Divorce: Children describe the heartbreaking impact

Children are apt to take on burdens of guilt or domestic responsibility that simply shouldn't be theirs. Photo / Getty
Children are apt to take on burdens of guilt or domestic responsibility that simply shouldn't be theirs. Photo / Getty

Listen to the words of Hannah, who's just eight, as she describes her parents' divorce to a counsellor: "Sometimes, my parents talk on the phone and, sometimes, they text each other.

"At first, they are nice to each other but, by the end, they are shouting and fighting.

"One parent takes us to the other one - we get dropped off at the corner shop. Mum doesn't like Dad in her street and Mum isn't allowed in Dad's street.

"I do speak on the phone with Dad when I'm not with him, but rarely, because Mum says she wants to save her credit, and Dad says he wants to save his credit as well.

"If I had money to buy them credit, I would so I could speak to him more."

One of 20 children whose heart-breaking stories feature in a new book about the effects of marital breakdown, Hannah is growing up in the middle of two warring adults who almost certainly underestimate the damage they're doing to her.

Splitting Up - A Child's Guide To A Grown Up Problem, published by UK law firm Mishcon de Reya in collaboration with children's charity Place2Be, makes deeply painful reading with its tales of distress, anger, self-blame and humiliation - all, for the first time, in the voices of the children themselves.

Yet psychotherapist Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, the charity's senior clinical consultant, says they are fairly typical. "The effect of divorce on children is generally worse than we think, right across the social spectrum," he says. "Divorce is much harder for children than a lot of adults realise."

For the likes of nine-year-old Annaliese, for example, she's been caught in a situation so bitter her feelings appear to have been forgotten entirely.

"They didn't really say they were splitting up, but I could just see it coming because they were always fighting," she says.

"Then, one day, when I got home from school, my dad and all his stuff was gone. I felt like they left me all by myself.

"I felt like my life wouldn't be the same again, and it hasn't been, it's just been confusing and upsetting and I just don't know what to think most times . . .

"I did have a photo of Dad at my bedside, but Mum didn't feel comfortable with it after a few weeks, so she asked me if I could put it away, and I said if it was what she wanted, then yeah.

"I don't know where it is. I think maybe Mum threw it away. I wish I still had it."

And here's Robert, nine, talking about his parents' divorce two years ago: "I wish they had told me and said sorry. I wish they had said they would still be there to help me. I was so mad, I got really angry and, in Year Three, I had a bad year. I was mad because I didn't have any family. I lost my family members."

Bad divorces are a huge problem for children's emotional wellbeing. Photo / Getty
Bad divorces are a huge problem for children's emotional wellbeing. Photo / Getty

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that the anxiety reported by these children isn't remotely uncommon, according to Dr Adams-Langley.

Neither is the ignorance, or blinkered self-delusion, of the parents inflicting these "wounds without bruises".

"Unhappy parents practise a number of self-deceptions that can have damaging effects," says Dr Adams-Langley. "They might think, for example, that it's possible to keep a failing marriage secret from children if the arguing is done when kids are in bed.

"Or that pre-schoolers don't understand what's going on and, therefore, can't be affected by domestic strife. Both are myths."

This is shown all too clearly by 11-year-old Stephen, writing of his parents' "post-watershed" rows. "When I was younger, I'd hear yelling in the sitting room and stay awake listening to it," he writes.

"Honestly, it was actually quite scary. There were moments when the rooms were silent and I didn't know what was going on. It kept happening - but we soon discovered that it was kind of OK because that stuff was 'normal'."

"I felt confused. Really, really confused. I kept asking myself, why is this happening?"

It's a thoroughly poignant image - a little boy straining to hear in the dark, frightened that something bad is happening and struggling with the idea that shouting downstairs is "normal".

"Kids are intuitive," says Dr Adams-Langley. "They pick up on atmosphere and tension in the air just as much as they do overt emotions such as anger. Or they hear through the walls and they despair. Smaller children - even babies - aren't immune to it.

"If the shouting is followed by silence, disappearance and the loss of their home or a parent, then they're at even more risk of emotional damage - or even mental illness."

Though any child can be affected, in Dr Adams-Langley's experience, it's often the most sensitive and intelligent children who suffer damage because of a poorly-handled divorce.

"Boys, too, tend to be more adversely affected than girls, perhaps because they're less willing to talk to friends about trouble at home.

"Some become more aggressive in the playground, have panic attacks, or simply give up at school; girls are more prone to self-harm and some stop eating."

Again, heartbreakingly, children are also apt to take on burdens of guilt or domestic responsibility that simply shouldn't be theirs.

"I worry for my little sisters," says ten-year-old Luca. "Sometimes, I get really worried about them. Because when they're older and they find out that our dad's gone, they might think about him and where he might be.

"If I can't answer the questions, they might feel alone and they might be worried all the time."

Sammie, 17, says: "All me and my brother were thinking was: 'This is our fault. We've caused stress and stopped them spending time with each other.'"

Cerys Sophie, 16, describes trying "to pretend to be happy to keep the family strong" and several others talk of witnessing the emotional breakdown of the parent they live with.

The parents were trying to punish each other. Instead, they punished the child.

How to ease the impact on kids

Of course, there are good ways of handling a split. "Divorce is rarely a good thing for children, but it doesn't have to be damaging," says Sandra.

"If a child is comfortable and isn't anxious, if they are involved in all the plans and they know that their life won't be turned upside down - and that they won't be used as a go-between - then they're more likely to emerge from it unscathed."

In first meetings with divorcing parents, Sandra asks them to show her a photo of the children, and then places it in full view on the table while discussions progress, "so that the children remain uppermost in our minds".

If all parents followed this basic level of good practice, says Dr Adams-Langley, children might be spared an anguish they simply don't deserve.

"Bad divorces are a huge problem for children's emotional well-being. We have to have compassion and respect for the grown-ups involved, but they also have to be the bigger people.

"What I always say to parents is: 'Let your love for your child be greater than the dislike or hate you feel for your former partner.'"

Sadly, in many cases - as these children testify - such obviously wise advice appears too hard to follow.

- Daily Mail

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