Don’t Divorce Your Kids!
Your marriage went awry and divorce looms before you. Whether you feel relieved or shattered, your life is going to change. You will face new and unexpected challenges and be forced to make tough choices.
If you have children, the next days, months and years will be stressful for them as well. During this difficult period, if you are overwhelmed and preoccupied with your own problems, you may forget that you and your ex are still the most important people in your children’s lives.
The worst thing you can do is unwittingly divorce your kids in the process.
What does it mean to “divorce” your kids?
Parents can’t literally divorce their kids. Divorce is the legal dissolution of a marriage, and parents are by law obligated to provide care and support for minor children. But during a divorce, when parents ignore or deny the needs of their children, they may not realize the harm they inflict upon them.
“As a parent, I feel like I failed miserably.”
Johannes Hogenhout and his wife were living in New Zealand with their three children when their marriage fell apart. After divorcing, Johannes retained custody of the kids, but when he remarried a short time later, he made a fateful choice. He decided to relocate to Pittsburgh with his new American wife, and left behind his kids, aged 12, 14 and 16.
Johannes never considered how this decision would strain his relationship with his children, who grew angry and resentful.
“I was not the man I should have been. I was playing life, not taking it seriously,” he says. “It is the biggest regret of my life.”
Johannes didn’t realize that he essentially divorced his children. Although he tried to keep in touch, it was impossible to remain a part of their daily lives with thousands of miles and an 11 hour time difference between them. He loved his kids and didn’t mean to hurt them, but the physical separation emotionally damaged his children and devastated his relationship with them.
Although his daughters are now grown with kids of their own, Johannes recently wrote a “love letter” to them, expressing regret for his actions.
“I never should have done that,” he told them.
He feels grateful that one of his daughters was willing to speak to him. They now communicate via Skype every few weeks. His younger daughter still doesn’t want to talk, but he is planning a trip to New Zealand and hopes that he will be able to see her while he’s there. Recently retired, Johannes says he is seriously considering relocating back to New Zealand to try to be a part of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives.
Short term effects of divorce
The first two years after a divorce are the hardest. The immediate consequence when a marriage breaks down is that one parent usually moves out. Moving to the other side of the world is an extreme. But even when a parent, often the father, lives nearby, losing daily contact with that parent can still confuse and unsettle children.
How a child reacts and adjusts to the new realities of their family’s routine largely depends upon the age of the child.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), “Young children may react by becoming more aggressive and uncooperative or by withdrawing. Older children may feel deep sadness and loss. Their schoolwork may suffer and behavior problems are common. As teenagers and adults, children of divorce can have trouble with their own relations and experience problems with self-esteem.”
“Kids absorb everything that’s going on,” says Pittsburgh trauma expert, Heather Ferri. “Many act okay on the outside, but are upset inside. Kids learn from watching their parents. Not just words, but body language. They take in everything and think it’s their fault.”
Heather counsels couples on the brink of breaking up, as well teens who have been traumatized by divorce. She believes that kids know exactly what’s wrong in a marriage.
“Parents need to understand the wisdom of their children. They see so much and understand so much. We dumb them down and that’s why they are depressed.”
Long term effects of divorce
Researchers from various disciplines agree that children from divorced families often experience psychological and social difficulties well into their adulthood. Some studies indicate that parental divorce may be linked to mental health problems, substance use, and less success in terms of education, employment, and romantic relationships. Divorce rates are higher for people whose parents were divorced.
Infidelity in a marriage can also have a significant effect on children. In one survey of adult children who had an unfaithful parent, 70 to 80 percent reported that their attitudes toward love, relationships, and their ability to trust were affected.
The gravest danger: parental alienation syndrome
Dr. Richard A. Warshak, a clinical and research psychologist who has spent decades studying divorce, wrote the groundbreaking book, Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.
“Divorce does not always damage children,” he says. “But when children are caught in the crossfire of their parents’ hostility, it usually does. It hurts to just stand on the sidelines and watch parents trade shots. It hurts even more when parents enlist children as allies in the battle. And it hurts the most when one parent engages in a systematic campaign to turn the children against the other parent.”
Consider the actions of these parents:
- A mom hangs her framed divorce decree on the wall and laughs, refusing to remove it, when her friends and family tell her that it upsets her kids.
- A dad attends his son’s sporting event but refuses to allow the child to talk to his mother, who is also watching the game, because this is supposed to be “his” time with his son.
- A furious mother tells her children that she would rather starve than take a penny from her ex-husband and goes on welfare to prove her point.
These are real moms and dads. I suspect that friends and family would insist they are caring parents who love their children. However, each of these parents is engaging in behavior that can inflict long lasting damage on their children.
Dr. Amy Baker is a renowned researcher and developmental psychologist who specializes in parent-child relationships, child welfare, and parental alienation. She describes this syndrome as a set of strategies that a parent uses to emotionally manipulate a child to turn against the other parent. These strategies include bad-mouthing, limiting contact, forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression the other parent is dangerous, or threatening to withdraw affection to compel the child to choose between parents.
Sue Caputo’s daughter was 13 when she and her husband divorced. At first, Sue and her ex attempted to be cordial with each other, but it didn’t last. After her daughter went to live with her father, Sue lost communication with her daughter for four years.
“I didn’t see her for her entire high school years, from freshman to senior. She didn’t want me there. It was the most horrible experience of my life.”
In January 2018, Sue formed the Parent-Child Alienation Support Group at Orchard Hill Church in Wexford. The group is open to men, women, couples, grandparents, children, and anyone who is experiencing alienation from their loved ones. Attendees meet once a month to learn, watch videos, or hear presentations from experts, like divorce attorneys. Sometimes people need to talk, and attendees are encouraged to share as much or as little of their personal experiences as they want.
“You can feel their pain,” Sue says. “You need to talk to other people who are going through this, not just friends and family.”
How to keep your kids out of your divorce
There is no easy way to tell your kids that mom and dad are breaking up. Even if children expected or feared that it would happen, the reality hits them hard and the conversation may be one of the most painful of their lives.
These tips from the AACAP are intended to help children and parents deal with the difficulty of these conversations:
- Do not keep it a secret or wait until the last minute.
- Tell your child together with your spouse if possible.
- Keep things simple and straight-forward and don’t share more information than your child is asking for.
- Tell them the divorce is not their fault.
- Admit that this will be sad and upsetting for everyone.
- Reassure your child that you both still love them and will always be their parents.
- Do not discuss each other’s faults or problems with the child.
Another important thing you can do to keep your kids out of your divorce is to minimize conflict with your ex.
Fighting isn’t always a bad thing. All moms and dads argue, even in stable marriages. When adults in the house are able to engage in mature conversations that resolve problems, the occasional tiff teaches kids how to handle disagreements in a healthy manner.
However, divorce can be an emotional rollercoaster for parents who may feel whiplashed by feelings of guilt, shame, betrayal, anger, revenge, anxiety and fear. With tensions high, divorcing parents might be tempted to fight over significant or trivial things in front of the kids, which traumatize them.
If you are wounded and immature, you may also be tempted to use your children as therapists. Confiding in your children, trying to make them see “your side” of the divorce so that they will be your ally is a sign of parental alienation.
“It’s abuse,” Heather Ferri points out.
Advice from a family court judge
“Divorce is not the end of the world.”
It surprises me to hear this from Scott Mears, a judge from the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas. Perhaps I expected a more cynical outlook from someone who deals with parents and children in contentious divorce cases. But he meant it.
“Sometimes people are better off getting a divorce when the relationship no longer works. It’s not the end of the world,” he repeats.
Judge Mears understands that a child’s natural inclination is to “have great affection for both parents, whether it is deserved or not.” He sees firsthand the damage done to kids when parents bad-mouth each other because children admire and look up to their parents. When an angry parent speaks badly of the other parent, they might think well it’s true, they deserve it. But they fail to understand how it destroys their child.
“Kids lose respect for the parent who is speaking badly of the other parent, and when they hear bad things about the parent, it hurts them as well.” he says.
“I don’t think parents understand what they’re doing.”
Judge Mears has two pieces of advice for divorcing parents.
“First, do everything you can to stay out of the court system. The worst thing is for the child to become embroiled in a child custody battle.”
In a custody case, judges are required to consider the “well-reasoned preference” of the child. Although he takes great pains to keep the child out of the courtroom, it’s still very traumatic, even if the child is able to talk to a judge in his chambers.
“A child thinks I’ve got to decide which parent I love more, which is a terrible decision for an 8, 9 or 10 year old,” he says. “If you can avoid a custody trial, it’s worth it.”
Secondly, he advises parents to see a co-parenting counsellor or mediator immediately when the marriage breaks up.
“Educate yourself and come up with an agreement on your own, or see a mediator if you can’t, because kids won’t be directly involved in that process.”
Judge Mears believes the court system does the best to refer people to the right places and give them the right resources, but fighting a custody battle in court damages both parents and children.
There is hope
The long lasting effects of divorce don’t have to be negative. Parents who put the well-being of their children first, and exes who treat each other with maturity and civility, improve the long term mental and emotional health of their children. When children see their parents coping well and maintaining emotional stability, it’s more likely that they will do so, as well.
“There is hope,” says Sue Caputo. “Never stop communicating with your children.”
Pittsburgh writer Ann K. Howley teaches writing classes for CCAC’s Community Education program and is currently working on a young adult novel.