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

The Guardian - Family - - Family -

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.

Pho­to­graph by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Se­bas­tian Whale

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