Divorce heartbreaking for children

Image: 123RF/Sebnem Ragiboglu

According to the latest marriage and divorce trends released by Stats SA, just under half of marriages in SA do not last 10 years. And more than half of divorcing couples have children younger than 18 years old.

With divorce as a norm in SA, and indeed worldwide, nothing quite prepares you for what it’s like to go through the process, especially with children around. Divorce can feel excruciatingly unique, and for many people, painfully long — not to mention the drama that often follow in the aftermath. And for the children, this process can literally last for their lifetime.

Not surprisingly, it’s a time when you will struggle with periods of psychological, physiological, and emotional impairment. All of this occurring while you are simultaneously called on to make critical decisions, co-parent with someone you have a broken relationship with, generate income and navigate the grief and loss of dreams.

Rituals, rhythm, and rules

Divorce is the dissolution of the microculture that is your family. Breaking up a family when children are involved is akin to pulling bones out of your body while you are simultaneously growing them. It’s the disruption of a rhythm, disturbance of family rituals and breaking of the rules as your children knew them.

Children, no matter the age, have the attitude that their parents should be able to work through and solve any issue. Parents, who have given the children life, are perceived by the children as very competent people with supernatural abilities to meet whatever needs the children may have. No problem should be too great for their parents to handle. For a child, divorce shatters this basic security and belief concerning the parents’ abilities to care for them and to make decisions that truly consider their wellbeing.

Children have the strong belief that there is only one right family relationship, and that is Mom and Dad being together. Any other relationship configuration presents a conflict or betrayal of their basic understanding of life. It’s an extremely confusing period, and one that turns children’s lives up-side-down, no matter their age.

For the first time, in the process of divorce, you and your spouse will have to venture into something together that is, by definition, designed to be done alone. You will go through divorce alone, together.

Regardless of age, gender and race, it’s inevitable that children of divorced parents experience increased psychological problems. Divorce triggers an adjustment disorder in children that may clinically take months to resolve. Depression and anxiety rates are statistically higher in children from divorced parents.

You’ll want to make it better and cheer them up. If they’re older, they might ask questions and even insist that you confide in them as a way to ease their confusion and pain. It can be tricky to discern who is comforting who. Divorce is lonely, and even the best of single parents can experience the understandable tug to derive comfort in confiding to the children. We do not recommend it, but we understand.

Way forward 

Tempting as it may be, try to refrain from responding to your child’s feelings by offering a distraction or cheering up. Such gestures, though well-intended, often come from our discomfort when we see the hurt in the child. We want to make it better, to offer relief. It’s natural to want to put a Band-Aid on an “ouch”. Unfortunately, divorce is bigger than that.

Be curious and avoid projecting your feelings and thoughts. Expand on such moments, listening more than speaking, validating more than fixing. Let them know you see they are struggling and offer to help them to name their struggles, encouraging them to use their words.

You are closing a critical chapter of your life and simultaneously embarking on a new one. The narrative you write, speak and live from will have a profound impact on the adult your child has yet to become. How you make sense of memories, your past and the ways it has shaped you in the present, the answers you give to fundamental questions, have potential to pass down the same painful legacy that marred your early days.

The best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to their parents as children, but instead how their parents made sense of those childhood experiences. How we as parents make sense of any significant experience, whether we’re talking childhood or adulthood, has the potential to shape the adults our children have yet to become and, in turn, our grandchildren.

The telling of how your marriage came to fracture will evolve, and as it does, and as you begin to understand the role you played in it, it’s important to see yourself as neither victim nor villain. Similarly aspire to view your ex from an equally generous and compassionate lens. After all, not many embark on marriage hoping love will end, and very few of us have a baby wishing our family will shatter.  

What parents see as a way out often results in emotional damage that the children will carry for 30 years or more. Divorce is no small thing to children. It is the violent ripping apart of their parents, a loss of stability and often a complete shock. While we often think of children as resilient, going through such trauma is a big ask.

In light of the fact that most marriages heading for divorce can be salvaged and turned into great marriages, parents should take a long pause before choosing divorce. While it may seem like a solution, it's not an easy one, especially for the children.


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