel powerless about their own problems
at home and who are upset and having a bad day, may decide that if they can pick on another student who will
become more upset than they are, then things are not so bad. They have some power. Children who overreact to
minor slights often invite more of the same behavior.
This tendency had become ingrained for Loki. Transferring to a new school at the end of elementary school
helped enormously for her. She was able to go to school without the same group of students waiting to tease her
to get a reaction. This helped her change her reaction and outlook at school. By using new social skills that we
rehearsed frequently in therapy, she started making friends and having invitations to parties and overnights. She
stopped fighting with her younger sisters.

  The new school year ended on a very positive note. She was soon questioning why she had to attend therapy. I
agreed with her and was getting ready to discharge her. She was feeling good about herself. She felt that she
was handling her parents’ divorce and conflict well and she had gained acceptance by her peers. However, when
the new school year started, an old nemesis transferred to her new school. The cycle of teasing returned.

  As she had matured during her first year of middle school, her expression of depression took a new turn. She
was trying to resist her old habits of lashing out, but her new found social skills and self-esteem were not
ingrained deeply enough to allow her to ignore her old foe and focus on her new friends. This time her depression
took a new route. Unhappy with both her environment and insecure about the emergence of adolescence, rather
than lashing out and fighting, she turned her anger inward and started to self-mutilate by cutting on herself.

  The cuts were not deep enough to kill herself, but were a clear sign of her disappointment and of her belief that
she could not escape her former unhappy life. I decided to build on the strategy that had worked before and add
a new component. Her ability and interest in drawing were clear from the start of therapy. Once we stabilized her
situation, I urged her mother to send her to a relative’s house in a distant city for the summer and to take an art
course while she was there. Again the new environment showed her that others react positively to her. Plus, she
gained lots of positive reinforcement for her art.

  When Loki returned from her summer, she now was invincible to teasing by her old nemesis. She ignored the
girl or shot back a number of lines that we had rehearsed. Whatever sadistic pleasure her tormentor had found
over her was now absent. Loki focused on what was working in her life—she had a responsible parent who cared
for her, she had friends and she had talent—the teasing faded away. When the teasing didn’t work, her tormentor
wanted to be her friend. Loki remained neutral and aloof as the unhappy girl looked for a new victim. Loki had
moved on from hurting herself. She was focused on her art and her new freedom from her parental disputes.
Two Teams