Divorce is an all too common reality for many families in South Africa. It is often a painful journey with significant repercussions for all individuals involved, including children. It is not an easy decision for either partners regardless of their individual feelings and thoughts regarding the marriage. In all the turmoil and emotional upheaval that precedes and follows a divorce it is important to be cognisant of behaviour that will put children first.
Below are a number of pointers that institute “good” divorce behaviour that is the least damaging for children undergoing an already difficult and painful transition in their lives.
Do tell children that the divorce is not their fault. Often children assume that their parents are not together because of something they did which was wrong or bad.
Do get assistance from a psychologist if you need to. If a parent adjusts well to a divorce the child copes better as well. Get help if you are feeling stressed, if you can’t seem to overcome the anger, the hurt and the resentment. Divorce can sometimes be the beginning of a life you have wanted, but it is a long journey and there are often many issues that need to be resolved along the way. Getting assistance from a psychologist helps the healing process and may address other aspects if necessary such as what went wrong so the pattern isn’t repeated with new partners.
Do try keep changes to a child’s environment as minimal as possible.Divorce is a transition in itself, so it is important to not make too many changes to what a child is used too. Children like routine and they need similarity especially in the context of a divorce. Try to keep residences and schools the same as well as other activities. In addition, make sure that contact with family members (regardless of how you may feel about them) and other caregivers, such as helpers remains the same as far as possible.
Do allow your children to voice their thoughts and feelings, listen to them and acknowledge their feelings. Parents often feel guilty about the divorce and when a child voices a negative emotion such as sadness they minimize the child’s feelings (often as a means to try protect their child). Therefore, when a child states that they miss the other parent saying to them something like “don’t be sad because you’re going to see Mom/Dad this weekend…” doesn’t acknowledge feelings but tells a child to forget about them or minimize or deny their feelings). In this scenario it is better saying something like “I can see you are sad about not seeing Mom/Dad…” as children need to know that what they’re feeling is okay and that their parent understands and allows this.
Do nurture yourself and try to get back on track to the definition of normality for you. Remember that separation and divorce is a traumatic experience, even for the person initiating the process. Your life will get back on track. However, it is a process and therefore be patient and kind to yourself. Don’t expect too much too soon, there will be some dire days but with time they usually diminish.
Do make sure that your child has as much access to both parents as far as possible (if it is beneficial to the child and there are no legal restrictions such as supervised access etc.) Again the fact remains that regardless of whether the ex-spouses get on or not does not imply that the child cannot have a good relationship with the individual parent. The more love and solid relationships children have the better it is for them. If you are concerned about your ex-spouse consult with a psychologist. Parenting plans are also essential to establish ground rules important for the upbringing of the children.
Be aware of the changeover time between the two homes. Going to or coming home from a parent’s home is usually difficult for the child. Children may then act out or behave badly which is often mistaken for bad parenting or no discipline at the ex-spouse’s home. Do not allow destructive behaviour to go undisciplined but allow children to vent via appropriate means.
Do not fight with your ex-spouse in front of the children.If you are likely to lose your temper make sure it is never in front of a child. If communicating is difficult without getting into altercations try communicating telephonically when the child is elsewhere, or send e-mails etc. Treat the former marriage as a business partnership as it is your ‘business’ to bring up your children in a relationship that is healthy and beneficial to your greatest assets – your children. Be careful not to talk badly about your ex-spouse in front of the children. Always, always remember that continued conflict can be very destructive for children. Seek professional help from a psychologist who deals with divorce matters if you cannot break the pattern of conflict. Mediation and drawing up parenting plans are other useful means to resolve conflict.
Do not put your child in the middle. Children should not be seen as the messengers or postmen delivering messages to and from Mom and Dad. Don’t interrogate your child about your ex-spouse.Let your child know that he/she can love all members of both families.
Do not, ever ask your child to choose a parent.Asking a child to choose a parent is an impossible (and destructive) task. Children love both parents, regardless of any short-comings they may or not have. In addition, children need to feel free to love both parents equally without competition and without question.
Do not assign fault to the divorce unless under exceptional circumstances. Some parents try score brownie points and present themselves as the innocent party. Whether one likes it or not, agrees with it or not, there are two people in a relationship. If one spouse wants to leave the marriage it doesn’t mean that they’re solely at fault, but the relationship between the two parties faltered or went awry somehow. Saying something like “your Mom/Dad wants the divorce not me” leaves children feeling confused and hurt. They may displace their anger onto this person or compromise their relationship with the parent without knowing all the facts. Relationships are complex set ups and to assign the break-up to one person is simplistic (for example, a spouse may indeed want to get out of a marriage because they feel that they’re emotionally abused). If you are struggling with what to tell children, rather consult a child psychologist for further advice and guidance.
Do not talk badly about your ex-spouse. Whilst talking negatively is at times tempting particularly in times of crisis with all the accompanying hurt and pain it still remains destructive for children. Children are part of both their parents and to hear something negative about their parent gets internalised as they themselves may be “bad” as well.
Do not make your child your therapist, your ‘parent’ or your personal caretaker. During the divorce process your children are in a vulnerable state and still need to be children. Take care not to burden them with your feelings as this only serves to make children more anxious as they are already trying to deal with their own feelings about the divorce. In essence, children need to know that they are loved and cared for. If burdened by their parents’ emotional state children then start to feel responsible for their parent’s happiness and emotional well-being and will try please or comfort the parent, thereby reversing the parent-child role.