CHILDREN AND DIVORCE
(WRITTEN BY: ANNIE DU PLESSIS)
When a marriage falls apart, it is usually a painful and destructive experience for both partners. Children in disintegrating families are both witness to and part of the pre-divorce disharmony. They witness the disputes,
disagreements, chill silences and empty courtesies. They experience the general stress and disharmony prevalent at the time. Divorce is therefore hardly ever the beginning of a child’s troubles, but often the end result of a conflict which has already affected the whole family. The parents’ own distress prevents them from supporting and reassuring the children when they need it most, which adds to their distress.
Children model what they see!
2. INFORMING THE CHILD ABOUT THE DIVORCE
As soon as their decision to get divorced is final, parents should inform their children and they should preferably do this together, otherwise the children might get the impression that one of the parents is against the divorce. Children often feel a sense of guilt when their parents get divorced, since they feel that they are somehow to blame. It is therefore vital to reassure the children that they did not contribute to the break-up of the marriage.
Parents should be as honest as possible in their dealing with their children when outlining the changes that are about to take place, such as where they are going to live, where the future absent parent is going to be, and when and how often they can expect to see the absent parent. Parents can expect their children to react strongly to the news.
The post-separation changes can pose a threat to the children’s sense of security; therefore, the parents should inform them well in advance of their intentions. The way in which the children are prepared for the pending divorce and changes will determine the way in which they will come to terms with it.
Parents often do not realize that the end of their marriage is not the end of, but a change in their relationship – they both remain responsible for their child(ren)’s physical and psychological well-being and they still need to maintain contact and to communicate effectively.
Contrary to the loss of a parent to death, there are no rites for expressing bereavement after or during parents’ divorce. The children’s friends and teachers, unaware of the upheavals in their friends/learners lives, often do not understand their (possible) disruptive or disorganized behaviour.
3. FEELINGS EXPERIENCED BY THE CHILD WHO IS AFFECTED BY DIVORCE
3.1 Anxiousness, worry and insecurity
Children depend on their parents to provide in their needs, which make them vulnerable. When parents announce their divorce, the children’s trust in their parents and the family as their centre of safety is deeply shaken. They fear that their needs may not be provided for and that life will never be the same again. Because children are egocentric, questions that appear to be selfish, such as, “Who is going to pay for my rugby outings?” will be uppermost in their minds. If the father is the one to move out, they may worry that their father will forget them and that their mother also might leave them. They worry about money, their parents’ safety, possible remarriage of parents, etc.
3.2 Grief, longing and loneliness
Children could experience a tremendous sense of loss – almost similar to a death experience. A child’s longing for the absent parent my result in an intense desire for and in fantasies about the parents’ reconciliation. Younger children may even deny the divorce completely. If a young child has to spend long afternoons alone in a new home and/or neighbourhood, he/she could become prone to acute depression.
The father (or mother’s) absence can be experienced as a form of rejection. Children may even feel that they do not deserve love. The custodial parent, who most of the time happens to be the mother, will have to reassure the children that their father divorced her, but not his children. She should let the children know as much as possible about the absent father, for instance, where he lives, his telephone number, when and how often he will come to visit, and so forth. The mother should not express negative views and feelings about the father. He might have failed her as a husband, but not necessarily his children as a father. Boys have to be able to identify with their father and the mother’s criticism of their father could be experienced as criticism and rejection of them. The absent father still remains the primary role model for his sons. Girls on the other hand have to identify with their mother and the father’s criticism of her implies rejection of them. Parents who are aware of these pitfalls will safeguard the relationship of their children with both parents.
3.4 Divided loyalties
Children often feel divided and torn apart between their divorced parents. The parents may compete and argue to win their children’s love an approval. Some children solve this problem by taking sides and others become lonely and withdrawn because of their inability to deal with the situation.
Children should not have to choose between parents, but should be allowed to love and be loyal to both. Mature and reasonable parents will understand their children’s deep need to love both of them.
Children of all ages appear to become more aggressive after their parents’ divorce. Their aggression is directed at adults and other children. This could be an imitation of family disputes, but could also originate from unexpressed feelings of injustice and frustration. Unfortunately this behaviour will aggravate the children’s situation, alienate them from their peers and accentuate their loneliness.
3.6 A sense of guilt and shame
Most children feel, in one way or another, responsible for their parents’ divorce. They experience feelings of guilt since they relate their behaviour to the failure of the marriage. They think they should have been more obedient, quiet or that they should have been less naughty.
Children are often ashamed of their bickering parents and attempt to hide the situation at home from their friends. They may even hide the fact that their parents are divorced. Boys are inclined to see the absence of a father as a loss of status among their peers.
When the parents’ marriage disintegrates and ends in divorce, children’s belief and faith in human relationships and marriage can take a severe blow. Very young children could lose their grip on reality and become very uncertain. Adolescents often state that they will never get married. A new love relationship of either parent with a live-in lover or with a new husband or wife can also cause confusion and conflict.
3.8 A general sense of loss
The following summarises the losses experienced by a child:
Faith and trust;
- Loss of the pre-divorce child-mother relationship
- Loss of the pre-divorce mother;
- Loss of the pre-divorce father;
- Loss of environmental support (a change of house and school).
Parents can compound the problem by ignoring or denying that such losses exist. Some do not recognise the various losses, naively believing that only the person of the father (or mother) is gone.
4. THE MOST COMMON MISTAKES MADE BY DIVORCED PARENTS
Sabotaging the child’s relationship with the other parent.
- Using the child as a pawn.
- Using the child to gain information or to manipulate.
- Transferring hurt feelings and frustrations onto the child.
- Treating the child like an adult.
5. THE SINGLE PARENT
5.1 The custodial parent and children
After the divorce a change in structure of the family takes place and everybody has to adjust.
More often than not the mother is the custodial parent. Even though the children still live with her, the relationship among them will have to change. She is now the only adult in the house, which immediately places more responsibility on her. The single mother is inclined to place the first-born son in the role of the absent father, and some even tell the son that he is now the man of the house which is very wrong, because it is not true and, secondly, because this is too stressful for him. The same could apply to a father and daughter. Children should, however, be asked to share responsibilities and tasks at an appropriate level. New rules and arrangements can be discussed during a family meeting.
There is usually reduced income after a divorce, which leaves the custodial parent with diminished means to care for the children. A single mother might, for the first time in years, have to go out to work or work longer hours than before to make ends meet. This leaves her with less time and energy to care for her children. The divorce and reduced income might also imply a change of house and a change of school for the children.
Because divorce can be such a personality destroying experience, the custodial parent often is too distressed to help her children cope with their grief or anger, or she might even be unaware of their turmoil, which will emphasise their loneliness and insecurity.
Divorced parents should avoid remarks such as, “You’re all I have left”, which could make children feel responsible for their parents’ happiness. THEY ARE NOT.
When a single parent is aware of the children’s suffering he/she may become guilt ridden and try to over compensate. This could lead to exploitation, such as emotional blackmail and unreasonable demands from the children. The child who makes use of this unfortunate situation becomes even more insecure and, at the same time, it creates more stress for the already overtaxed parent.
5.2. The absent parent and visiting children
Some absent parents turn their children’s visit into a permanent holiday and constantly entertain them. It is understandable that they feel they miss out on their children’s lives and activities, but to entertain and spoil them constantly is unhealthy, tiring and expensive. The absent parents should spend quality time with their children and not have to entertain them constantly. Their children should become part of their normal households and feel at home there. They should be given chores while they are there and make friends in the neighbourhood of the parent they are visiting. Children should be given their own space in the home, even if it is just one drawer. Preferably they should leave clothes and a toothbrush at their absent parent’s home and even a photo of the other parent which would make it easier for the very young child. In other words the absent parent’s home should also be their home. They should not be treated as or feel like a visitor.
6. CHILDREN AND SCHOOL
During the period before and after a divorce, children’s behaviour could change at school. The educator, who knows her learners well, will probably notice any difference in behaviour. They should know that the behaviour of children of recently divorced parents reflects the complexity of their lives. They can expect the performance of these children to slow down temporarily or they might withdraw from certain activities. In young children it can be described as a temporary developmental delay. Additional and unnecessary pressure should be avoided.
A friendly and understanding educator and an occasional pat on the back will go a long way to support children in such difficult circumstances.
In this day and age educators cannot take it for granted that all children live with both their parents. A sensitive approach to those who do not will greatly alleviate their situation. Fir example to have to write an essay about, “My family”, might initially be challenging for those children.
Any caring parent wants to be involved in their children’s life world. For that reason it is the responsibility of the school to involve not only the custodial parent, but also the absent parent. In order to do that they need the details of both and invitations to PTA meetings and copies of school reports should be posted to both parents.
Most parents are well-meaning parents. If they really love their children, they should be unselfish in their love for them and rise above their own differences. This brings to mind the biblical story in which Solomon returned the child to its real mother after her unselfish attempt to save the child’s life.
It is vital that parents handle their divorce and post-divorce arrangements in a sensible and mature way. Their children’s needs and sense of security should take priority – not the parents’ failures and disappointments. This, and nothing else, will secure their children’s love and respect for them.