WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?

Your Baby & Toddler - - FEATURES -

We know chil­dren can take di­vorce re­ally hard. Daniella de Witt gets ex­pert advice on how to make it as easy as pos­si­ble on them

IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE she’ll ever for­get the pain she felt at the time, re­mem­bers San­dra de Wet* from Jo­han­nes­burg.

Her lit­tle girl was two and her son four when she and her hus­band got di­vorced. “If I knew then how much it would in­flu­ence the lit­tle ones and how many nights I’d cry about their sad­ness and un­cer­tainty, I might have fought harder for my mar­riage. We had no idea how bad it would be­come for them. My daugh­ter is al­ready seven now, but it’s still an up­hill battle. Her dad has met some­one else and lives in another prov­ince, but she still prays ev­ery night that he will re­turn. Her dad and I were at one stage very up­set with each other, and I know we both at times said the wrong things to our chil­dren. But one re­grets th­ese things way too late…”

Re­cent re­search has shown that chil­dren like San­dra’s who are ex­posed to di­vorce at a young age battle more to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with their par­ents later on in life, says Henk Swanepoel, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist from Cen­tu­rion.

“The Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin has re­ported that chil­dren who were ex­posed to di­vorce be­tween birth and five years are more un­cer­tain than chil­dren who were older dur­ing di­vorce.

“Chil­dren who al­ready have a more es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ship with their par­ents adapt bet­ter than younger chil­dren,” he says.

Di­vorce makes chil­dren tense, con­fused and sad, says Sinette van Rooy Booy­sen, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist from Dur­ban. “They feel in­se­cure and up­set about their par­ents’ di­vorce. Ev­ery age group has its own chal­lenges when it comes to ad­just­ment.”

One some­times thinks that small chil­dren don’t feel emo­tional pain and might not even no­tice when Dad and Mom are busy drift­ing apart, says Dr Irene Stry­dom, a psy­chol­o­gist from Welling­ton.

“But ba­bies are painfully aware of their en­vi­ron­ment and can feel ten­sion and pain in peo­ple. They can pick up from their par­ents’ tone of voice if there’s strife. Even if they only feel it sub­con­sciously, their bod­ies re­tain the dis­com­fort. If par­ents fight, a baby can im­me­di­ately feel un­safe.”

Irene says a baby in this po­si­tion will re­act by cry­ing to at­tract more at­ten­tion, so that par­ents can con­firm with em­pa­thy, kind words and touch that she’s safe. “If par­ents re­act in an ir­ri­tated way, the baby ex­pe­ri­ences this as con­fir­ma­tion that she is not safe, and she will be­come even more whiny and weepy, which con­tin­ues – and es­ca­lates – the cy­cle of un­ad­dressed dis­com­fort.”

If the prob­lem is not handled, it will trau­ma­tise the baby and in this way dam­age her cog­ni­tive, so­cial and emo­tional de­vel­op­ment. In­stead of just be­ing in and learn­ing in her home en­vi­ron­ment, she now first has to fig­ure out if she’s safe. A baby who feels un­safe can ex­pe­ri­ence al­most the same trauma symp­toms as a baby grow­ing up in a war zone.

HOW DO I EX­PLAIN?

A baby of six months won’t un­der­stand that a di­vorce is hap­pen­ing, and for this rea­son it won’t make sense to try and ex­plain with words, Irene says.

“If your child can talk, you can use very sim­ple concepts, such as talk­ing about ‘Mommy’s house’ and ‘Daddy’s house’ or ‘Daddy lives here, and Mommy lives there.’ Ex­plain th­ese concepts again and again. It should be done with­out emo­tional feed­back.”

Em­pha­sise that both par­ents still love him and that he’s not the cause of or rea­son for the di­vorce.

Also give him fac­tual in­for­ma­tion about the rea­son for the di­vorce: “Mommy and Daddy can’t live in the same house any­more be­cause we ar­gue too much about things.”

WHAT CAN I EX­PECT FROM MY CHILD?

Your child’s ad­just­ment de­pends on you and how well you han­dle the di­vorce, Sinette says. “An older child will be shocked at first and not re­alise the re­al­ity. There­after he’ll go through a phase of de­nial and won’t want the par­ents to di­vorce. The next two phases are de­pres­sion and anger, and then he’ll ac­cept the di­vorce.”

Be ex­tremely sen­si­tive about what you tell young chil­dren, is Henk’s advice. “They don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of di­vorce at all, so the sep­a­ra­tion of their par­ents causes high anxiety lev­els. If you’re wor­ried, call in the help of a psy­chol­o­gist. The key re­quire­ments are pa­tience, ac­knowl­edge­ment and lis­ten­ing skills to sup­port the child in the ad­just­ment.”

If the child feels that you’re act­ing in his in­ter­est, he’ll be quicker to ac­cept the new sit­u­a­tion, Henk says.

YB

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