Sometimes the Jerichos in our lives crumble overnight. In other instances it is a slow process, where one brick is removed at a time to eventually dismantle a stronghold. Marriages often end in divorce in just this way, and the process overwhelms not only the couple, but also the lives of their children. Walk this journey with Nicolette Ferreira as she explores one of the most profound changes that a child can face.
According to statistics, one out of every two marriages ends in divorce.1 The findings of research on the effects of these family breakups on children will make any parent cringe – or weep. I would like to highlight a few of these issues, as the magnitude of this topic needs to be imprinted in our minds. My intention is not to condemn any parent, but rather to aid us when we look up from our demanding lives and see that a child we love is sending out distress signals.
Steven Lazarus emphasises various effects of divorce on children,2 some of which I will refer to briefly here. The first of these, which I’d like to emphasise with a bright green highlighter, involves relational problems. Children from divorced families are significantly more involved in antisocial behaviour than other children. These ‘divorced children’ often have problems with their friends, as well as with authority figures. Such relational problems often stem from witnessing parental conflict, which presents an inappropriate model for children, who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships.2
Secondly, Lazarus points out that children from divorced families fare significantly worse in their academic work than children from married families.2 A weakened self-concept is another unfortunate consequence that often stems from the tension involved when one of the parents leaves. The negative effects of divorce on children have been proven to be worse when maternal and paternal warmth is low, when levels of anger and tension are high, and when mothers struggle with depression.
Boys tend to have more externalising behaviour problems compared with girls: these could include running away from home and school truancy. Girls on the other hand tend more towards depression and anxiety.
CLEANING THE WOUNDS
Once you are aware that a child is struggling under the load of a divorce, there are ways in which you can provide help.3
Active and continued involvement by both parents in the children’s lives is essential. It is therefore important that a positive relationship with both parents, or at least with the primary caregiver, is fostered and maintained (see Bowlby’s Attachment Theory).4 This means no ‘castor oiling’ (my term for bad-mouthing) of one parent by the other. The more you fight, the more difficult it is for your children to adjust to the divorce. Encourage children to visit the non-custodial parent. If this is a tricky and sticky endeavour, interventions that enable parents to settle disputes are advisable: these could involve therapy for parents, mediation, and collaboration between attorneys, mediators and therapists.
Therapy for children can serve as a valuable healing band-aid! Children are often confused by divorce: because they were not in the marriage, and may well not have experienced it as destructive, they cannot understand the reason for the divorce. A therapist or counsellor can help a child to get some distance from the puzzling situation and see the picture as a whole. Keep in mind that some psychological problems might only develop later in life, as children often do not have the emotional capacity to deal with such issues if parents divorce when they are still very young (see ‘The Sleeper Effect’).5 And children need and deserve to be told repeatedly that the divorce is not their fault.6
Parents can further soothe and help heal the wound by explaining to children what the divorce will mean for them in practical terms: when they will see the non-custodian parent, how often and for how long, what will happen at birthdays and school functions. Avoid the temptation of asking the children to carry messages or to tell you about your ex spouse.
Economic stability and routine during this time have also been proven to be helpful, while lack of stability, routine and predictability can significantly increase the negative effects of divorce.
Something you probably won’t have thought of is some Elastoplast for you! Keep yourself healthy. For many adults, separation and divorce are among the most stressful experiences they will ever go through. Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential for you and your entire family. As my favourite South African Airways allegory for life goes: first put the mask over your own mouth before you help the person next to you. In line with this, do not allow your children to become your best friends or confidants – do consider seeing a counsellor or therapist, or a friend who is both.
Children who participate in extracurricular activities build life skills of co-operation, learn self-worth and develop healthy minds and healthy bodies.6 Get out the picnic basket and head for the great outdoors! If your budget allows for it, perhaps go for a drive to the SPCA and pick up a little homeless Rover or Spotty – this will keep your children busy in a constructive and positive manner. It’s also a very good idea to have your children’s friends over regularly, and to encourage relations with extended family members. And while you are ‘doing it green’ you could consider taking your child’s teacher for a walk, to discuss any problems that might have come up.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE
I would like to conclude with a message of hope. Don’t let yourself despair, and try to look towards the future with confidence. Studies on the topic of children and divorce have shown that as little as one year after the divorce many of the children’s problems diminish, and by the end of the second year 75 to 80% of children appeared to be functioning close to normal.2
I found the following beautifully positive image on the Internet. A parent who had successfully navigated the vicissitudes of divorce likened the process to travelling internationally with children. You don’t know what to expect, but you hope that your children will develop a willingness to be flexible, adapt to different ‘cultures’, and learn and grow throughout the challenges, rather than shrink from them. Rather than approach the process with fear and trepidation, think about what can be gained and the lessons that can be learned and expect that, with your support, your family will flourish.7 The quality of your lives does not have to be overshadowed by divorce. It will affect you, but to what extent is up to you!
- Botha A, et al. The relationship between family-of-origin and marital satisfaction. Health SA Gesondheid 2009; 14.1.
- Lazarus S. The effects of divorce on children. How can we help? http://www.familyresource.com/downloads/slp1.pdf (accessed 21 October 2009).
- Meyerowitz J. Divorce counseling – helping children cope with divorce. http://www.famsa.org.za/divchildren.asp (accessed 18 October 2009).
- Eagen CE. Attachment and divorce: Family consequences. http://www.personalityresearch.org/papers/eagan.html (accessed 19 October 2009).
- Clandos R, et al. Children and divorce: Helping your kids cope with the effects of separation and divorce. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/children_divorce.htm (accessed 18 October 2009).
- Author unknown. Divorce and the children. http://www.facebook.com/pages/divorce-and-The-Children/143118279807 (accessed 27 October 2009).
- Eleoff S. An exploration of the ramifications of divorce on children and adolescents. http://www.childadvocate.net/divorce_effects_on_children.htm (accessed 19 October 2009).