How to help kids survive divorce
Sebastian Whale still vividly recalls the night his parents announced they were splitting up. He has some advice for divorcing parents on how to make it as painless as possible for their children
Ihave always had a poor memory. A blank look sweeps across my face when my family reminisce over childhood experiences. Fear takes over as I prepare to introduce unacquainted friends, desperately searching the outer reaches of my brain to find the name of “the guy whose ear I once chewed off about politics”. Ashamed and flushed, I simply point to the person closest to me whose identity is familiar, and leave it to others to fill in the gaps. That said, I remember 29 March 2003 with great clarity. It was the night my parents told me they were getting divorced.
My brother and I were looking forward to our favourite meal, pasta with lardons and that sickly sweet mascarpone sauce, a layer of grated cheddar melting reassuringly on top. A big fat hug in a bowl, resplendent with saturated fats and washed down with a pint of Coke. At 11 years old, that combination could not be defeated.
I had seen the breakup coming. Their relationship had deteriorated, punctuated by a row whose aftershocks still reverberated during the family holiday to Disney World. The most extreme rides, which we would otherwise have stayed away from, served as welcome respite from the omnipresent tension. It was with a sense of inevitability that I took my mum aside before we sat down that Saturday evening to find out how things were. She gave me a rueful look that has stayed with me, conveying everything I needed to know. My sister, then eight, was told separately.
I remember the date with such precision because, for reasons known only to my parents, we were told of the divorce the evening before my mum’s birthday. I entered the kitchen the following morning to find her on the phone to my grandmother. Midway through discussing plans for the day ahead, she burst into tears. It is the most organic display of emotion I have ever seen. She covered her mouth as if to stop her heart from spilling out on to the floor. Her parents had separated when she was three, leading to an acrimonious divorce, and she had vowed never to follow suit.
For the first few months, my parents kept things “amicable”, a word they would so often deploy; at first as a shared aspiration, later as an objective not being met by the other. As with all breakups, reality began to bite. A new relationship was embarked on, and the residual feelings of resentment, sometimes anger – the unwelcome affiliates of a deep love for a person – began to surface. Old friends chose sides, and the distance between them widened as their shared experiences faded. Staying “amicable” proved nigh on impossible.
Now something as simple as arranging where we would stay became complicated, sensitive and riddled with obstacles. Previously joyous occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas, turned arduous, a time to get through with minimal damage. It is a sense that persists years down the line for many divorced families, as they reunite for graduations, weddings and funerals.
Much has happened in the ensuing years since that carbohydrate-laden evening where we were briefed on my parents’ divorce. So, what is it like from the perspective of a child of divorced parents, and what advice might help to ensure a soft parting of ways?
As the distance grows and contact all but dries up, children are often the only connection a parent has with their estranged partner. They have the inside track on what the other parent is thinking or feeling about a subject. They are the primary source, with unparalleled access. They can swiftly become arbitrators, tapped up for their information or used as message carriers between rival camps.
In this newfound but undesired role, children make decisions knowing that one party will take issue with their choice. It is a constant stream of compromise. Retaining responsibility for such matters is key to parents ensuring children are protected, even if the task seems trivial or pedantic, or requires you to communicate with your pesky ex. If children are living in fear of upsetting one of you, it is a breeding ground for anxiety. And venting or directing your anger at your children when it stems from, or is intended for, your former partner will chip away at their self-esteem. Take the burden out of their hands where possible.
Remember that children, especially younger ones, are not known for their tact. Without prompt, they might reveal material that could prove upsetting to one side of the equation. I cannot imagine how difficult this is to deal with. But, in understanding its origin, one must reflect that a child will love their parents equally, often regardless of circumstance or apparent fairness. They don’t have the faculties to understand diplomacy, nor the machinations of a failed marriage, and their innocence needs protecting. They will learn the art of discretion over time. Cherish the days when a conversation you thought was private about a friend is regaled, verbatim, by your child to that same person. Revel in the steep embarrassment of it all. These are the moments that will outlive others.
A child will love their parents equally. They don’t understand diplomacy
The most crucial thing is to encourage each family member not to keep things bottled up. The opportunity to chat to somebody independent, be it in a formal or informal environment, with a professional, friend or relation, is not to be scoffed at. Being open isn’t something that comes naturally to us, but where processing emotional matters is concerned, fighting a habit of a lifetime is worth doing. This will also ensure you don’t take out your frustrations on the wrong people, and will provide an outlet for your children. A child who rejects outside help or the chance to open up because of a misguided notion of stoicism will feel it in later life. Reinforce the message that having a chat (or a scream, if no one is around) is a good thing.
It is, of course, important to put things in perspective. That said, this is about the incremental effects of not addressing deep-rooted issues that can stem from experiences such as divorce. Downplaying or suppressing such difficulties can prove harmful, ranging from the trivial to the serious, concerning self-esteem, anxiety and other mental-health problems. Even a flashing temper can emerge if things remain internalised and unsaid. I have seen it among friends who remained silent. In reaching out, you can pre-empt problems.
Often, children whose parents separate when they are young wonder if they are to blame. Those whose parents part ways in adult life can feel their childhood was a lie, or the only reason the family remained intact was for their happiness. Both are complicated scenarios, the after-effects of which can be wide-ranging.
Within that, there will also be times when children feel unhappy with you. Divorce can see the precarious balance between one’s judgment and emotions skew in favour of the latter. You will make mistakes. As a kid, it is very much a gut reaction, when you think something is being mishandled or someone you love has drawn the wrong conclusion. So, when your children react, or act out, it will be for a reason, and it is worth reflecting on why.
Part of growing up is realising that your parents are not perfect, and divorce can often throw that into sharp relief. You will recoil at being used as a pawn in the battle for territory. But taking the time to see things from another’s point of view can help to break down why decisions are made, why irrationalities occur, and thus help temper resentment or ill feeling.
Divorce is shattering for parents. Their lives are upended just as yours are. They often feel shame at imposing it on you, for you are their life’s work. The idea of someone new entering your lives after they raised you, must be indescribably hard. So, don’t take it to heart when things go slightly awry. It gets much easier over time.