I read the other day that the divorce rate has increased dramatically in the past twenty years when compared to the twenty years before that. There are no records for people separating who aren’t married but one can imagine similar figures. The vast majority of these unions would have children involved who share the dysfunction that often occurs after a separation. Their interests are not always put as a priority as the adults involved deal with the emotional side of it. This can be devastating for them as things move forward and indeed can affect them permanently.
Divorce and separation is an ugly business. Anyone who has been through it will testify to the emotional turmoil associated with it. Even the one who instigated the proceedings can be very badly affected by the process. Apart from the emotional issues, there is the possible legal and mediation process to deal with. No-one is quite the same after such an experience. When kids are involved at whatever age, the issues can become compounded and extremely complicated. Often in the maelstrom of emotions, the children are sometimes forgotten. How children are treated during the period before and after separation will determine how well they will adapt to their new situation. A situation that is no fault of theirs and has been thrust upon them.
We have to say at this point that children are always affected by the separation of their parents, no matter how much care the parents take. The trauma of dealing with the fallout can be devastating for children and some will find it extremely hard to cope. Generally, the younger they are, the better but even in this case, every care should be taken with the process. However, what the parents do and don’t do will have a great effect on how children get through this difficult period. Unfortunately, as one or both parents are normally struggling themselves, the children sometimes get forgotten to an extent and we mustn’t forget, there are also those parents who will use the children to gain revenge on their partner. As a therapist, I have come across the wide spectrum of behaviour around separation from the very functional to the downright self centred.
Let’s look at where it often goes wrong:
Using the children to connect with the ex: I see this often especially if one partner is struggling with the separation. They use any excuse possible to contact the ex or even visit them because of something to do with the children. Children respond best in these circumstances where clearly defined structures and boundaries are in place. That means when visiting one parent, there is no contact with the other unless a real emergency takes place.
Using the children to get revenge on the ex: That sarcastic comment placed here or there or direct criticism through to arranging visits and not delivering. There is a wide range of methods that the discarded and “discarder” can use to make life difficult for the other. This happens very often. Talking down the ex, commenting on what they did or didn’t do and all in front of the children. Arranging visits and never turning up, not being there for handovers, holding financial support back. The list goes on. As parents involved in divorce, the adults have to find a functional way to co-parent. Otherwise, it is clear the children will suffer. Luckily, intentional parental alienation is coming into the focus of the legal profession.
Failure to provide functional frameworks: After divorce and separation, children often have severe issues dealing with their new situation. At the same time, their parents are feeling the same. However, it is imperative that a secure framework is built for them in both of their new homes. One is their home and the other is their home away from home. Children will often suffer from separation anxiety when away from the other parent, will often become tearful and difficult for a few hours or even longer. It is essential that they are made to feel secure going through this. Difficult if the parent is also feeling insecure. However, what it says is that if you have issues, you need to seek help and support. Your children deserve this and will be better off in the long run.
Rushing a new partner into children’s lives: Another common occurrence and one that can be destructive in a number of ways. Firstly, older children will naturally feel an affinity with their parent and will often reject a new partner because they feel they have to. Younger children will find this easier. That said, there is never an optimum time for this and the children’s best interests should guide the process. One thing to keep in mind is that it is probably best to wait until the relationship is established before introducing the children into it. Additionally, time spent building a new relationship is demanding and often comes at the expense of the children.
Behaviour in front of children: As we have said, divorce is an ugly business and this can spill over into all aspects of the parents lives and subsequently to the children. This happens by phone, text and in person during handovers, etc. It brings emotions to the boil and can have an adverse effect on the environment around the children. I always advise my clients to set up a new mail account to correspond with their ex. This can be looked at periodically and responses thought out. That leaves phone contact for emergencies only.
Failure to move on: We must never forget that separation is one of the most stressful events that anyone can go through. That said, if children are involved, one must face it and solve issues effectively. Many parents find this hard (understandably) and it takes time to move onto a place of function. However, if the children come first, everything and anything must be done to get to that place. Therapy, self help and growth, acceptance work can all help.
Additionally, here are some ways that children can be helped with divorce :
Help them put their feelings into words.
Legitimise their feelings.
Keep yourself healthy.
Keep the details in check.