Children can cope with traumatic realities of life like divorce, provided they are treated sensitively by both the parents.
Having worked with various children of divorce, the most frequent misconceptions I encounter are. “Children of divorce are not well adapted and have problems as adults” or “Divorce has nothing to do with kids, they will eventually understand what happened.” Both these statements lead to wrong decisions on the part of parents and an inability to handle children who are experiencing divorce.
My child clients often experience symptoms of grief, guilt, and anger due to unclear communication from the parents or the extended family.
Some common statements:
“It's my fault; I should be a good girl. Mummy and papa fight because of me, I have seen it”; “Maybe if I pray to god they will live together again”; “Why are they always fighting?”; “I know papa is bad, but I still want him to come back, but I don't want mummy to leave me”; “They are bad people, I hate them.”
Studies have shown that children of divorce need not fare worse than other children. In fact, children who live in unstable, conflict-prone homes are the ones who grow up with emotional, relational and psychological difficulties, not just children of divorce. Children require a stable, conflict-free home where they are recognised, understood and heard. Therefore, many children might find a more stable and carefree life after the parents divorce.
How they handle the child during divorce is what matters. Most parents will use children as a bargaining chip, bad mouth one another, involve extended families who start an internal custody battle, all of which leads to trauma, poor functioning in school, depression, acting out and can impact their relationships as adults.
Leave the children out
This does not mean that a child should not be exposed to realities of life, but certain parents, divorced or married, will use children as a venting vessel or position them as the adult who solves parental issues. Such children often display maladaptive behaviour patterns.
When parents are getting divorced, it is important to recognise that children are suffering an equally big loss — that of one parent. They will grieve the parent in age-appropriate ways. Sometimes though, children can become reticent, rebellious or display other unusual characteristics. It is important you contact a professional to help the child accept the divorce and adapt. It can become difficult for the parents to help the child, so seeking professional help at a time like this can really benefit the family.
Children of divorce need special consideration as it can be tough for them in a society where children with single parents are not common. Both parents and extended families have to put aside difficulties and be unselfish for the sake of the child.
Some ways to help the child cope:
Never bad-mouth your partner/ in-laws to the child and be cognizant of the fact that the child may overhear your conversation with other people.
Do not try to get the child to take sides and problem-solve or decide which parent is bad.
Remind the child that you will be parents forever, even though you might not be husband and wife.
Talk to the child like an adult, explain to them that sometimes things don't work out and provide an example from their life (you can contact a counsellor for help with communicating).
Make sure the kids know that you both love them and this has nothing to do with them.
Your child is experiencing very strong emotions, be sensitive to that.
Most importantly, get your child to speak about what they feel and fear, give them a safe space to vent, cry and just be themselves.
Spend time with them and do not try to separate them from the other parent or siblings forcefully for your own needs.
Try to maintain routines and whatever you can of their former life.
Do not cut them off from extended family, just to use the child as a bargaining tool.
The writer is a psychotherapist; for more information visit www.mansitherapy.com.