Children and adults are involved in family relationships differently, which is why separation and divorce carry different meanings for children and their parents. While it is impossible to encompass the entire spectrum of separation and divorce scenarios, this article is focused on divorced parents trying to equally participate in their children’s lives.
It is common for parents to try to convince the children that divorce is not as catastrophic as it appears. Parents say that the child ‘will still have both loving Mommy and Daddy’. An additional “benefit” is presented as ‘you will have two homes’ and ‘two places to celebrate’. It is tempting to believe that ‘two homes are better than one’! However, the magnitude of the change for children caused by divorce is much greater than mentioned above. This article will present several aspects of divorce as specifically faced by children.
One aspect of divorce is that the basic human need to belong to a group becomes frustrated. For the child, the family is the first reference group to which they belong. When the family malfunctions, the child faces a conflict of different needs: (1) on the one hand, to belong to the group, and (2) to feel protected and supported or to grow up in the optimum developmental environment, on the other hand. So, for the child, the parents’ divorce means that their first life experience of belonging to the group gets interrupted. Since we are talking about one of the basic needs not being met, it is good to understand that the child is unable to comment on their frustration nor to explain their vision of what is happening.
The second point is related to changes that often happen to the parents. I call them “emotional changes”. Parents who look to spend time together with children without the former partner often present different emotions when compared to their emotional presentation at the time when the family existed as one unit. The child suddenly witnesses a parent who is lost, excessively insistent, ingratiating, depressed, extremely anxious, tearful, or so forth. These emotional changes are as important to the child as the divorce. Therefore, children encounter an ‘unknown parent’. As a result, the composition of feelings the child experiences daily also change due to the shift in the parents’ expression of feelings. Emotional changes in children are largely caused by emotional changes in their parents. Therefore, children going through a divorce often cry, fight, develop manipulative strategies, or gain excessive attachment to one of the parents.
The final point is ‘the time together versus parenting’. This is much less evident than the two previous thoughts. Children learn non-stop, even when we don’t teach them. Their nature is to learn and to be parented. They learn things by just observing or watching the examples that other people demonstrate. Also, parents teach their kids many things intentionally and unintentionally: to use a spoon, not to leave toys under foot, to be ready to go when it’s time, to obey, to share or not to share their stuff, to follow the hygiene rules, etc. While the family lives together, all these things are part of the natural family routine. When the family falls apart this natural stream of teaching and guiding discontinues. After separation and divorce, the parents need to accommodate themselves to the changes happening to them. They need to create a new mode of life, process their feelings, arrange their new residence, and, of course, rearrange their time.
This last point becomes a real trap for many divorced parents. They either believe that competing against each other is right, or, for other reasons, some parents start focusing on entertainment for the children, and the time with children becomes over-organized and structured. The parents try to make sure that their kids ‘have fun’, however, providing ‘fun’ is not the goal of parenting. In fact, it is just not parenting. As I mentioned, this issue is not obvious for adults involved in the situation discussed. Most typically, the parents and their children are not aware of this side of the scenario. When parents struggle to arrange more hours per week to spend with their kids, they often substitute a real issue for a secondary concern. They worry about ‘how much time will I spend with my children? How often will I see them?’ instead of planning ‘how can I prevent my parenting from diminishing? How can I continue or even improve my parenting job?’ According to our observations, in many cases the parenting function reduces after divorce.
We talk about ‘former families’, but there are no former parents or former children. It is the reason to look for the optimum configuration of the parent-child interaction. Divorce is a dramatic event since it stops the existence of a family. What do children lose when parents divorce?’ Even in the ‘best cases’ when the parents try to be equally involved in the kids’ lives one way or another, children lose the substantive nature of their parents from what they were before the divorce. There is only one exception: instead of counting hours, entertaining, plotting revenge against an ex-spouse, trying to prove how good they are or any other nonsenses, parents must continue raising, guiding their children, and promoting their development to the best of their abilities. If done effectively, the best parents will mitigate the children’s losses despite the divorce.
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