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Children and Divorce – Healing the split in the child’s mind

Divorce is common and so many children live between two homes – the product of broken families. Because it happens often, it’s easy to forget just how difficult divorce can be for children under certain circumstances. Divorce splits a child’s world apart. They have to find a place for themselves in two separate homes. It is essential that they do that. Except in very extreme circumstances, children are much better off keeping regular, ongoing contact with both parents. But when the mother and the father are in enemy camps, a child is put into a tricky situation. Children of ‘enemy parents’ often try to fathom out who is right and who is wrong, who is safe and who is not. Their world is turned into good and the split happens in their mind as well as in their everyday lives.

When parents don’t respect or trust one another it unsettles a child’s mind. When parents hate one another, it creates turmoil and chaos for a child. If a mother believes that her ex-husband is dangerous and bad, the child might feel very unsafe and mistrustful of his father. He might reject him in order to keep himself and his mother safe. But then he will not have a father. How can he love his dad when his mom can’t stand the sight of him?

In what other ways does divorce effect children?

There are so many ways that children suffer when their parents get divorced. Practically, things are often harder. Arrangements, lifting, extra-murals, decisions about schooling and holidays can all be difficult if the parents are not able to talk to each other without fighting. Divorce often brings financial strain, social difficulties, and conflict with extended family. Children almost always wish that their parents could be together. On the surface, it often looks as if their reasons are really about these practical things. But actually, the trauma runs deeper than that.

One or both parents might be struggling emotionally as a result of the divorce. The overwhelming trauma of a marital breakdown can leave both sides feeling devastated. It is one of the most severe stressors and it evokes primitive and powerful feelings of abandonment, loss and fear. There is very little support for divorcees in our community. This is odd, considering divorce happens all the time and so many people are suffering as a result of it. But a parent who is under the iron grip of depression or anxiety is going to have a hard time giving his or her children what they need. This is extremely hard for children. At a time when they are most vulnerable because their world is splitting in two, their parents might be too fragile to help them.

You might be surprised when your child asks you if the divorce was his fault. It seems strange to an adult that a child should expect to take the blame for his parents ending their marriage. But there is a very good reason for this misperception. Children, especially young children, are generally self-centred. They believe that the world revolves around them. They like to hear about themselves, watch themselves on home videos and so on. So when their parents get divorced, children automatically assume it must have something to do with them. So children often feel guilt and shame when their parents get divorced because in their minds, it is their fault. This in turn can make them feel worthless and depressed.

How can you handle your divorce in such a way that your children do not have to suffer?

Don’t bad mouth your ex in front of your children. Children sense the negativity between their parents even when it is unspoken. They feel the tension and it disturbs them. If you are feeling extremely angry with your ex, look deep inside yourself and own up to your role in the break down of your marriage. If you chose a tricky partner, there are complicated reasons for that and those reasons are worth exploring in psychotherapy. Don’t blame your ex entirely. Take some responsibility for how things have worked out. Don’t hate yourself or take on too much guilt though. Your child needs you to be mature, realistic, humble and accountable. If you find yourself becoming anxious or depressed, get treatment without delay. See a clinical psychologist or a mental health practitioner who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Your mental health is crucial for your children’s well being right now.

The challenge for divorced parents

When marriages end, good vibes and loving feelings are in short supply. Divorce is usually fraught with extreme tension and conflict. It is stressful beyond measure and it is totally devastating, both for the couple and their children. Whatever the reasons for the divorce, it is often associated with feelings of grief, sadness, loss, anger, betrayal, shame and so on. You might be pleased that your marriage has ended, but the negative feelings will always be there too, especially in the beginning. Ex-spouses often don’t like or trust one another. (This usually improves with time). When you are recently divorced, you have to leave your precious children with your least favourite person in the world. Your ex! That is not easy. For some divorced parents, it is torture. You might be afraid that your children will not be taken care of properly by your ex. You might have realistic concerns about what your ex does with and in front of your children. Sometimes those concerns are valid and that is extremely difficult to handle. Lawyers, social workers and child psychologists are very familiar with these issues. Consult them if necessary. But mostly, it is your own feelings towards your ex, not their realistic inadequacy as a parent that is the issue.

These negative feelings need to be recognised and worked through. If you are fighting a great deal with your ex over the children, you can be sure that your children are suffering. You are probably suffering too. It might feel almost as bad as staying married because the conflict continues. The problem with divorce is that it often doesn’t solve the problems and it certainly creates more problems.

Is it better not to get divorced for the sake of the children?

Every parent who has contemplated ending his or her marriage has probably asked themselves whether it is worth staying together because of the children. Are children better off if their unhappy parents stay together? The answer differs depending on the circumstances. In very conflictual or destructive marriages or in cold, unfeeling marriages, children also suffer. When married parents hate one another, children may also have to split their minds in order to make one parent right and another parent wrong. Or they might try to get away from the home as much as possible. It might be a relief, after a divorce, for children to be in an environment where there is peace and an absence of tension. But during and after a divorce, especially to begin with, it is often not peaceful and there is plenty of tension.

You once liked your ex enough to have children with him or her. So your children are a constant reminder of the value of your marriage. This is true, even if your marriage ended or if you can’t see anything good in your ex. If your marriage is in trouble but it is not yet over, let your children be your reason for seeing a qualified and experienced couple psychotherapist. Follow through with the process. Don’t stop prematurely. There is never an innocent victim and a wicked perpetrator in a difficult marriage. Your reasons for getting together and wanting to split apart are always complex. Understanding those reasons is the key to keeping your marriage together and enriching and growing yourself as a person.

On the other hand, perhaps you feel that you do need to end your marriage and you might be right. Sometimes people are better off living apart. Staying in destructive marriages can be dangerous to one’s physical and mental health. If that is the case for you, your children will no doubt also be better off out of the destructive environment.

Some concluding comments

Sadly, divorce rates are high and they are probably set to continue that way. Families split apart all the time, and children are often the casualties. If you are a divorced parent, remember that your children need your help. They need to be shown how to heal the split in their own minds even if their worlds are split into two homes. The best way that you can do this for them is to minimise the conflict between yourself and your ex, allow contact between your children and your ex and try to keep some kind of working relationship with your ex with regards to the children. Try not to fight with your ex during visits and handovers. Get professional help from a couple psychotherapist or a mediator if you are struggling to manage these things. The worst thing you can do for your children is to demonise your ex. Making him or her into a bad, dangerous person in your child’s eyes creates and maintains the split in the child’s mind.

Lastly, divorce is tragic. No one likes it, least of all the children. But it is not insurmountable. Sometimes getting divorced is making the best of a bad situation. If you find yourself wearing the badge, “recently divorced parent” your life is probably not easy right now. Take care of yourself and your children and try as hard as you can not to make your ex into your enemy.