By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)
Ideally, marriage lasts forever, but for a variety of reasons, many families today will experience divorce – an event that is as difficult on older children and teens as infants and young children for whom psychotherapist Isabelle Fox, PhD, advocates no overnight visitations with a non-primary caregiver until the child is at least three years old. Just because an older child is able to articulate her feelings and comprehend the concept of divorce doesn’t mean the event is any less traumatic.
“Older children and divorce is also complicated,” because the child has developed a strong attachment to each parent and being forced to deny attachment with one parent is devastating, said Dr. Fox, author of Being There, renowned expert on API’s Principle of Providing Consistent and Loving Care, and member of Attachment Parenting International’s Advisory Board.
Dr. Fox spoke during the second day of API’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, last weekend, in a special Hot Topic session, “Custody and Separation.” The session was attended by parents, therapists, and others who work frequently with attached parents dealing with marital separation.
How Divorce Affects Older Children
Parents don’t think about how difficult their divorce will be on their children. Older children and teens are more likely to blame themselves for the divorce or to wonder why their parents don’t love them enough to stay together.
There are times that children are relieved that their parents divorce, when they had to endure a difficult situation such as abuse or alcoholism. “But, for more children, they have to make some adjustments and that’s a strain,” Dr. Fox said. Some of these adjustments may include:
- Moving to a new home with a new school and loss of friends.
- Moving between two homes, each with their own separate rules.
- The primary home may become more tense.
- The boy may be expected to become the “man of the house” or the girl may be expected to do more chores around the house.
- Either parent dating or remarrying, and all that brings with it such as fear of causing another divorce and getting along with step-siblings or step-parents.
“That’s all very hard on children,” Dr. Fox said, especially for adolescents who are already dealing with their own natural, hormonally driven emotional storms. “They’re often very lonely about their own pain, about the divorce. Often, teenagers are afraid to talk, afraid to add upset to the parent.”
However, this release of emotions is crucial for the adolescent emotional development. Just as with infants and younger children, older children and teens can develop lifelong anxiety disorders, anger problems, and withdrawal if their feelings toward marital separation isn’t handle sensitively.
“It’s a good idea for these parents [of older children and teens] to keep communication open and to allow them to complain,” Dr. Fox said.
Many parents feel great guilt for what divorce puts their children through. “You can repair the situation if you can look at [your feelings] and face them and talk about them,” Dr. Fox said. “If children hear the truth that it was difficult for you and for them, that confirms that what they’re feeling is real.”
For example, an audience member asked about what to do to help her nephew who had been removed from his mother’s custody. Dr. Fox advised helping the boy express his feelings while modeling compassion for his mother’s situation: “I think he needs to develop a story. I think he needs to know he’s sad.”
With young children who are unable to fully describe their feelings, it works best to play out the situation through toys such as teddy bears, which can also help parents who are afraid of their child’s strong emotions. But, “don’t you think you can tell a three or four year old the same things about divorce that you could tell a nine year old or teen,” Dr. Fox said.
Staying Together for the Sake of the Children?
Dr. Fox gave the example of Lindsey, a teenager who often leaves the house when her parents argue and later returns to her parents continued arguments. Ideally, Lindsey needs to witness resolution of her parents’ anger at one another, but is this marriage doomed to divorce?
“As therapists, it’s important to help the parents stay together,” Dr. Fox said, who not only provides information regarding custody conflicts but is also involved in divorce prevention. She is currently co-authoring a new book with her husband, Bob, Who to Marry?
There is much debate on whether it’s better for parents to remain married for the sake of their children, or to separate. Dr. Fox sees greater value in imperfect marriages staying whole to demonstrate the ability of parents working on improving their adult attachment to one another. A married couple who has frequent arguments can learn how to better resolve conflicts, and this shows children how to deal with strong emotions and relationship difficulties.
“I think when there’s abuse – real abuse – children understand divorce,” Dr. Fox said. “But I don’t think we work hard enough to keep marriage together.”
Some therapists believe that a high-conflict (but non-abusive) marriage is more damaging to children than divorce, but Dr. Fox explains that by divorcing, parents are teaching their children that that’s what to do when marriage becomes stressful rather than looking for a way to resolve the issues: “We model how we handle anger and disappointment by divorce, by walking away.”
“I think you can divorce and move on when you don’t have children,” Dr. Fox added. But once there are children involved, “they [the children] are a part of both of the parents. If they have to reject one of them, it’s like rejecting a part of themselves.”