Vineeta lost her mother when she was a young adult; she pined for years, unable to overcome her grief over the loss of her parent. But when she underwent divorce, she was unable to understand her own 8 year old son, who was grieving the loss of his father. She struggled to understand why suddenly he was getting into trouble at home and at school, why were his grades falling although he was an intelligent child, why was he back answering and blaming her. Nothing made sense, but a sense that everything falling apart for them both was experienced. Maybe that is what a child feels when parents divorce/ separate. His entire world seems to come crashing down.
The movie Bal Ganesha which got everyone in the theatre to tears of joy when Ganesha showed his superior intelligence and circled his parents three times instead of taking three rounds around the world, winning the race against his younger brother. Little do we realize that this mythology is not about superior intelligence, rather it portrays the child’s perception of his parents, his world. For him, parents are at the center of his existence and therefore separation from one or both is experienced like death and a threat to his own survival.
Like any one who is fighting for their survival, children try out various options to survive this trauma, and attempt to reunite their parents. Like the Vineeta, who grieved for years over the loss of her mother, children do not give up hope of reuniting their parents for years after the separation. Parents who are anyways struggling to deal with their own emotions find it extremely difficult to deal with the emotions of the children. Children ask questions which seem impeccably correct putting the parents in a spot. “But why does he not like you? Maybe if you work hard and become smarter and thin, the way he wants you to, we can be together,” says a 7 year old boy to his mother. Or a 10 year old girl to her father “Why can’t you forgive her, maybe she did not mean the things she said to you. You forgive me every time I have lied, can’t you forgive her? For my sake please?”
In most cases the children tend to feel responsible for the divorce and try to change the behaviour and actions to please the other parent, like this 6 year old boy pleads to his mother, “lets go back home, I promise I will not make him angry and bother him for toys ever again or change the TV channels.” At times, in their attempt to get back the parents together, they may even get into negative behaviours such as lying, running away from home, cooking up stories, poor academic performance, and bedwetting, being irresponsible and stubborn etc. This problem is exaggerated if the child is very young and unable to communicate; or if he is entering his teens and feels confused and threatened about the volatile emotions characteristic of this age. Unable to deal with this confusion and inability to express their distress, children learn to bottle up emotions and thoughts, making communication all the more difficult. There seems to be a glass wall around them where you cannot hear what they are saying nor can they seem to understand what you are trying to communicate. Nothing seems to penetrate and touch them through this wall.
But there is a non threatening way to communicate to them, through the language of play. Play is a natural mode of communication of children. They can better emote their feelings unconsciously through play and therefore play becomes a powerful cathartic medium. It also provides an emotional distance to the children necessary to express threatening and negative emotions and thoughts. They cannot say that I don’t hate you mom for getting divorce but they can definitely express the same using a doll set or by beating at clay incessantly. Thus through the use of play, we can reach out to both the younger children and the teenagers alike.
This play way is used by a specially trained therapist to help children and parents better understand and deal with each others thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Unfortunately this is a language that we as parents, have long forgotten and need to relearn it in order to understand what our child is feeling to help them. Sometimes the Play Therapist also involves the parent to some of the structured play techniques which can help them bond better. This is what we did with Vineeta and her son. Through play materials we helped the child emote his anger and frustration. Once he had a name for the feelings, he was able to express it verbally. Vineeta on the other hand, when she was involved in the Play Therapy sessions, learned to better understand his emotions and respond appropriately to his needs.
The drawing in the picture was drawn by the child demonstrating his pain at the divorce as is seen by the heavy clouds, scratched sun and the two rivers which run parallel to each other like tears from the eyes. A Play therapist uses numerous play materials such as this to make such interpretations and convey it to the child, equipping the child with the ability to choose his reactions appropriately. It aims to increase resilience and self esteem within each child. Making him confident to face the future and challenges in life.