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Why the Child of Divorce Feels Trapped in a Blending Family

Family / Issues Kids Deal With / Leadership //

When I was a little kid we had these fascinating contraptions called “Japanese Finger Traps”. I believe they are also called “Chinese Finger Puzzles” or “Chinese Finger Cuffs”.

It is a novelty toy and a lot of fun for kids. The finger trap is a cylinder-like device. When you put a finger in each end and try to pull your fingers out the cylinder tightens up. The more you struggle to get out of a finger trap the more stuck you become; the more trapped you feel.

The finger trap is a great analogy for anyone working with or ministering to the child of divorce. Many times in workshops and seminars, I take along a few Finger Traps and have people experiment trying to pull their fingers out. The key to escaping is to relax the fingers and then gently pull them out.

Many times, the harder a child of divorce tries to move forward the more “stuck” they become. This is especially true when the child of divorce (co-habitation or the result of a never married situation) enters a newly forming family.

The harder the child tries to fit in, the more the issues bubble up to the top. Basically children of divorce bring all the issues from the previous relationship or relationships into the newly forming family. Many times the child has seen a lot of people come and go in their short lifetime. After trying to attach to some of these people only to see them leave again, they are leery of forming yet another relationship that might disappear.

Something else people forget is that the child quickly “adopts” the behavior of the people around her. In other words if someone that smokes a lot is around a child, that child will pretend to smoke. If a parent is quickly affectionate to a new person, the child will become indiscriminately affection to people even strangers. Children pick up on personalities, mannerisms and characteristics. “If you’re a little kid, you don’t have the filters and distractions adults can use to deflect another person’s dark behaviors.”[1]

Harsh and demanding becomes the norm

Unfortunately most people become harsh and demanding trying to force the child to accept the newly formed family. Punishments abound and the child feels more trapped than ever before. The more trapped and stuck they become the more stress they live under. When children are stressed and worried they don’t have the thinking skills to help them analyze, organize or remember what they are supposed to do. They simply react from the lower level of their brain:

  • Someone looks at them wrong, they lash out
  • Another child walks toward them, they instinctively hit or kick
  • Someone approaches them with what they perceive as an angry look, they read the expression as something dangerous
  • When new step siblings enter the picture they may demand more attention from the very person they have shunned – the step parent
  • They use negative acts to get negative attention because to them it is attention after all

The birth parent may wonder what happened to her loving child. Many moms when thrown in this situation worry that they aren’t being a good parent. There may be pressure from her new partner to toughen up. So while the child gets stuck and is feeling more and more trapped, now the mom is feeling stuck also. Both parent and child are pulling harder to get out of the self-perpetuating finger trap.

The child begins to act out at school or in the summer at day camp. Deeper and deeper the behaviors go. And harsher becomes the punishments.

As a children’s minister or church volunteers what can you do?

You can help both of the adults in the newly formed family understand the issues I’ve mentioned above. Just like the way out of a finger trap is to relax the fingers so too it is the way out of the vicious circle of acting out and punishments.

  • Calmness must prevail in both the adults in the home
  • Let each day stand on it’s own. In other words do not put these kids on reward systems. No charts on the fridge to tally up points or stars so they get a reward at the end of the week or after a month. That will only add more stress to the child’s life
  • Catch the child in kind acts and comment, “That was helpful!” Even if it is something small such as putting their cup on the counter or in the dishwasher, making them aware that they are contributing to the family environment will go a long way in helping the child transfer that contribution to other places. You want the child to realize they can give back instead of always taking away from the environment
  • Celebrate when the child has a good day
    1. Celebrate with a foot massage or a back rub. Something that will draw the parent and child closer together. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.2. Celebrate with a rousing game of basketball; a walk in the park or a bike ride. Exercise has been shown to greatly reduce coritsol levels in the brain as well as increase norephinephrine. Increasing norepinephrine can reduce behavior problems.
    3. Celebrate with ice cream cone or a special food such as applesauce or pudding for the evening meal. Soft and comforting foods in the mouth can have a calming effect. Also when children are under a lot of stress they need foods high in potassium such as bananas or orange juice.
  • Encourage the child to drink a lot of water. Dehydrated brains can’t think. Stress tends to dehydrate the brain.
  • Tell the parent something such as, “stop beating yourself up” when their child acts out at school, after school care or in a summer camp or even at the other parent’s home. Shake it off and move forward.
  • Provide scriptures that can help. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but aharsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1 (NIV)

Show these families God’s love and empathy. They are trying hard to survive. Contribute to their long-term survival by being there for them and printing out articles such as this one. When you hand it to them, take a few minutes to sit down with them and talk through the issues. Many are desperate for help and they are getting stuck in the quagmire of negativism. Gently pull them out of this routine.

In case you want to use the analogy of the finger trap you can make your own or let the parents make some for use in their home. http://www.wikihow.com/Create-a-Chinese-Finger-Trap

[1] http://acestoohigh.com/2013/08/07/terrifying-children-into-a-life-of-asthma/

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About the Author

Linda has been a children’s ministry director, developed DC4K (DivorceCare for Kids, dc4k.org), operated a therapeutic child care, and has extensive experience at successfully accommodating challenging behaviors. She currently serves as the DC4K Ambassador and Professional blogger at http://blog.dc4k.org.