Dr Penelope Leach, British psychologist specialising in parenting issues, considers divorce the ‘safety valve for marriage (which)…society could not do without.’ Parents who separate can end the misery between an unhappily married couple and ease family tensions or problems with children, as ‘unhappy parents make for unhappy offspring’.
Recent UK statistics show that almost 50% of children reach their sixteenth birthday having experienced their parents divorcing. Divorce does affect children and, as Dr Leach observes, ‘no child is too young or too old to be affected’. She highlights that parents must avoid putting children into positions of conflict. Therapists identify several traps in the roles parents create for their children:
- Mummy’s Messenger: During a marital meltdown, full-grown adults often stop communicating, with 58% of adults not believing in a “good” separation, according to Relate Charity research. Don’t rely on your children to communicate between you and your spouse, and certainly don’t expect them to send and bring your messages for each other. Dr Leach considers ‘using a child as a confidante is…inappropriate (and) close to abusive.’ Involving your child adds to their anxiety and prevents clear, productive communication between you and your partner. Solicitor support and mediation are excellent ways of achieving this:
- Therapist: Even if your teenager appears to be grown up and empathetic, don’t fall into the trap of sharing with them your divorce details or angry feelings towards your ex. ‘The relationship is adult’s business, not children’s’, reminds Leach, and it may be your ex-partner, but it is not their ex-parent.
- Talk the Talk: When telling your child about your divorce, HelpGuide writer Gina Kemp advises being honest to your child without being critical of your spouse, and to present a ‘united front’ by agreeing between each other beforehand how the conversation will go, and sitting down together to break the news.
- Separate Parenting from Partnership: People divorce each other, not their children, and the end of a working partnership is not an end of functional parenting. Dr Leach advises parents ‘make a clear separation between the adult-to-adult and adult-to-child relationships’ to avoid your child misinterpreting your anger towards your spouse as anger towards them. This distinction will let your child ‘know that the unhappiness she sees and senses is only adult business, (whilst) the parenting business that is central to her life is still intact.’
- No disappearing act: Dr Leach advises that estranged parents should not be removed from a child’s life, no matter how badly they may have behaved towards you. Children need consistency and affection, so if this has come from both parents throughout the marriage, it should stay this way throughout divorce. Divorce is a change in the relationship between parents, not a change in their relationship with the child.
- There’s no ‘owe’ in ‘Parent’: Psychologist Robert Stone states that ‘guilt is not a good basis for parenting’, and no number of presents can replace quality time and affection for your child. He warns that parenting styles may change after divorce and sometimes divorce can be a ‘welcome opportunity to explore their own parenting possibilities’, so for example, ‘the “soft parent” will need to do more disciplining’ whilst the “hard” parent will need to be softer.’
Relate Charity offers a service called ‘Relate for Parents’, in which divorcing couples can get professional advice and information focusing on children and their needs throughout their parents’ divorce.