WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?
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.