You dreamed of growing old with your ‘soul mate’, and never imagined you’d feel so disillusioned and disappointed. What do you do?
Do you leave the person you once loved so dearly, or do you stay in a miserable marriage for the sake of the children? It is not an easy decision to make.
If you asked your child what she wanted, she is likely to say she’d rather stay in an unhappy marriage than watch her parents break up. However, experts agree that staying together for the sake of the children is not beneficial if there is ongoing conflict. Divorce is painful for children, but tension and discord in the home is even more harmful.
You may worry that if you get divorced your child may be at risk of behavioural problems, but research shows that youngsters who display behavioural problems do so in response to unrelenting conflict in the home. There would probably have been signs of behavioural problems before the divorce, rather than such behaviour coming about in reaction to adjusting to a single- parent home where there is little or no conflict. Naturally, post-divorce acrimony is very damaging to any child.
The relief you may feel when you finally leave, especially if the circumstances in the marriage include abuse, is not likely to be shared by your child. Hearing that their parents are going to separate comes as a shock to most children, even when they wish for the fighting in the home to end. Having to separate from one parent, usually the father is excruciating for a child.
Through the eyes of a child: Reactions and feelings
Not all children will respond in the same way to the news of divorce- how you deal with the separation can affect their reaction:
A young primary school boy may start hitting his friends, because he doesn’t understand what is going on, coupled with feelings of abandonment. If his mother is the one to leave this will be as painful as losing a limb, since he views himself as part of her.
A first grade girl may weep uncontrollably and hang on to her mother every morning at school, because she doesn’t know how else to express her feelings of sadness and loss. But your pre- teen may surprise you by reacting in a mature, responsible way, even offering to help care for siblings and being sympathetic to your need to live apart from your partner.
However, most children experience divorce as a traumatic event, especially if the parents struggle to cope with their feelings. The intense feelings of anger and frustration you experience may cause your child to become sullen, quiet and self critical, or she may become aggressive and argumentative, refusing to do anything you ask her to do.
The most powerful feelings your child is likely to experience are guilt and loss. Typical responses may include,” If only I hadn’t fought with my brother, Dad wouldn’t be leaving, or, “it’s my fault they’re so unhappy.” Your child may spend many anxious hours dreaming of ways to repair what she believes to be the problem. Some may resolve to be good or cute to get her parents back together. One little girl started wearing perfume, hoping that her mother would visit more often. Another boy began sacrificing some of his basic needs, like the need to eat, hoping that by not being demanding, his parents would change their mind.
Not being able to see Mom or Dad everyday is like experiencing a death- your child needs time to mourn and adjust to the loss. She may need to express her strong feelings of anger and sadness as she comes to terms with the loss, and she may dream of reconciliation, asking you to do things together as a family.
Boys battle most when the father is not around, especially if the mother is distraught. Research shows they may be more stressed, say “no” more often than girls when given instructions, and lash out more frequently at their siblings and friends. Girls may become very tearful, whiney, and reserved, though research also shows that girls with easy- going temperaments display better coping skills than boys.
Divorce is a transition period in which children have to adapt to a new family life. Putting yourself in her shoes and trying to see the situation from her perspective will help you find the compassion and patience to make the adjustment easier.
Supporting yourself and dealing with feelings of guilt. You feel betrayed and angry, you want to cry all the time, and you don’t feel like looking after your children. They in turn, feel insecure, afraid, and alone. How do you cope?
Continue moving forward by focusing on your children. Take small steps, until you feel better.
Forgive yourself and your partner by not letting old hurts occupy your thoughts. Nobody plans to break up a family when they get married and have babies, and most of us don’t want to cause our children pain. Unfortunately, we cannot always control what happens in life and we all make mistakes.
Accept that you’re not perfect-there are no perfect parents. If you realise you have hurt your child, apologise and make a conscious decision not to do it again.
As parents we tend to forget that it is okay to apologise to our youngsters. Explain that you never meant to hurt her and make a decision to avoid overreacting to situations by giving yourself time to think before you act. Write a letter if you find expressing your feelings difficult.
“I hate you Mommyy,” your son screams, making you feel just awful. Try not to personalise his outbursts as these are purely in response to his feelings of turmoil and dissatisfaction. He still desperately needs your love and support – reprimanding him will make him feel more rejected.
Every day brings new opportunities to strengthen the bond with your child, and acknowledging your own pain can lead to great insight, empathy and ultimately healing and joy. You will always have a special place in your child’s heart, so if she knows you genuinely care, she will always make time for you. Sometimes it may take a while for youngsters to trust again, but if you are consistent and loving, there will always be a bond between you.
What not to do
Trying to fulfill both roles- playing both mother and father- is unrealistic. Be who you are and acknowledge what you cannot control.
Compensating your child with food and gifts because you feel guilty, will confuse her and create unnecessary tension in the long run. Explain clearly that the unhappiness and frustration you feel at times is not her fault, and that your wellbeing is not her responsibility.
Arguing and fighting in front of your child will make her feel responsible and anxious. Constant fighting chips away at the very core of who she is. Keep all fights and discussions private. Your child’s memories won’t disappear- the memory of waking up from a deep sleep to hear one parent verbally abusing the other will continue into adulthood. If necessary, arrange for a mediator to help you and your partner settle disputes.
If you have persistent feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, speak to your family doctor or a psychologist. Surrounding yourself with friends, a pastor, rabbi, counsellor or a confidante to whom you can express your anger and frustrations will strengthen your support structure. Your child does not have the life experience and emotional wisdom to be your adviser, so saddling her with your concerns and emotions will make her feel accountable and guilty. Bear in mind that your child is just that- a child, and not your friend. Complaining about your ex will damage your child’s self esteem- remember she is half of that parent, too.
Communication before, during and after the divorce is the key to helping your child adjust. If you do not communicate with your child, she will make assumptions based on her perceptions, which may not always be accurate, especially when it comes to how you feel about her. You may recall never being able to express your feelings as a child because your parents were struggling with their own heartache. Research shows that depression later in life is often due to repressed pain in childhood.
Before the divorce, your child should be told about the separation by both of you. Practise with your partner what to say beforehand and when the time comes, do so in a calm, mature way. Explain that the love you have for her will not change, despite the fact that you no longer love each other, and that she has your permission to love the other parent.
Emphasise that she is not responsible for the break- up, and acknowledge your child’s pain and sadness, by reflecting her feelings – never blame the other parent for the distress she is experiencing. As agonising as it may be, stopping your child’s tears and outbursts of anger will send the message that you are uncomfortable with her strong emotions.
If you are the parent leaving, don’t just disappear straight after telling your child the news. Give her your phone numbers and new address, then allow a few days to let her internalise the news before developing a new routine. Stay in contact, making every effort to see her during this difficult time. Answer her questions truthfully, but give only information suitable for her age. A young child doesn’t need to know the particulars of, say, an affair. After the initial shock has worn off, arrange a time to discuss with your child details such as where she will live, how holidays and birthdays will be handled and where pets will live. Invite her to express her wishes and desires.
Try to put your differences aside to protect your child from further stress and worry- do this by putting her needs first. Reassure her that her relationship with other members of the family will not change. Unfortunately, children are frequently denied seeing family members as a result of their parents’ anger. This creates further loss and is likely to deprive them of much needed support. One little girl asked, “Why is mommy angry with my aunt? She won’t let her pick me up from school anymore.”
Time and again, children struggle to adjust to the many changes brought about by divorce. They have to adapt to new living arrangements, less money, and one- parent families, with new roles and responsibilities. Be patient and keep reassuring your child that you are there for her. Embarrassment and shame over the divorce may prevent your child from telling her friends because she doesn’t want to feel different. Explain the circumstances to teachers, sports coaches, and other significant people in your child’s life, so that these people can provide additional support. They in turn, can notify you of any changes in your child’s development or any needs that may occur.
During and after the divorce, your child may struggle to concentrate on her schoolwork- her marks may drop, or she may become absentminded, her thoughts preoccupied with the changes or your wellbeing, especially if you or your partner is upset. Be resilient. Show her you’re coping, by giving her extra attention, helping with homework and sticking to a routine. If necessary arrange play therapy as additional support. Even if your child appears to be adjusting well to the divorce and does not seem angry, initiate conversation – she may be suppressing pain, and this may manifest later in the form of depression or illness such as stomach aches, insomnia, bedwetting and headaches. After the divorce, find time to chat about feelings. Be casual about it – for example, when you’re driving somewhere or cuddling in front of the TV. Listen with compassion and without passing judgment. Don’t come across as trying to fix things.
Most children hate acting as go-between, having to pass on messages from one parent to the other, and being interrogated once they get home after a visit to the other parent. Asking your child to convey messages to your ex – especially about money – will make her feel stressed and culpable. Allow her to enjoy her time with the other parent without having to feel guilty about betraying you
As hard as it may be, it is essential that you take the high ground and form a new relationship with your ex based solely on communicating the needs of your children. Show integrity and keep your ex informed of developments and changes in the child’s life, as well as events such as parents’ evenings at school, sport’s matches and parties. Ganging up with your child by alienating and criticising your ex may well cause deep resentment towards you later in life.
Your child needs routine and predictability to feel secure. Keep the changes in your family life to a minimum – your child is still adjusting to the new reality. Some children cope with having two homes, but most find this disruptive and confusing, as they struggle to settle down with each move and battle to keep school materials and belongings together. Make your child feel secure, by going with her when she first visits the other parent’s new home.
While children need both parents and many parents opt for joint custody, it is not always in the child’s best interests to spend an equal amount of time with each parent. Being sensitive to your child’s needs is crucial. If your partner is going on a camping trip and your child wants to join in, she should be allowed to. However, using your child as a weapon to get back at your ex by competing for your child’s affection is damaging. Organising expensive and glamorous outings or showering your child with material items will confuse her, making her irritable and demanding.
Do your utmost to accommodate your child’s schedule the same way you did when you were still together. If possible, let your child have daily contact with the absent parent, either by phone or in daily visits. For example your ex could take your child to school in the mornings or visit her in the evenings.
It is a tragic fact that many men seem to divorce their children the minute they divorce their partners, spending little time with them. This will create feelings of unworthiness and abandonment, while disrupting the custodian’s style of parenting. Brief contact with a parent who indulges only fun activities places an enormous burden on the custodian parent, who then becomes the constant disciplinarian.
Your child may tend to misbehave and feel insecure in a situation like this, since she receives inconsistent messages about discipline. Ideally, stick to a parenting plan that you both agree on. This will make it easier to manage your child, because she will feel safe. Call in the help of a mediator or child psychologist if you can’t formulate a plan together. If you are unable to agree on rules, then at least make sure your child knows that you are in charge at home and everything will be alright.
Give your children choices. Making choices on what clothes to wear, what food to have for dinner and what activities to do over weekends will give her a sense of being in control of her life.
A new partner
It can take up to two years for your child to adjust to the new circumstances brought about by divorce. It is essential to protect her from further loss, by not introducing new romantic partners too soon after the divorce. Wait until you are sure the relationship has the potential to be permanent, and prepare your child well before introducing a new partner to the family.
Creating new positive experiences
Choosing not to be a victim and remaining positive about the future will help you create a new family environment for your child.
Let your child help set up a new special place in the home, where she can feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. Ideally such a space should exist in both homes.
Start new traditions and rituals, and initiate new experiences, instead of holding on to the past. Let your child decide how she wants to celebrate special events.
Cultivate a spirit of cooperation and tolerance, especially if your ex has acted in a way that is upsetting for your child. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, and provide emotional support without lambasting your ex.
Actions speak louder than words. Show your child how much you love and respect her by your actions. Do not make promises you can’t keep, especially about your ex’s visits. Tell her the truth, even if it is painful for her to hear that the other parent may not be coming to visit.
Be creative and flexible in solving problems, especially those concerning your ex and your child. Try to eliminate stress as far as possible, behave in a courteous manner and do your utmost to create a peaceful and nurturing family environment.
Provide opportunities for your child to talk to someone other than yourself about their feelings. Sometimes chatting to a pastor, teacher, or another adult can be of enormous benefit to your child. If she is reluctant to confide in others, provide age appropriate books and DVD’s on divorce, or get her to write a letter to you or her teacher about how she feels.
Make a point of retaining your private time with your child when a new partner enters the family. She still needs that special one- on- one time you enjoyed when you were single.
A last word
Provided you and your ex can put aside your differences and focus on raising your child in a positive and supportive way, she is quite capable of emerging from the experience stronger, and better equipped to face life’s challenges. Really understanding your child by focusing on her needs and being patient, honest, thoughtful, and loving, will make the transition easier. No longer will she be doomed as having come from a ‘broken home’ – instead, she will carry fond memories of two loving homes into her teenage and adult years.
“I am curious about communication methods to improve the self-esteem and connection with the child(ren). Of course, it is helpful to not speak negatively about your ex, but what are other ideas?”
Children’s self esteem is mostly developed by mastering skills and their environment, that is why giving children choices during the transition of divorce allows them to feel that they have some control over their environment.
Bring up feelings that children are unable to express verbally for them and give them permission to be in the moment and not feel guilty for being angry, sad, distracted and so on. Acknowledge their feelings without trying to them feel better. For example you could say, “I can see you are feeling very sad. It is difficult for you not being able to see dad every day. Would you like to talk about it? It is ok to cry if you want to.”
“I can see you are feeling angry because the family is no longer together. Would you like to punch a pillow, do an angry dance, write your thoughts in a letter. It is ok to be angry.”
Knowing that you truly understand what they are going through and being sensitive to their needs will enhance their self esteem. Remember in most instances children blame themselves for the divorce.