A common story of broken hearts and hostility
Of late, the character of Roy in Coronation Street has been trying to forge a relationship with his father, but has faced anger and hostility from his mother. Her anger towards her ex-husband has not abated despite the passing of many years. Soaps make a habit of trying to reflect the reality of society, and in employing this particular storyline, Corrie finds itself at the heart of a debate about how our young people respond to the prevalence of divorce here in the UK. Children currently growing up in the UK are witness to all sorts of experiences and phenomena that would have probably seemed unacceptable a generation or two ago. Their exposure to an overdose of advertising, to overtly sexualised images, to horrific news events, to bullying across the digital airwaves, and so on, and so on – all have become common place in our society. So it is with divorce.
With a rapidly changing society comes the breakdown of traditional societal structures, as the sociologists would have it. We looked recently at the rising trend for cohabitation over marriage (link to the cohabitation piece), and at how our children are ever more likely to experience living in a ‘reconstituted family’ at some point in their lives. In reality, by 2011 (the last year for which we have firm figures) the divorce rate stood at 10.8%, having peaked the year before. Those who carry out long term studies into divorce have noted that there have been peaks in divorce in the early 80s, the early 90s and from 2008 onwards, leading us to conclude that economically challenging circumstances are a prime cause of family breakdown. And by November 2012, an article from The Telegraph tells us, nearly half of all 15 year olds were not living with both their parents. As Carl Pickhardt has observed in Psychology Today, this means that so many of our young people are finding themselves in a “challenging new family circumstance in which to live”.
Those who do serious research into the effect of divorce upon young children and adolescents, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reach depressing conclusions. A plethora of additional challenges are often heaped upon such children, including the increased likelihood of living in poverty and poor housing, having behavioural problems, performing less well at school, and later, being more likely to suffer addictions or suffer marital breakdown themselves. Even for those kids who avoid some of these pitfalls, the question remains; ‘if they can stop loving each other, does that mean they could stop loving me?’ Psychologists have established that for younger children, there is a tendency to become, temporarily at least, more dependent on their carers, and that older children are more likely to push for greater independence. In both cases, the child is expressing their insecurity in a way that reflects their current levels of emotional maturity.
It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom
If you and your spouse have recently decided to separate, knowing that your decision may ultimately have negative consequences for your children is not a cheery thought. But there are a good number of things you can, as parents, do to prevent your child suffering unnecessarily.
Do prevent your children from witnessing hostility between you and your former spouse. Arguments can’t always be helped, but they can be conducted out of children’s ear-shot.
At the same time, it is important to be honest with your children. Many divorcing parents feel they should protect their children from the details of the separation. In contrast, research shows that being clear with children, in simple, age-appropriate terms, about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the events they are experiencing is better in the long term.
Keep the lines of communication, between you, your spouse, and your child open. It is easy when a house is filled with tension for each member to isolate themselves – don’t let this happen in your home.
Don’t bad-mouth your former spouse in front of your child. However much you are hurting, keep your references to your former spouse factual and respectful.
Be a rock for your child. You should expect less than desirable behaviour in the short term, and encourage them to express their feelings of hurt and anger. Your children need to be allowed to ‘have their feelings’ (even if they inspire guilt in you).
Maintain /establish secure routines for their day to day lives. By keeping things predictable and regular, you ease the sense of insecurity that your child may be feeling.
Seek help from outside. Let your Health Visitor, GP, friends and wider family help. Your child’s school will have seen this situation before and may well have a dedicated member of staff who can offer advice and guidance. Encourage your child to lean on others too – it will help them to steady their internal ship to realise that others have endured and survived similar experiences. You could encourage them to watch this short film from the BBC Newsround team. In particular, make sure your child maintains contact with their wider family – the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, on top of the divorce is often a natural consequence of hostile relations between separating parents.
Be on the lookout for ‘red flags’. While accepting that behaviour can change in the short term, look out for more serious problems, such as sleep issues, poor concentration, substance abuse, self-injury, angry outbursts, withdrawal from loved ones or favourite activities, or trouble at school; all of these may be signs of your child needing a little extra help to cope with the situation.
How we can help
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. If you and your partner have decided to separate, then seeking our assistance at the earliest opportunity may limit the chances of hostilities becoming damaging to your children. Prince Family Law are here to help you negotiate your way through residence and contact issues, and the division of assets. Our experienced Mediators and Collaborative Lawyers can help resolve issues without recourse to the courts, helping you to sidestep the feeling of being ‘at war’ with your former partner. In the long term, your children will thank you for having handled your separation with dignity and consideration for their feelings.