There are ways to minimise the trauma a child feels when parents break up, writes Judith Ancer
· Sunday Times Oct 3, 2009 10:46 PM | By Judith Ancer, a Johannesburg-based psychologist
It had been a bad day at work, having to listen to a divorced couple fighting about who had damaged the children the most. I was left thinking that the only upside of toxic, distressing divorces is that there will always be work for psychotherapists, who have to treat the child casualties of these warring parents.
The writer Margaret Atwood said that divorce was like an amputation: “You survive it, but there’s less of you.”
Divorce is painful, prolonged and complicated, and divorcing parents have to summon all their courage to be one main thing – the adult.
Sadly, a “happy divorce” is not the norm and there are few palatable truths when children are involved. Research shows that it is not possible to predict how most children will deal with divorce, only how an individual child might respond. It is thought that the younger a child is when their parents divorce, the more difficulties they have as a result. Research also indicates that boys tend to struggle more than girls do. Other factors are:
- The child’s adjustment to life before the divorce proceedings begin;
- The mood and attitude of the parents over the divorce period – a highly depressed parent has a greater effect on a child than one who is better able to manage his or her own feelings; and
- The level of conflict between parents and to what degree the child has contact with both parents over the divorce period.
To add to the somber picture, let us dispel a few myths. Firstly, children often adjust to a bad marriage and prefer to have the family together instead of it splitting up. When you justify your actions by saying your child will be happier when you become happier after the divorce, you underestimate to what degree children struggle to overcome their powerful emotions and reason through the whole experience.
Research shows that children of divorce are generally more sexually active, more depressed, more confrontational with peers, more aggressive with teachers and more likely to get divorced in future. On the other hand, children who have two parents and an intact home benefit from routine and stability. It seems that children’s happiness is more influenced by stability than their parents’ level of happiness.
Secondly, it is certainly true that a “civilised” divorce is better than a highly destructive and traumatic one. But underestimating and minimising the effect of any kind of divorce is a mistake. In almost any divorce there is hurt, anger and frustration. These feelings have a way of filtering down to your children.
According to Judith Wallerstein, a US psychologist who has researched the long-term consequences of divorce, “the parents’ anger at the time of the break-up is not what matters most. Unless there was violence or abuse or high conflict, a child has dim memories of what transpired during this supposedly critical period”.
What is more significant is the longer-term relationship between the divorced parents after the initial separation and divorce has happened. What must be dealt with in an ongoing way are the bruised feelings, sadness and anger that are difficult to process, and even the changed financial situation and complex visitation arrangements.
Do not buy into the whole myth that if you just deal with the divorce process in an orderly manner things will be okay. Rather plan to put lots of energy into the aftermath of divorce.
So what if, despite knowing all of the above, you still need to get divorced?
1. Look after yourself so you can help your child;
2. Do not blame or insult the other parent or argue with your ex-spouse in front of the children. When you criticise the other parent, you criticise half of the two people with whom your child identifies;
3. Know what to talk about and what to keep quiet. Tell your child the truth about the divorce and acknowledge their – and your – feelings, but keep legal or financial details of the divorce to yourself. Children feel confused when parents share too much detail with them;
4. Do not keep a spy in the other home. This damages your child’s sense of how to manage conflict;
5. Allow visitation rights – do not sabotage your children’s relationship with your ex;
6. Avoid buying your children’s love with gifts and indulgences. Invest thought, consideration, attention, affection, pride and time in your children; and
7. Be the adult. This is the hardest one to do. A colleague commented that there is probably no clearer evidence of maturity than to be able to allow, and even encourage, your children to have a relationship with a person you may despise or hate.
By looking at the big picture and acting as calmly and maturely as possible, you give your child the best chance of growing up into a healthy adult who has healthy relationships.