|Children living through Separation & Divorce
Ian Wallace, Psychologist
Ian Wallace is a Consultant Psychologist, with a wealth of experience working with families and children.
He speaks to thousands of people each year and conducts seminars around Australia for television, radio, universities, professionals, schools and parent support group.
Ian focuses on practical strategies for dealing with difficult behaviour, building self esteem and creating responsible kids.
He has provided consultant services for many years to well known Paediatricians, Psychiatrists, Doctors, Professionals and parents in different cities.
In his book, “You and Your ADD Child” (now in its 9th reprint) has become the practical handbook for Australian families and schools dealing with the everyday problems ADD kids have.
He co-authored the popular book, "Coping With School". Ian is a regular guest on “Mornings with Kerri-Anne”, on Channel 9, as well as other guest media appearances.
He writes regularly for KidsLife.com.au, Melbourne Weekly Paper and Practical Parenting Magazine. Ian is also on the Editorial board fo "Practical Parenting" Magazine.
Ian's extensive experience puts him in a prime position to discuss important issues like :-
- a child's grieving process
- why children need to be children
- why conflict should be minimised
- why parents need to be the parents
- changes in behaviour
and their consequences - short term & long term - for children living through separation / divorce.
There is a lot of talk about the need to minimise the negatives effects of separation and divorce on children. To begin with Ian, could you tell us how conflict affects children.
It is my experience that kids coping with separation and divorce are always the greatest victims. Mums and Dads can talk about what happens to them - but it’s the kids who are most often the greatest victims of a separation and divorce.
They are the ones that are most powerless.
To a certain extend Mum or Dad can control what is going on - children can’t and don’t deal with conflict.
Kids don’t know what conflict is - in any part of their life. They don’t deal well with it.
Q. When they see conflict or fighting around them what do actually see?
They see panic and out of control environments, which scares them. In a separation or divorce, they world has just been greatly toppled.
What they need more than anything else is stability. What they actually see however is instability. Mum may be emotional and Dad may be angry or vice verse. Maybe homes have changed or life circumstances changed day to day.
To them, this is instability which makes them feel
· more scared
· more fearful
· less sure about what the outcomes are going to be.
As they don’t have power in these circumstances, they are the ones that are going to suffer and:
· get confused
· get lost
· act out
We all want control over our world. We don’t like it to be in mayhem.
Q. How could this manifest in their behaviour?
It is very individual. In a lot of literature and books on separation and conflict, there is a general thought that kids are going to experience set reactions. In reality, this is not the case. All kids experience varying degrees of problems and different circumstances, thus varied emotional reactions. What and how kids experience is very much governed by both their personalities and circumstances about them.
If you have a very quite insular sort of kid, their behaviour may be to withdraw far more within themselves. They may become
· cry more quietly
· maybe even self harm
· may become really angry with themselves and blame themselves for causing the break up
but they are not going to readily tell anyone that. It might be displayed in
· ruining their own possessions or valuables
· hurting themselves
· running away to their room and hiding.
If you have got a kid whose natural personality is to be very aggressive and hostile, you are more likely to see more of similar aggressive, acting out or hostile behaviour. This might be displayed as:
· fighting at school
· getting angry at other people
· not being tolerant of other people.
My experience is that kids tend to display more of the negative traits of their personality and related behaviour when struggling to deal with a difficult separation or divorce.
If they are naturally a withdrawn kid - they become overly withdrawn,
If they are naturally a hostile kid - they become more verbally hostile.
If they are naturally an aggressive kid - they will probably pick on someone to express themselves.
If they are a kid that doesn’t cope with crisis well - they will tend to panic far more and become more anxious.
Q. What about in the long term, if the conflict goes on or is not resolved well for them.
There are people who have never recovered from the fact that their parents got divorced and fought. It wasn’t the divorce that was the problem.
We need to be really clear on this – divorce is not a problem.
It’s how we deal with divorce - that is the problem.
I see some kids where the divorce is fairly amicable, resolved reasonably positively and without great conflict. Thus the kids learn to cope and adjust reasonably well.
Problems occur or become more pronounced when parents continue to fight and justify their behaviour in the classic defence of “being in the best interest of the kids”.
The kids become more and more disturbed, because they are “out of control”.
They face normal things like - divided loyalties, i.e. trying to do what my makes mum happy when they are with mum, then do what makes Dad happy when they are with Dad.
When conflict occurs kids end up very confused because they are leading two conflicting lifestyles.
They can start to think that the way people normally deal with each other is to fight and show aggression and hostility. Then what they learn about dealing with conflict is
- I fight, get angry and aggressive
If one or other partner is really hostile they learn that
- power comes from hostility
So they often end up being more aggressive.
A lot of kids may learn not to trust relationships. They can get very scared - in the long term - about being in a relationship. Their concept of a relationship can be that - it resulted, finally with long term pain. As they watched Mum and Dad in lots of grief, in lots of pain, they start to think,
“Maybe I don’t want to get in a relationship because I don’t want that to happen to me”
Particularly, I have seen a lot of men later on have commitment problems, because their experience of their parents break up was so painful and horrible.
They don’t want to get to that point. They would rather buy out of a relationship - before it gets too serious - to prevent that problem reoccurring.
Q. What happens to these kids?
I see a lot of adults that are not doing very well in their current relationships. Often it goes back to the fact, that their mother and father didn’t do that well or may have had a separation and nasty divorce.
All the bad experiences which came out of the break up have still not been resolved as adults. So as an adult, they operate in a dysfunctional manner and often their relationship is dysfunctional.
Q. So what can parents do at this point, when they are going through the divorce?
One thing parents really need to consider is
· where are these kids going to be in 5 to 10 years and
· what are their memories going to be
The biggest problem I see is parents who claim they are fighting on issues because
“I’m doing this in the best interest of the children”, which they aren’t.
Their agenda is
· I don’t want to give this up to my partner or
· I don’t want to lose this amount of money or
· I don’t him or her to have control
And they justify it in the kid’s best interest.
What the kids will tell you ten years later is that they hated such justification.
So one of the ways to stop is to think about “when I look back how are my kids going to see me in 5 or 10 years”. If people are honest with themselves - and their agenda - then it defeats the logic about doing things in the best interest of their children.
“Are my kids going to be happy that I continued to fight with my ex-partner for all those years”.
For example, research reported from the Family Court focused on adolescents from separated and divorced situations.
The adolescents were interviewed about their feelings about their experiences over years after separation and divorce.
Interestingly, kids have very different views to those of a lot of parents.
1. Adolescents consistently said they hated anything being justified in “their best interest”.
Mostly they say through it and said it was the parent’s agenda.
2. They disliked inequality.
One of Mum’s fears may have been - the kids are going to love Dad more because he’s got more money or can give them great weekends.
In fact, they seemingly disliked the inequality more. They didn’t like Dad because he had more money. More often in the long term, they were unsettled that there was inequality and there had to be struggles over money. They actually wanted Mum and Dad to be equal. To the adolescents credit what they wanted most was equality.
3. They also wanted to be listened to and to help in making decisions.
and this certainly fits with what I’ve seen in my practice.
Kids don’t want to make decisions alone, or choose, about how much they see Dad or how much they see Mum. However, they absolutely want to have a voice in decisions, to be listened to. Sadly kids and adolescents are not listened to adequately. Maybe due to turmoil and emotional distress many parents don’t do enough listening to their children.
Q, So we need to still be the adult and make the decision but listen to their input?
Yes, because in the end it’s up to the adult to make the decision which best suits the situation. Further, if agreement can’t be reached both parents should seek mediation or obtain other professional input. But we have to listen to what the kids want first.
Often we don’t and then it gets back to this thing of “I know what is best for the kids so I decide what they should do next”. When in fact that is not what the kids want. They want someone to listen to what they are saying.
Q. What age would you be able to give a child an option to say what they want?
I think we can start listening to them from about 6 or 7. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll do what they want. When kids reach about 12 to 14 years of age they are much clearer in what they want. We can listen to adolescents far more and consider their views with more attention and validity.
Some older kids know reasonably clearly what they want, but feel that no one ever hears because everyone is so involved in emotional distress or at worst fights.
Q. I know that there is a real issue - when a parent isn’t coping - and children try to take over parenting roles.
I had a situation when my daughter was 8, we were burgled. The house had been trashed. My 6 yr old son and I who were sitting on the bed and crying and she was sitting behind saying “stop it or I’ll start crying soon”.
A few days later I found her in bed at night, really worried and upset with herself. She wanted the burglars to come back - and she felt guilty and bad for wanting this - but she wanted them to come back - so she could fight them off. She wanted to be strong for me.
There are probable two factors evident.
1. We have got to be fair with parents going through a separation and divorce. It causes such a traumatic effect that no one copes with it that well.
2. You’ve got to be realistic and say “I’m going to mess up sometimes”. You have got to accept that sometimes you are potentially or probably going to revert to immature behaviour.
To some extent that is acceptable and to be expected but parents still have to aim to adopt an adult role. They need to be very clear with kids - their role is to be a kid not an adult.
Sometimes, kids can become a counsellor for mum or dad, even try to take on responsibility for them. The oldest boy may typically want to become the new man of the house. As a Mum, it is your job to be really clear about you being the adult and that the child’s need to remain a child.
You can say it in relaxed terms, eg.,
“It’s my job to be the adult and it’s your job just to be kids. I still want you to have fun like the other kids and I still want you to do kid stuff. I don’t want you to be all grown up”.
Q. What happens to these kids if they do take over these roles? If they are not supported and told “no it’s ok for you to be a kid you don’t have to be an adult”.
They often get very over burdened because they don’t have an ordinary childhood development. Later on, that often leads to resentment.
I see some adults that are very angry and carry unresolved conflict. While they saw themselves as very purposeful and adult like, as a child, for helping Mum “hay I did a great job of helping Mum”, they are also really angry that they lost their childhood.
- why did I have to do all of that stuff
- why wasn’t I ever able to just play with my friends or visit them
- why wasn’t I able to do all the things I should have done as a kid.
Sometimes such adoption of adult behaviour can lead to long term psychological problems. For example, later on, as adults they may want to rediscover those missed times. The problem being then, that they may not actually have the time or resources available. For example, I have seen mid thirty year olds who want to get out, party and have engage in extreme fun, when they should be more settled and reliable.
Q. Is this like the classic midlife crisis of a forty or fifty year old?
No, not really as it can happen at any age. I have tended to find a lot of separated and divorced women and men can experience these feelings earlier than mid life. Commonly they will reflect on missed times, e.g., “hey I missed out on this stuff I want to have it”.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with their lifestyle, such as family commitments make it very difficult to undertake at their age.
Q. Are there any other issues with children taking on adult responsibilities?
Often you will see them misbehaving in some other place. They often act out their discomfort.
I’ll see boys who take on the Dads role, then fight with other kids at school or being very aggressive at school. What they are really doing, is suppressing a lot of their own emotions, rather than being able to have a good cry and be scared about the situation.
They try to preform an adult role which is beyond them. They certainly don’t have the cognitive skills nor the emotional development, so suppressed emotions are going to escape elsewhere.
Potentially if they suppress all of those feelings, then they feel a great burden. Thus, maybe if someone annoys them at school, that kid is probably going to get whacked. So they start to express their feelings in other ways.
Q. What can a parent do then?
Parents can try to do two things
1. Keep maintaining that as the parent you are the adult. Admit that you are not coping sometimes and that you might be upset. Say “it’s my job to be the adult” and reinforce really strongly “it’s your job just to be kids”.
2. Seek other people for them to talk to about the situation. Get some help for them to express how they feel about it. This might be difficult for them to wade through.
If possible get some help for you “OK Mums not coping well. We will take a bit of the burden in helping Mum. Your job is to be a kid and that is all you are at the moment”.
Because sometimes, well intentioned, but misdirected parents say “ Look I need you to be more grown up now ”.
Well NO, that is the time when they really need to be a kid and still have fun and stability in their life.
Q. What about doing mre and helping around the house, accepting some responsibility for themself and their own things?
Yes, but there is a difference with helping with chores - which is a good functional support in any house - and taking on the adult role.
An adult role is often behaviour such as becoming Mum or Dad’s emotional counsellor. That is not their role.
Taking on the role of being the oldest kid in the family might mean having to discipline the other kids. This is only going to lead to conflict. Younger siblings aren’t going to accept big brother or sister telling them what to do. This can only lead to sibling conflict and when the younger children don’t comply the oldest child feeling frustrated and more out of control.
· “I’m trying to help Mum by telling them they are so naughty, but they’re not listening to me”
Their frustration then leads to substantial conflict.
There is a big difference between taking on a helpful role and a parenting role. It is acceptable to verbalise, “OK, Mum might have to work a bit more now, so I will have to get in and help wash up and do a few other things”. It is not acceptable to allow a child to adopt adult role, such as:
· supporting parents emotionally
· disciplining younger siblings
· making adult decisions in terms of management of the house
· taking on at risk situations, such as young children preparing and cooking
Q. What do you think about cooking a meal occasionally or vacuuming the house?
Within balance, I would say that in most houses, kids should be doing some chores. I don’t think that is destructive. If suddenly they were cooking a meal every night, then that’s not fair and can be exhaustive and dangerous.
It is OK to say “look it would help me once a week if you could have a bit of fun helping cooking the meal”.
Q. Currently, a lot of fathers have their children every second weekend. What can they do in this situation? If they are not coping how can they avoid being parented by a child?
This is going to change because the Family Court is moving far more towards shared parenting. The old idea of Dad seeing the kids every second weekend is going to become less and less relevant.
I don’t think alternate weekends are actually adequate. It sets up what we loosely call “weekend Dad” phenomena.
Dad has no contact for say 12 days and then suddenly has to re-engage and be the good time Dad.
It also dislocates the kids from Dad because he has little idea what his kids are doing at school, such as.
· he has little idea what their doing in their homework
· less awareness who they are playing with
· what is happening to them sport wise
We are trying to keep Dad involved for the kids benefit and to have some regular, week-day responsibility, e.g. a responsibility to do homework on a week night. For example
I would prefer a Dad leave work early, collect his kids from school and do homework with them, say on a Wednesday night.
This way he still has a more functional role in the family - similar to before the break up - rather than becoming just a “good time, weekend Dad”. As such a dad has got scope to help the kids, deal with everyday joys, duties and problems and understand where his kids are at overall, not just at school.
Dad knows what is going on at school. He knows about the homework.
Mums get a break too and are not the one doing all the hard work all week and then sending them off to Dads every second weekend.
Q. Is there a difference with saying over on the Wednesday night or just spending the afternoon and evening?
Depending on sleep issues and travelling time, I don’t think that there is a lot of difference. However I would prefer dads to be more involved. To read stories at night, to help with homework, to cope with bed time routines and getting ready for school demands. I am concerned that only seeing kids for dinner is still too much good time and gives less “real” time, to be involved in sport training, homework, school readiness, etc.
Q. What about children with problems like ADD, ADHD & anxiety? What effect does a separation and divorce have on them?
If a kid has a condition or behaviour disorder my experience is that we are likely to see more behaviour problems and perhaps some regression, unless the separation is managed carefully and responsibly. The kids are now dealing with a tragedy like a mini tsunami.
When kids are faced with a major threatening crisis unfortunately their worst traits tend to re-appear or become accentuated.
The mums that have been through this, know that some of those behaviours - which they had got rid of or controlled when younger - have come back as an adolescent, particularly in the first year or two after a divorce.
Under strain all people, adult and kids, can tend to revert to former behaviour or re-adopt inappropriate behaviours. If you have a kid with a special need - inappropriate behaviour related to the condition or disorder is likely will be displayed more.
You are probably going to see more of the difficulties eg ADHD kids are impulsive and don’t think about things. They are therefore probably going to blurt out more inappropriate things or be more aggressive quickly, because they are not coping at the moment.
Q. What about anxiety levels and what can you do about that.
As we have already said, one thing kids want is stability. With a separation, their world becomes very destabilised and rocky. What kids thought was always going to be, isn’t anymore and they don’t cope with that.
The more they know exactly
· what is going to happen with Mum and
· what is going to happen with Dad
· how consistent and regular contact will be
· how consistent Mum can be
· how consistent Dad can be
the better they start doing.
Q. So every week tell them exactly what is going to happen?
Yes, the more they can see what the routine is going to be, the more they understand.
For example, if Dad moves out then - this is where dad is going to live. This is where their bed will be and where they’ll be sleeping. It helps them understand and gain stability in their world.
Disorder is evident in not picking kids up at a set time - being 2 hours late. Similarly, not knowing where they are going to sleep tonight is disorder.
It is also easy to fall into patterns like - sometimes letting them sleep in your bed.
It is better practice to help kids toward getting them back to their normal routine and sleeping in their own bed, because that is stable.
“When I go to dads I know where I’m going to sleep and I sleep in the same place all the time.”
Q. What if they are scared about sleeping in another room?
If you let them sleep in your bed -
1. You can be setting them up for inappropriate roles, such as a male allowing the oldest girl to sleep there, might indicate to that responsible child that they are adopting the mother role - not in any sexual way - but simply taking that position.
2. It can easily develop into long term problems. After becoming comfortable and too re-assured from being in a parent’s bed it is typically very hard to get them out of that bed. Too often I hear kids resisting going back to their bed, such as., “I’m so scared, I feel much more secure”. Being too willing or giving in can make it far too tough to get them back to their own bed later. At worst, where great distress is evident, I would suggest a compromise, such as putting a mattress on the floor next to the parental bed.
“So sure, if you feel that insecure, you can be near me, but I’m going to keep trying to get you back to your own bed.”
Periodically parents should aim to keep trying to get the child back to their own bed. They need to get back to a stable world, where things are normal and OK.
Q. Do children grieve?
Kids grieve deeply, at length and in many different ways. We need to recognise, when considering separation and divorce, that things will not be better straight away.
The first experience kids will encounter is a grieving process, as will parents.
Your emotions are going to be all over the place. Your feelings are going to be disturbed. You are going to be in a period of grieving where you are not going to cope with certain things.
Kids are the same and have almost the same sort of reactions - only at a different times.
You might be really angry - when they are feeling really confused.
You might feel really guilty - when they are really angry.
In my experience it will take most families about one to two years at best, before they start to develop better coping skills and resolve most grief issues. Similarly, I have found that on average, it will take about a two year period for most kids to grieve and cope. If the separation is handled well, most kids can become more stable, recover gradually and eventually hopefully cope well.
Q. How can we help them grieve?
Kids need help to express themselves and see that grieving is a normal emotion and response. However kids express grief in many different ways to adults and often differently from each others. Most kids can’t adequately grieve just with mum or dad but need other family members, supportive adult friends or professionals to help with the grieving process.
Are there any specific actions we can take eg encouraging them to draw pictures or write about their feelings? Is the grieving different with age groups eg a 7 yr. old to a 14 yr. old?
Kids typically express themselves and resolve grief in very varied and different ways. Kids do often express grief better through a medium, such as drawing, writing, poetry, hitting a punching bag or other means. Often this can be an experiment in trial and error, until the best means are found. Further, certainly kids express emotions or feelings very differently at different ages, such as a seven year old might express anger or sadness through play whereas a fourteen year old might use poetry as a means to express.
Q. It has been a few years for me and my son still wants his parents back together.
I see a multitude of kids who try to engineer to get there parents back together.
For example, one teenager I see, whose parents split up for 6 years and divorced 4 years is still trying . This teenager is still angling to get Mum and Dad together again to the point where he will sabotage Mum’s relationships. He will try to make Dad have to come over. He will even deliberately hurt himself sometimes.
Basically, like many kids, he wants his parents together again. He knows they fought and is very cognisant now that there used to be some pretty horrid arguments but he still wants them back together.
Some kids are different and realise that life as it was became unbearable, but such thinking is more typical in teenage years.
Q. What is his future?
Such a child or teenager will need more individual therapy, hopefully to accept that
1. Mum and Dad just couldn’t get on. They have to clearly understand that mum and dad had problems which caused other things to happen.
2. If for example, one party had an affair, then that is not to blame for the marriage break up but is what caused either party to look elsewhere.
They often blame the other person because supposedly it is their fault. Their thinking will only change when they realise that
- Mum and Dad didn’t get on and
- can’t get on and
- are not going to get back together.
“Therefore the basic issue is with my parents. Nothing to do with me, nothing to do with any other person, but that Mummy and Daddy couldn’t get on”.
Unless they resolve this, a lot of those kids won’t be ok. They can tend to be quite possessive in relationships. Later they can become over bearing. They are so fearful of that person leaving; they can tend to smoother the relationship.
Q. How can we help them?
Helping kids understand
- what happened
- why it went wrong
- how they can rethink it
- know it wasn’t their fault
is probably the main example of when kids - living through separation and divorce - need professional help.
Often this starts with how parents dealt with the separation.
The most common example I would see is when the parents blame a third party for breaking up the relationship.
More often than not, you see the kid trying to keep mum and dad together because they see that this person was the cause of the relationship break up.
Q. So the Mum or Dad can come back if the affair is over?
Yes, in their mind, that can be logical.
If they understand from very early stages that
- no one is necessarily at fault here
- Mum and Dad just couldn’t get on
- just couldn’t work things out
- couldn’t love each other anymore and
- that’s why they had to split up and get divorced .
Then they start to understand that there are less chances of trying to get them back together.
Q. What about parents who are trying to hold it together and be amiable and friendly could that give an unclear message to the child?
You need to be clear that you are working together and trying to be nice for them because you want them to be OK – but that it doesn’t mean you can get on.
It is important to be honest with them. One thing we do as parents is tell kids all sorts of fibs and stories.
It is essential to listen and to communicate if you see the kids tying to engineer anything.
Stop and talk about it honestly. Find out how they are thinking, ask them;
- why they think Mummy and Daddy can get back together?
- how they see this happening?
Sometimes, we keep telling them things that are not true
- like maybe it will work out or
- this is what happened, when it is not the truth
We are much better off being open and honest about what happened
The trick is to get them to move their focus off Mum and Dad and onto controlling something for themselves. They have got to literally put their efforts into some other place. They have to make a real life thing happen.
Setting them some other goals and then making sure they are realising success. They start to feel achievement and we get them to do things that will make Mum and Dad proud of them - but as independent people and not together.
Q. A lot of mothers have complained that their children’s behaviour is terrible when coming back from, say a weekend contact visit with their father. I know one women stood her daughter at the door and said “ Ok you are back home now, so go to your room and start to get back into the rules of this house”. This happened to my children too. Why?
The most common reason is that it is just a transition issue. They are living under one set of rules and they have got to move to another set.
It doesn’t take a lot to work out that - if Mum and Dad got divorced then they probably have got some different ideas and values. The chances that they are actually going to parent the same way are pretty small.
The reality is that the children will have to live with, 2 sets of values, 2 set of rules and they don’t cope with that very well.
Their way of explaining it is to act out, particularly when they come back to one place.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Dad or Mum is doing the wrong thing.
If however, Dad just has fun with them all weekend and has no rules at all, then it is probably going to be hard for them to adjust back at Mum and her rules.
Even if Dad might have a firm set of rules and Mum has got a different set of rules, kids have trouble coping with the transition.
I think both the parents should almost establish - each time the children are with the other parent - OK were heading to my place now and explain
- what is the deal here
- what the rules are
- how do you get rewards here
and set it up so the kids know exactly what is expected of them.
It goes back to stability. There are cases I’ve got where Mum and Dad’s rules are moderately different but the kids actually cope. The reason is because they are really clear about their rules.
I don’t think that it is much different from a shared teacher arrangement at school. The kids figure out that Mrs Smith on Monday Tuesday Wednesday is strict and Mrs Jones on Thursday and Friday isn’t, but they know what the rules are in both cases.
So the trick is for them to know
- what the rules are
- what the expectations are
- what the rewards are and
- that each parent is consistent.
Ian thank you for your time.
Unfortunately, Ian Wallace is not available to take phone calls due to his busy practice and outside commitments.
You are welcome to make an appointment to see Ian at his practice. However please be aware that Ian typically has extremely long waiting lists and often cannot take on any new clients.
31/22-26 Fisher Rd, Dee Why
Phone 02 - 9971 1444