MAGICAL THINKING: When Children of Divorce Blame Themselves
For children, there is a fine line between fantasy and reality. Their imaginations are very powerful and they may see unreal monsters that live in closets or under beds which inspire real fears. They will also believe that their thoughts can cause real events to happen “magically.”
For example, if a child is angry at one of his/her parents and that parent is hurt or has an accident, the child may feel secretly guilty and responsible for “causing” the accident (or divorce) because of having “bad” thoughts, “ill feelings” or “nasty wishes” about Mommy or Daddy.
In believing that a person can cause things to happen just by thinking or wishing it, “magical thinking” serves a special purpose for the child. It helps the child to feel a sense of power and control over life. (“If I can make bad things happen, I can also make good things happen — I can have the world just the way that I want it. I can make Mommy and Daddy okay again!”)
This type of thinking is a natural part of childhood development and helps a child to cope with reality and feel secure.
Because of the need for a child to make sense of life, the child unwittingly tries to make sense of the impending divorce through “magical thinking” that goes something like this: “I can cause Mommy and Daddy to be angry or happy. Since I cause things to happen, I must have caused the divorce and everything else to happen. Since I cause ‘bad’ things to happen, I must be “bad.” If I’m “bad” then I’m at fault and to blame. If I’m to blame, then I’m responsible. If I’m responsible, then it’s up to me to fix everything!”
The child will further conclude, “It’s not that something is wrong with Mommy and Daddy or that they have a problem (an overwhelming thought). No, something is wrong with me! I am the problem. Period. That’s it! It makes sense! Now, if I can just figure out what to do, everything will be okay again!”
This line of thinking obviously creates an impossible and overwhelming dilemma for the child. However, it also offers the child hope, a kind of “solution” and a feeling of security. It offers this by making sense to the child. (“It’s not my world, parents or God who have a problem or are “wrong.” It’s me! What a relief! For a moment I thought that the world was unreliable, untrustworthy, “crazy,” unpredictable and unloving, but no, no, it’s just me.”)
Because a child is still dependent upon his/her parents, it becomes too threatening to believe that the chaos and instability brought about by divorce represents how life really is. So, the child creates an imaginative and clever solution in order to cope. The solution may be harmful for the child (self-blame), but at least it appears to make life sensible and bearable.
To the degree that the child holds on to this self-blaming (and it can be held onto for a lifetime), the child’s self-esteem, growth and joy will be diminished. To counter this tendency, the child must be shown that:
— he/she is not to blame for your divorce
— a major decision such as divorce is and can only be made by parents, not children
— parents are ultimately responsible and in charge of what happens in the family, and
— he/she is an important person who is loved and will be listened to, talked with, and cared for.
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Dr. Wanio is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lake Worth and Boca Raton, FL. He can be reached at DrPaulWanio@aol.com. He is also a contributor to, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook(TM) Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! by Rosalind Sedacca, CCT. To learn more about the book, visit http://www.howdoitellthekids.com. For additional articles on this subject visit www.childcentereddivorce.com.
Thank you Dr. Wanio for sharing with us such sound advice!
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