Rebecca Alexander investigates how divorce affects children and offers some advice on how to help them through it
None of us enters a marriage or relationship hoping we’ll get divorced. Yet for some of us – around 117,500 married couples in England and Wales last year – that’s where we end up. And whatever our own feelings, whether grief, anger, perhaps relief or even happiness, for our children, this is probably the biggest thing that’s happened in their life so far, and one they may still have questions about decades later.
Then there’s the ongoing debate about whether life is worse for children of divorce. There is certainly evidence that children of divorced or separated parents can show more behaviour problems, lower emotional wellbeing, and lower marks at school than children whose parents stay together.
Yet that’s not the whole picture. For every expert who says divorce is always bad for our children, there’s another who will show that the evidence is mixed, that there is much overlap between children of divorced and non-divorced families, and that some children even fare better after a divorce. The variables are numerous.
One of the most important of these is our own behaviour. As parents, there is much we can do to minimise and counteract some of the effects of a relationship breakup. First, says Andrew G Marshall, marital therapist and author of I Love You But You Always Put Me Last (published September 2013), consider what you tell your children about the separation. There’s a line to tread here between being honest without oversharing. Generally, says Marshall, ‘if you think you can cover it in five sentences, try to cover it in three. If one partner has had an affair, avoid mentioning it, or say something like “I have a new girlfriend/boyfriend”. The best model is that you can talk to your children, listen to them, and answer their questions, without oversharing.’
Whatever their age, your children don’t need to know all the details of your relationship or sex life. Professor Robert Emery of the University of Virginia, and author of The Truth About Children And Divorce, agrees. ‘Here is a thought experiment,’ he says. ‘Picture your parents having sex. Most people do not want to even ponder this. So keep explanations focused on the children, and on what they need to hear, not what you might want to say.’
After separation, most ex-couples fall into one of three camps – ‘co-operative parents’, where both parents are involved in their child’s life and are able to communicate and work together; ‘parallel parents’ also share childcare, but rarely speak; and in so-called ‘single-parent families’, there is little or no contact with the non-custodial parent. For most children, the co-operative parenting model is by far the best.
This can be hard if you and your ex are full of bitterness towards each another, but it’s vital for your children that you try. Emery suggests that you ‘work towards seeing your ex as the parent of your child, not your ex. You do this for your child, not for your ex, at least in the short run. In the long run, you do this for yourself too.’
“A percentage of children, maybe 10 to 20%, will really have problems as a result of their parents’ divorce. Almost always this is because their parents fail to do the things we have been discussing. In fact, in their blind rage and pain, too many parents do pretty much the opposite” – Professor Robert Emery
Whatever the custody arrangements, it’s important that your children maintain their relationship with both parents (unless one parent has been abusive). Marshall recommends children have as independent a relationship with the non-custodial parent as possible, without you always acting as the go-between.
If you do fight, keep your child out of it. ‘If you’re being ghastly to each other and are determined to fight to the bitter end, it’s your children who suffer,’ says Marshall. Don’t fight in front of them and don’t badmouth the other parent to your children – however sorely tempted. You’re merely putting them in a position where they feel they must choose between you.
Both Marshall and Emery also stress the importance of compassion, both for your ex and yourself. You need the support and resources to help you cope emotionally and practically with your life’s new landscape. Venting or weeping uncontrollably in front of your children is hard for them to see, and, says Marshall, most children will volunteer to help, a task that’s well beyond their pay grade. As their parent, you’re the one who should be helping them to make sense of and deal with their emotions, and not the other way around. If you feel tempted to unload to them, don’t. Instead, make sure you have others you can turn to so that your children aren’t burdened with this additional emotional load.
Parenting through a divorce requires us to act at our most mature and level-headed, at a time when we feel anything but. But if we get it right, we can ease the transition for our children. Says Emery: ‘Remember your child’s perspective. It’s different from yours. As much as possible, act as your child would want you to act. We constantly have to make our own emotions and desires second to our children’s needs.’