PUBLISHED IN THE SCMP : Sunday, 24 June, 2012
Kathleen and Rick recently separated after 14 years of marriage. Both had initially thought it would be better to stay together for the sake of their children, Alan, seven, and Rebecca, 13. But their constant arguments have had a detrimental effect on the youngsters. Rebecca seems emotionally and physically drained. She's not sleeping well and doesn't eat much. Alan is afraid that it is his fault that his parents are not together. This is affecting his schoolwork and he cries frequently.
How children respond to their parents' separation or divorce varies according to their age. Children under five years old experience feelings of abandonment and often become clingy. Symptoms may include bedwetting, thumb sucking and hitting and biting others.
Slightly older children such as Alan often feel guilt and rejection and worry about the loss of the parent who will not be living at home anymore. They may have loyalty issues and feel torn between their parents.
Their feelings of anger, grief and loneliness can manifest in physical symptoms. Children might complain of headaches and sore stomachs. A sense of powerlessnes can sometimes cause them to act out - stealing, telling lies, or rebelling in other ways.
Rebecca is becoming an adolescent, a time of sexual awakening when a firm family structure is needed to set limits on behaviour. But parents who are tied up in the stressful process of a divorce can forget to attend to the needs of their teenager. The adolescent can feel under pressure to take care of the rest of the family. For instance, Rebecca feels she has to look after her younger brother as her family is falling apart. 'Mum and dad are always off at meetings with lawyers or working. Everything seemed fine and now this, I have so much on my plate with school and exams, I can't cope.'
Because divorce can often come out of the blue for children, it is important to communicate with them about what is happening. They go through stages, and the first stage is denial and disbelief, which can get worse if it's not talked about openly.
Sadness and yearning for the absent parent often follows. Younger children can believe that the parent who has moved out no longer cares for them. So it's important to reassure them of your love and emphasise that the situation is not their fault.
Helping them to express their feelings will facilitate the process of acceptance. Stick to old routines to minimise disruption in the children's lives. For example, if one parent always drives them to sport practice then continue with this. And be sure to keep the same routines at home in terms of bedtimes, homework, and when and where they eat dinner.
This can change over time, but continuity in the beginning is very important. It can also reduce the conflicts of 'but mum lets me do this'. Setting out the arrangements together and educating children on the changes together is helpful. There also needs to be regular visits with the absent parent.
Kathleen and Rick are trying to deal with their own emotions while looking after their children. They have communicated to the youngsters that they did everything possible to save their marriage. Older children need to hear this as they can feel betrayed and want their parents to keep trying.
Even though Kathleen and Rick are angry with each other, they have also let their children know that they don't need to take sides.
If a parent is in pain and is unable to tend to the child's emotions, it may help to bring in other people such as grandparents and good friends. Having one emotionally healthy adult around to help can be a healing influence for children.
If there is a lot of animosity between parents, children may feel unable to express their thoughts for fear of getting to spend less time with one parent or angering the other. Children must be made to feel that their feelings are OK.
At the same time, parents must remain an authority in their children's lives. This is more important than being a two-parent family and often something that declines in single-parent families.
While remaining affectionate and loving, separated parents still have to show firmness, stay involved with their decisions and indicate acceptable behaviour.
Parents need to continue to parent together. Sitting down regularly to discuss their children is an effective way to do this. Work out relationship issues, and get counselling if necessary so that the relationship can navigate parenting problems and ensure the best possible outcome for the children.
Although they are no longer a couple, the parents are still their children's role models for relationships and how to confront life's problems. Fostering harmony, sharing, co-operation and respect when approaching issues is essential to relationships. If you show understanding and compassion, your children will learn to do the same as they grow up.