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  • Dean Smith

Divorce and Children

Looking at Divorce – Through the Eyes of a Child

CHILDREN ARE DISILLUSIONEDFor better or worse children look to adults to help make sense of the world they live in. Unfortunately, from the child’s vantagepoint much of what they are taught defies understanding. It is clear to the youngest children that what adults say is appropriate behavior bears little resemblance to what adults actually do. Children are keen observers. They see famous men who lie and still hold high office, adults who cheat and yet avoid being caught, and adults who kill in the name of religion. They are all too aware of adults who create problems and neglect to solve them, and adults who abuse themselves, or others, but who are nevertheless heralded as heroes or superstars. In this hypocritical social environment it is not surprising that those children who not only experience questionable adult behavior at a distance, but also close-up in their own families, are the children who are most at risk for growing up feeling alienated, angry and distrustful of the adult world.


There are in excess of fifteen million children in the US who have experienced first hand the dissolution of their family by the process of divorce. Divorce unfortunately brings out the worst in people and parenting skills seldom improve. Even when parents are able to see beyond their own emotional, physical and economic chaos they make mistakes that will impact the relationship with their children for years to come. In their attempts to reassure their children parents lie and obfuscate. In their attempts to look good in their children’s eyes they resort to buying their love, or demeaning the other parent. In their anxiety to spend enough time with their children they curtail the opportunities for them to form meaningful new relationships. In their need to move on with their own lives they may leave behind their children’s.

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During the process of divorce children suffer multiple losses. Not only do they lose the nuclear family we hold up to them as the ideal, but each loses the parents they knew, as both parents change to accommodate their new life situation. Some children are forced to suffer not only changing relationships with their parents, but abandonment-a loss greater than bereavement, as it carries with it the hope of reconciliation and the fear of not being worthy-enough for that reconciliation to happen. Some lose their childhood and become burdened with the physical and economic responsibilities of helping support a single parent. Some lose their peers, as they become the “buddy,” or the “rock” on which their parents’ fragile egos rest. Many children lose their self-esteem as they struggle with their belief they were at fault and their consequent obligation to put everything right again. Their schemes, based on a false premise, seldom succeed, adding to their sense of failure.

OR SCHOOLS?For children the most painful part of divorce is the difficulty it creates in keeping a close relationship with both parents. They have to contend with both the obvious logistic hassles and the complex emotional issues divorce creates. Both are made more daunting by the ways in which society and its agents create roadblocks to those ongoing relationships. Take schools for example. Most schools are not set up to communicate effectively with two parents living at different addresses. School notices, calendars, newspapers and report cards are sent to one parent with little likelihood of the information reaching the other. Conferences are set with one parent unless the other insists on two. That leaves one parent with the distinct message that they are of little importance in the child’s life now they live elsewhere. It also leaves the child with one parent who has little appreciation of what is happening at school and often even less of what is happening at home.

OR DOCTORS?The medical profession fares no better. Most pediatric offices, although open to fathers, are seldom places that fathers feel welcome. Even when living in the family home they are often unable to answer the health and development questions they are asked and once living apart usually have minimal knowledge of their children’s bowel habits or ear infections. If the office staff have heard about the family problems only through the mother, most fathers get the distinct impression they are the enemy. Meanwhile the child sees the doctor’s office as yet another place where he is not on neutral territory when it comes to defending his need for his father’s attention.

OR THERAPISTS?Mental health professionals miss golden opportunities to connect with children of divorce before there is a behavioral or emotional problem that can’t be ignored. Waiting for the child to exhibit inappropriate aggression, or falling grades, or poor peer relationships, depression, or substance abuse is to wait for behaviors which are hard to treat, costly to society and destructive to the individual. Most children in the first years of divorce are under the age of eight, confused, embarrassed, isolated and looking for ways to feel normal. Supportive adults who understand the issues involved for children and who will act as mentors and role models while the disorganized parents get their act together, are invaluable.

OR LAWYERS?Perhaps the segment of society that creates the most chaos in children’s lives are the attorneys and the courts. The adversarial system they embody creates and sustains an atmosphere of unrelenting hostility between divorcing parents which decreases the likelihood that they will ever be able to cooperate when it comes to looking after the best interests of their children. In the rhetoric about fairness to men and fairness to women the issue of fairness to children seldom surfaces. When it comes to visitation agreements the cry from children is always “When are they going to listen to what would work for me?” It should be, but is not, normal practice to have a one year trial period during which parents could try out various schedules of visitation free from the fear that if they relinquish time with their kids that decision will be encoded in the final agreement. Such a simple procedure would avoid many unworkable visitation agreements and support families as they struggle to adapt to their new and rapidly evolving life circumstances. Schedules that seldom work but are currently “standard” include those with multiple short visits, those with unrealistic pick up and drop off time, those that insist on handovers being done at the family “home” instead of school or neutral territory, and those that do not build in the need to modify as the children get older. Impractical schedules cause heartache, anger, resentment and parental hostility-none of which is in the child’s best interest.

OR US ALL?Finally all us, whether we meet with parents and children professionally or socially, need to be aware of the ways in which children could benefit from our help and support. We all avoid the subject of divorce, if we can, because like cancer and death we are scared to face the pain head on and neither know what to do or say. But the children from these families in flux can help us. They are crying out for us to just listen to them. If we can do that without making moral judgements on the inadequacy of either of their parents children will feel valued and worthy at a time in their lives when they doubt this the most. We cannot stand by and claim divorce is a private family matter. Children are condemned to stand in the midst of the complex adult emotional tangle that creates a divorce, and painful as it may be, those who care about children must stand with them. Teachers, coaches, neighborhood friends, doctors, nurses, psychologists, lawyers and judges, cannot hide behind the limitations placed on them by their professional roles. We are all just one degree of separation from divorce in this society. We need to be our children’s advocates rather than innocent bystanders. Each of us in our professional and non-professional roles has an opportunity and a responsibility to speak up for these children and offer them our support. To do this effectively we must be prepared to listen to what they are telling us and respect their point of view. All of us need to be prepared to take the risk of shedding the “shoulds” and “oughts” of our own distorted adult-centered vision and, for once, try looking at divorce through the eyes of a child.

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