By: Sinmarie Pieterse

Divorce and parental separation are major stressors for all family members.  Divorce is not an isolated event but a sequence of on-going changes.  The child experiences the same feelings as adults, but does not have the language skill to verbalize it, nor the cognitive ability to understand, identify or express their feelings (Blom , 2004).  For children one of the most challenging aspects of divorce is that it happens when they are children.  Therefore, the feelings divorce inspires are not only intense and confusing but brand new.

Some children are irreparably wounded by divorce.  The wounds of most children heal, but even healed wounds usually leave a scar.

If the child cannot express his/her needs or emotions, they will probably learn destructive ways to satisfy their needs.  They may turn the feelings inward, and the emotions are experienced as physical sensations (headaches) or they may project their feelings toward others.  Emotions are then expressed in the form of destructive behaviour, such as uncontrolled outbursts of anger (Blom 2004:18).

CHILDREN NEED YOU THE MOST WHEN THEY ARE AT THEIR WORST! (Engelbrecht and Rencken Wentzel 1999: 54).

The “sleeper effect” refers to the suggestion that long hidden emotional problems stemming from parental divorce emerges later or during young adult life.  Even in the best of situations, divorce can endure as the defining moment of their lives.  How parents handle their divorce determines a lot about how their children will fare, both today and tomorrow.

Therefore it is of the utmost importance that parents deal with this event in a mature way.

1. Mistakes parents can make in dealing with their children during and after divorce.

1.1 Parentification.
Parentified children are asked to perform emotional and logistical tasks before they are developmentally ready for it.  Children and teenagers should not be allowed nor expected to help their parent carry his or her emotional burden.

1.2 Psychological Spitting
The child polarizes the parents, one is all-good and the other all-bad.
The “all-bad” parent then becomes the container for all of the child’s negative feelings.

1.3 Parental alienation
A child’s campaign of denigration against a parent that has no justification and that results from the combination of two contributing factors:

  • The programming or brainstorming by one parent,
  • The child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent

1.4 Coalitions
Some parents involve their children in the parental battle.
Triangulating the children in the parental conflict will create harmful effects and intolerable stress to the emotional development of the children.

2. Building a successful co-parenting relationship

Think of divorce as a process of adjustment that requires significant co-parenting skills.
Instead of focusing on parenting weaknesses, focus on how respective parenting strengths can best complement the changing developmental needs of the children.

Terminate the marital role and redefine the parental role.  If you can’t view your ex as a friend, think of him or her as your business partner and your child as your business.

Respect your ex-partner’s relationship with your child.  Respect and stay out of your child’s unique relationship with your ex, just as you would wish your ex not to interfere with your relationship with your child.

Go out of your way to ensure that your ex is included in your child’s life.  Be sure your ex is notified as early as possible of upcoming school events, and other important occasions in your child’s life.
Reject the myth that the mother is the best carer for a child.

Develop a system for communication and decision-making.
Do not become polarized, by viewing yourself as all good and feeling self justified.

Managing conflict

It is important to accept and understand that conflict (that is, a difference of opinion) is an unavoidable part of parenting.  In managing conflict, the following guidelines are recommended:

  • Be specific in relating problems.
  • Focus on the present problem rather than on past difficulties.
  • Share problems in a constructive and positive manner.

Try not to fight and especially never in front of your child.  It’s important to realize that one good thing for a child out of divorce is that their parents’ fighting is over.

The importance of Forgiveness

Anger can lead to physical and mental problems. Be prepared and able to show signs of goodwill and say ”… I’m sorry…”.  This is very important for the co-parenting relationship. Forgiveness leads to a cognitive restoring of pain and losses.

3. Enhancing your relationship with your child.

Be aware of your child’s emotions. (They act out their fears through themes like abandonment, illness and injury.)

Recognize their emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.  A child needs his or her parents most when they are sad, angry or afraid.  Negative emotions rarely go away.  Acknowledge low levels of emotion early before they escalate into full blown crises.

Listen empathically and validate your child’s feelings.  Use your words to reflect back.  Most important, use your heart to feel what they are feeling.

Pay attention to the child’s body language, facial expression and gestures.
Show unconditional love.
Be physically and emotional available.
Monitor your child’s behaviour.
Play with the young child.
Keep your promises.
Eat together.
Have one-on-one interaction with your children to monitor how they are doing.

4. Stay aware of your own process

Be mindful of the impact of divorce on you as an adult. The short term effect on an individual could include feelings of being overburdened with sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion, conflict and guilt.
Financial deterioration can emerge.

Greater social isolation occurs (for instance, loss of couple friends).
Lower level of psychological well-being occurs. (Eg. more involved in car accidents, ill etc.)
You have to be able to separate psychologically and emotionally from your ex-spouse. Be aware of your inability to move on……staying stuck in the divorce mentality.
Avoid moving prematurely from one relationship to the other.
Join a divorce support group or enter individual therapy if you feel you are not coping.

Final thoughts

The long term goal is to provide an environment that will hold and protect the child, mobilize whatever resources are available in the parent-child relationship, the co-parenting capabilities as well as the individual resources of each parent and each child.

A good divorce is one which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce.  In a good divorce, a family with children remains a family.  The parents-as they did when they were married- continue to be responsible for the emotional, economic and physical needs of their children post-divorce.

Resources & Recommended Reading

Blom,R (2004). Handbook of gestalt play therapy. Fichardtpark:Druforma.
Engelbrecht R, & Rencken-Wentzel, A. (1999) Divorce. A South African Guide. Including a do-it yourself section.
Neuman, M. & Romanowski, P. (1998) Helping your kids cope with divorce.