THE fundamental goal of a good separation or divorce is simple yet challenging: Children must experience their parents as a working partnership that reliably nurtures and protects them, regardless of how estranged the parents may be from each other.
Regardless of a marital separation, when there are children the family must endure — albeit in a different form. In this sense, the family continues. There are things parents must do to help establish this new way of being a family.
By far the most important thing that separated parents must do is to not bad-mouth the other parent to the children or in front of the children. The psychology behind this golden rule is simple yet profound: A child’s inner ‘soul’ is made up of both their mother and their father. And when one parent verbally denigrates the other parent to a child it is the child’s ‘soul’ that is being abused.
Children hate it, not so much because it hurts the other parent, but because it hurts them. When a parent bad-mouths a child’s other parent, they abuse their own child. The heart and soul of a child is fragile. He or she clings to their internal image of their parents — no matter how bad they are. It’s what makes them feel safe in the world. When you take that from them, you rob them of what keeps them afloat.
Many parents also fail to fully understand their child’s developmental needs, which can unnecessarily complicate post-separation adjustment.
It’s important to understand what behaviours form part of normal growing-up. For example, a girl turns 14 and wants to reduce access with her dad. He may view this shift as being caused by the break-up. He may worry: ‘My daughter is still angry with me,’ or become furious: ‘My wife won’t lift a finger to protect my access’. Yet, the daughter, like many 14-year-olds, may simply be developmentally ready to spend more time with friends and less time with dad — or mom. It would be important for the father to understand that his daughter may not be rejecting him, but instead is simply maturing - and needs to feel that her father supports her friendships.
The good separation isn’t just about managing and respecting feelings. It is also about the practical arrangements that can help children thrive. One teenage boy I worked with grew increasingly resentful of his access arrangement, expressing his anger by showing up late for visits to his mother’s home or being moody once he arrived. Upon discussing this with him, it turned out that this boy’s friends no longer knew where he would be and had simply stopped calling and he had begun to miss out on things.
Sometimes it’s important to apologise to children for causing them pain. I worked with one family in which the mother had frequently been verbally abusive to the father during the months prior to separation. This woman’s adolescent daughter remained furious at her until she sincerely apologised for her behaviour, which she acknowledged had been deeply hurtful to her daughter. Children have a highly developed sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and we need to help parents meet them on this plane of experience.
There is some research to suggest that girls who grew up to enjoy successful marriages and rewarding lives had attentive fathers or stepfathers, who paid caring attention to their daughters’ schoolwork and social lives.
This quality of dependable attentiveness helps girls feel cherished and valued, which enabled them, as adults, to expect a lot of their relationships with men. Yet, sometimes divorced parents, feel too displaced, angry or guilty to help this to happen. The mother may undermine the father, or the father may become withdrawn It can be helpful to seek out family therapy, in which children and parents have the chance to openly assess the ‘new family’; correct misunderstandings and make needed changes.
For example, a girl complained to me in an individual session that she couldn’t have friends over when she stayed at her dad’s house, because he lived with her grandmother, who ‘can’t stand noise’. It turned out that the girl’s feeling that she couldn’t have friends over stemmed from a misunderstanding about her grandmother’s love of quiet that she had blown all out of proportion.
Parents need to visualise the entire map of their child’s relationships, including connections to grandparents, siblings and peers, as well as with pets, school and favourite games and activities. They must identify the things that truly count for them. To the extent that they can declare some of those things sacred and shelter them, they are also sheltering the soul of the child.