Oct 3, 2009 10:46 PM | By Judith Ancer
There are ways to minimise the trauma a child feels when parents break up, writes Judith Ancer
It is not possible to predict how most children will deal with divorce, only how an individual child might respond
It had been a bad day at work, having to listen to a divorced couple fighting about who had damaged the children the most.I was left thinking that the only upside of toxic, distressing divorces is that there will always be work for psychotherapists, who have to treat the child casualties of these warring parents.
The writer Margaret Atwood said that divorce was like an amputation: "You survive it, but there's less of you."
Divorce is painful, prolonged and complicated, and divorcing parents have to summon all their courage to be one main thing - the adult.
Sadly, a "happy divorce" is not the norm and there are few palatable truths when children are involved. Research shows that it is not possible to predict how most children will deal with divorce, only how an individual child might respond. It is thought that the younger a child is when their parents divorce, the more difficulties they have as a result. Research also indicates that boys tend to struggle more than girls do. Other factors are:
- The child's adjustment to life before the divorce proceedings begin;
- The mood and attitude of the parents over the divorce period - a highly depressed parent has a greater effect on a child than one who is better able to manage his or her own feelings; and
- The level of conflict between parents and to what degree the child has contact with both parents over the divorce period.
To add to the sombre picture, let us dispel a few myths. Firstly, children often adjust to a bad marriage and prefer to have the family together instead of it splitting up. When you justify your actions by saying your child will be happier when you become happier after the divorce, you underestimate to what degree children struggle to overcome their powerful emotions and reason through the whole experience.
Research shows that children of divorce are generally more sexually active, more depressed, more confrontational with peers, more aggressive with teachers and more likely to get divorced in future. On the other hand, children who have two parents and an intact home benefit from routine and stability. It seems that children's happiness is more influenced by stability than their parents' level of happiness.
Secondly, it is certainly true that a "civilised" divorce is better than a highly destructive and traumatic one. But underestimating and minimising the effect of any kind of divorce is a mistake. In almost any divorce there is hurt, anger and frustration. These feelings have a way of filtering down to your children.
According to Judith Wallerstein, a US psychologist who has researched the long-term consequences of divorce, "the parents' anger at the time of the break-up is not what matters most. Unless there was violence or abuse or high conflict, a child has dim memories of what transpired during this supposedly critical period".
What is more significant is the longer-term relationship between the divorced parents after the initial separation and divorce has happened. What must be dealt with in an ongoing way are the bruised feelings, sadness and anger that are difficult to process, and even the changed financial situation and complex visitation arrangements.
Do not buy into the whole myth that if you just deal with the divorce process in an orderly manner things will be okay. Rather plan to put lots of energy into the aftermath of divorce.
So what if, despite knowing all of the above, you still need to get divorced?
1. Look after yourself so you can help your child;
2. Do not blame or insult the other parent or argue with your ex-spouse in front of the children. When you criticise the other parent, you criticise half of the two people with whom your child identifies;
3. Know what to talk about and what to keep quiet. Tell your child the truth about the divorce and acknowledge their - and your - feelings, but keep legal or financial details of the divorce to yourself. Children feel confused when parents share too much detail with them;
4. Do not keep a spy in the other home. This damages your child's sense of how to manage conflict;
5. Allow visitation rights - do not sabotage your children's relationship with your ex;
6. Avoid buying your children's love with gifts and indulgences. Invest thought, consideration, attention, affection, pride and time in your children; and
7. Be the adult. This is the hardest one to do. A colleague commented that there is probably no clearer evidence of maturity than to be able to allow, and even encourage, your children to have a relationship with a person you may despise or hate.
By looking at the big picture and acting as calmly and maturely as possible, you give your child the best chance of growing up into a healthy adult who has healthy relationships.
- Ancer is a Johannesburg-based psychologist
There is some additional information that we would like to high light around a divorce, when it comes to the divorce process and our children.
1. We have been brainwashed that when you get divorced you need to get a lawyer â€“ this could not be further from the truth.
a. The legal system by its very nature is psychologically confrontational and if anything will enflame the conflict and do untold damage to the children.
b. The average divorce takes 4 â€“ 5 years to be completed if you do not behave like an adult
c. The average divorce costs between R 600 000.00 and R1, 2 Mill per parent.
d. You either end up with the same or worse off at point of divorce.
e. A lose - lose scenario is created no matter how much your hired gun lawyer screws your ex over for.
f. It does not interest me which parent gets to the lawyer first this is irrelevant, however what you need to know is that when you go to a lawyer YOU are declaring war â€“ and as you know in a war there are casualties. In this divorce war there is and always will be casualties and the first casualty is ALLWAYS the children.
2. Children DO HEAR all that is going on and they do hear how the one parent is going to plot the destruction of the other parent. This scares them and makes for psychological problems now and into the future.
3. To deny maintenance or access as punishment to the other parent IS CHILD ABUSE.
4. If you deny the other parent rights of free, easy, unrestricted Access, Care, guardianship and maintenance you are abusing your children.
a. It is not your right to determine the relationship between the child and the other parent.
b. Do not use the legal and psychological fraternity to determine that relationship. The legal and psychological fraternity have displayed beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are fundamentally inept and incapable of handling this situation. If anything these two professions do far more harm than good.
c. Even if there is violence, abuse or neglect you still have no right to determine the relationship between the abusive parent and the children.
d. If there is abuse, violence or neglect by one or both parentâ€™s â€“ then have the visitation / access supervised.
5. Girl children stand a 95% chance of being raped or molested in a single mothered home â€“ this reduces to 5 % in a single fathered home.
6. Children as the article points out do experiment in sexual or drug related behaviour far more earlier where the father is absent
7. Children performed academically far better in a single fathered home than in a single mothered home.
8. However the notion that the mother or father is the best parent is also false. The best parent for a child is both parents.
9. The notion that a young child/ baby / toddler should have less access to the non resident parent is also false, if anything this should be as liberal as possible.
10. CHILDREN MUST HAVE FREE, EASY, UNRISTRICTED ACCESS TO BOTH BIOLOGICAL PARENTS AT ALL TIMES.
If you must divorce or separate, the solution is mediation. Mediation is the adult thing to do. If you mediate you are behaving in the best interest of your children and yourself. Mediation requires commitment and dedication.
Mediation allows for
1. The healing process to begin
2. The reduction in conflict
3. A safe haven / space for emotional charged topics to be discussed in a rational manner, where proper adult discussion and decisions can be made.
4. If the children are old enough for them to have a space to voice what it is that they want nad for this to be included in a final agreement.
5. A space to discuss issues that may arise in the future.
6. Mediation should take approximately 3 x one and a half hour sessions it may take longer (mine for instance took 7 sessions over 10 months. â€“ It was well worth the effort and commitment by my ex and the mediator)
7. Cost of mediation costs between R 900.00 to R 1500.00 per Hour per individual â€“ This is a complete barging in my mind.
8. Mediation puts you in the driving seat, it gives you your power back and it allows you to be the primary decision maker.
9. Mediation allows for a WIN - WIN -WIN solution to be found for all three parties.
If you litigate you are childish, selfish, immature, spiteful, and revengeful and deserve to be taken to the cleaners by your hired gun because that is exactly what is going to happen
If you litigate you are not conducting yourself in the best interest of the children.
When you litigate the best interests of the children never entre the negotiation room let alone the table. If you litigate, by the time you start discussing what is in the best of the children, it is too late the damage has already been done - the right and best interest of the children has already been violated.
For support and advice, please visit our site www.f4j.co.za and visit our sister organisation, SADSA - The South African Divorce Support Association http://www.sadsa.net/site/index.php
DO NOT LITIGATE - MEDIATE