The process of separation and divorce sets up an almost impossible situation for parents. At the same time that they need time out for themselves — to deal with the emotions and stress accompanying the loss of their marriage and to decide a new course of action — their children have the greatest need for reliability and assurances of love. Absorbed in their own problems, parents may become less affectionate with their children or fail to discipline them consistently. The more parents pull back to regroup after a divorce, however, the more fiercely children show their need for attention. When both parents and children have lost their emotional equilibrium, they exacerbate each other’s problems. The keys to breaking this cycle are for parents to:
- Take control of their lives
- Create a nurturing, predictable environment for the children
- Learn to deal with the children authoritatively
- Be aware of some of the problems that divorced parents commonly encounter (as described later in this article).
When a husband and wife first separate and divorce, they experience the gamut of emotions from sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, and shock to elation over believing that all their problems are now solved. The spouse who didn’t want the divorce may feel worthless and unlovable; the spouse who wanted the divorce may have second thoughts. There is no one order for these emotions; each may come and go again and again. It’s vitally important that parents overcome these reactions and, for the children’s well-being, learn how to handle the stresses brought about by the divorce. The children’s adjustment is directly linked to the adjustment of the parents
Children sometimes behave in ways typical of an earlier stage in their development in reaction to their parents’ separation and divorce. In the same way, a keenly unwanted or brutal divorce has the potential for throwing an adult back into an earlier stage of development or leading to behavior that is unusual for that person. Some adults may go so far as to become helpless, depending on others — including their children — to take care of them.
After a divorce, some parents experience a specific type of regression in which they become too dependent on one or more of their children. In essence, a role reversal takes place in which the children become the parents’ caretakers, confidants, and counselors. These parents are most often troubled, depressed, and lonely; they are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for themselves. Sometimes, they are alcoholics or drug addicted. The result is a form of mental bondage and skewed development in the child and a faulty sense of reality in the adult. In its most destructive (but thankfully rare) variant, some adults go so far as to commit incest, using the child as a replacement for the lost marital partner. More commonly, they have the child sleep with them to alleviate their loneliness. The temptation to become too dependent on your children is always there if you don’t have another adult to whom you can turn when you need advice or just someone to talk to. Although there’s nothing wrong with soliciting your children’s opinions in matters that concern them (in fact, doing so helps build their sense of responsibility and family commitment), avoid relying on them for advice that affects only you or that should be offered only by adults. For example, it’s all right to ask your children to help pick out the family’s new car, but you should not ask them whether you should date someone you just met at work
Overburdened vs. Idle
For many harried, overworked single parents, it’s sometimes all too easy to fall into a routine in which they depend on an older child to care for younger siblings, or assign chores that require an unrealistic degree of responsibility. Although it’s not unreasonable for single parents to expect their children to carry some of the weight of household duties, such responsibilities should be assigned with certain limits:
- The chores should be appropriate to the child’s age.
- Generally, children under the age of ten should not be left unsupervised.
- Older children should not be given total responsibility for the care of younger brothers and sisters. They are siblings – not substitute parents.
- Chores should not interfere with schoolwork or sleep, or preclude time with friends. Schoolwork is a child’s most important job, and an active social life is a necessary ingredient of healthy development.
Instead of overburdening their children, some parents go too far towards the other end of the responsibility scale. To assuage their guilt over the divorce, these parents exclude the children from household tasks and try to do everything themselves. Or they may use such faulty reasoning as “I had to do too many chores when I was a kid. I don’t want to put my kid through that.” Such selfless intentions are unrealistic from the parent’s point of view and do a disservice to the child. Being assigned and expected to carry out age-appropriate tasks creates a sense of accomplishment and self-discipline in children. It’s a training ground for handling increasingly more difficult demands that will be placed on them by school, other institutions to which they belong, and eventually, paying jobs. Studies have shown that children with divorced parents reap unanticipated benefits from assuming a greater amount of responsibility at a young age. Many of these children report that they have a greater sense of strength, independence, and capability as a result of their experiences in a post-divorce family. They are clearly proud of themselves and of their ability to assist their parents at a time when the family’s future was seriously jeopardized. Children whose parents are divorced — like all children — need to feel needed; thus, parents should not try to protect their children from the vagaries of everyday life. The danger comes when the children are robbed of their childhoods, forced to grow up far before they’re ready. They can never re-capture those years.
Isolation vs. Activity
In the immediate aftermath of divorce, many people follow one of two patterns: they either isolate themselves from others or pursue an overly-hectic social life. People who choose isolation may do so for may reasons: they may not be able to afford a babysitter, or they may feel guilty about leaving their children with a sitter after being away from them at work all day. Although their motivations are different, both types of parents may come to resent their children. Some parents, however, use their work and/or their children as a handy excuse for avoiding interaction with others. They may still be sad and upset about the divorce — unable to put it behind them and take the first few shaky steps to reestablish their lives. They show no interest in dating, and may deny having sexual feelings. Some people, overwhelmed by depression, may feel unable to make the effort to meet new people or take on new challenges. Such behavior often fosters over-dependence on the children, since they become the parent’s only focus in life. What will become of such a parent when the children break away and establish their own lives? In its worst form,isolation may lead to severe depression and other psychological problems. At the other end of the social spectrum are those parents who are any place but home. With a full schedule of night classes, church activities, outings with friends or dates, these parents leave their children with a round of babysitters and relatives (including the children’s other parent). Some may go so far as to replace the former spouse with a serious new love interest before they are emotionally ready, or they frenetically engage in indiscriminate dating and sexual relationships. Sometimes, such parents are (subconsciously or not) trying to blot out the fact that they even have children, who are reminders of their failed marriage or a responsibility they wish they didn’t have. Obviously, the children suffer greatly by missing out on the consistent parenting and love they need, particularly in the first few months after their parents’ divorce. Children’s distress is compounded by the antics of an out-of- control parent and, not surprisingly, they often come to mirror that behavior back to the parent.