When parents divorce, as has seemingly become ‘the norm’ in today’s society, we all know our children will feel the fallout too. As I write this article, it is from a number of angles; as a former child of parents who divorced, as a parent who divorced, and as a therapist helping members of families whose domestic unit has been, or is, ‘deconstructing’.
The major everyday life changes on which the children’s entire belief systems are based will become challenged during this painful process, causing incredible duress, impacting of course on all those involved – and their emotional wellbeing. So how can we try to head off some of this trauma before it occurs?
When we are considering ending the marital relationship and, of course, this very much includes those ‘separating’ who have children and have chosen not to marry, we may be in unfamiliar territory. This process will be as unique as anything else major in your life first time, and yet our expectations are that we just have to get it done! We are not naturally skilled in this transitory period!
The pain, anguish and recriminations are entirely predictable if we consider just how frightened we all are; unable to have a clear understanding of what the future will look like! If we understand nothing else, this knowledge can serve us! And if it does, we may be able to make space for considerations around how best to accommodate the needs of those who will remain most precious to us after the divorce.
When the process of divorce is acrimonious, it is so easy to use whatever leverage we can to help us score points, and even hurt the other party. Our most powerful assets are the kids, and money; guess what get used to achieve the other?
As a counsellor, I am introduced to children even before the process is complete, when parents have the foresight to seek someone to guide and who is unemotionally involved, and I also see adults affected by messy divorces and separation decades after the event, because the chain of events based on the past continues to grow, generation to generation, until someone says, look… I’m considering a new relationship and I don’t want to bring my childhood, or my past divorce into the next relationship.
The benefits of healthily guiding the kids through this period of adjustment is apparent at the time, and provides for a more healthy legacy that can continue for generations to come.
Why is it the kids fault? Of course, it’s unlikely to really be so, that’s obvious – unless you are a kid!
Children of divorce and separation have so much change to absorb, so many perceived and actual expectations of them – coupled with a myriad of emotions and turbulence. They just want to be safe, secure and loved. But when ‘we’ ask a child to choose, and when we share our points of view about why their mum or dad is no good anymore, the child is placed in a position of knowledge from which they cannot ‘un-know’, and this for them means they have to do something with that knowledge.
Do I keep that to myself – do I tell mum/dad – what did I do for this to happen, it must have been something, or they wouldn’t involve me!
This is not to say the children cannot be empowered with some choices, in some way. It’s just that I believe they should be part of a decision making process, rather than have total responsibility. This is important for a number of reasons, not least because children will say, when asked, what they think the parent wants to hear, so the son/daughter will still be loved and not lose anything else, or because they want to protect the most precious people in their lives, they are their lives and want them to feel better.
Divorce and separation is never easy, but it is possible to learn how to more skilfully navigate this important period – for all concerned. Try to remember, as far as your children are concerned, it wasn’t always this way!