A small figure crept into my office, nervously anticipating a meeting with her father. A man she hadn’t seen in several months and hadn’t cared to see for a lot longer than that. Her long hair hung in front of her face as she occupied a small section of the unoccupied couch. She sat with her back defiantly against his gaze and never let her eyes meet his – not even after she eventually brushed her hair away from her tears as they fell to the floor. Once, when he reached out to touch her foot, she recoiled into a fetal position. Pain, frustration, resentment and rage emanated from her every pore. He reminded her of the times when she hid her face behind her hands as a child when she preferred not to be in the presence of someone she did not know or like. It was as if she could remain invisible by this action or block someone out. Her hands and hair, her eyes avoiding his, spoke more than the words she struggled to find. When she eventually found her words, she was able to tell him, as she stared at the wall, that she was angry at him for “everything,” but especially for leaving her mom and her almost three years before. This young client represents the worst that I have seen in response to a separation or divorce, but speaks of the kind of devastation that some children may experience as a result of a break up in their family. So often I hear parents telling their children that the separation has nothing to do with them, that they still love them as much as they ever did and that this is an adult problem and not theirs, and while the first two statements may be true, I believe the last not to be. Of course, the reason for the demise of the relationship is an adult issue and need not be discussed in detail with the children, but the break up of a family is most definitely their problem too and affects them greatly. I don’t want to give the impression that all children will experience the loss in as traumatic a way as my young client. In fact, I have seen many children confront the situation in the most resilient of ways and respond to it with understanding and incredible maturity. However, parents need to be wise to the way in which they share the news with their children and more importantly, how they continue to relate to one another after they are separated or divorced.
I’ve always said that when parents divorce, it is most likely the first time in their lives that they put their own needs ahead of their children. This is not to say that parents should remain together for the sake of their children, since it is often better for children to live happily with each parent separately than with two miserably unhappy parents. However, the news of parents separating usually leaves children quite shocked at first and with a host of questions such as “where will I live?” and “how often do I get to see each of you.” It is very helpful if parents have discussed these issues and can present as united at that point in time. Once questions have been answered, be available to answer more as they emerge over the following few days or weeks. I know that it is the exception and not the rule, for parents to remain amicable and mutually respectful of one another, but as much as possible, this is important for the emotional health of the children. I also know that very often, one partner feels more wronged than the other and experiences the same response as his or her children as in “why me? I didn’t ask for this.” While this is true and it is normal to feel anger, resentment and pain, it is important that he or she seeks comfort and support with friends, family and professional support if needed so that the children do not feel that they have to support or feel sorry for that parent or take sides against the other parent. Furthermore, it is imperative that children not become messengers or a go-between the parents. Parents need to deliver messages themselves or through a lawyer.
It is not the act of separation or divorce that affects children the most, but what follows the event. Children inextricably bind a couple for life whether together or apart and if everyone can be helped to come to terms with the change in the family and work together for the betterment of the children, everyone’s lives are so much happier.