The pain of divorce may be likened to grieving a death. This is reflected in the brutal turmoil one goes through in the face of the death of the marriage; the death of the dream for what ‘was’ and what ‘could have been’. For children, the experience of seeing their parents parting may be exponentially devastating, due to their limited ability to cognitively and emotionally process the divorce.
Often, the logic of a child states that, “Mommy and daddy can’t be bad; so I must be bad.” Children who are younger tend to respond with anxiety and self-blame. This can lead to bed-wetting, nightmares, social withdrawal and even phobias. Sometimes children may convey that they are coping in order to protect their parents or to appear brave, although their struggles inevitably bleed through some or other area of functioning.
A recent young client of mine showed a drastic decline in her handwriting, which may have reflected an unconscious cry for help, as well as intrusive plagues of guilt which prevented her from functioning at school.
Teens may harbour intense anger, which forms part of a natural grieving process. Typically this is characterised by a sequence that the famous psychiatrist Kübler–Ross described as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance. It is difficult to specify how long each stage will take, and stages do not necessarily progress in this specific order. Beneath the anger there seems to be a sense of hurt, betrayal, disappointment and anxiety. On a more conscious level, it is perhaps ‘easier’ to feel anger than to suffer through the vulnerable underlying emotions.
Children should be permitted to process their anger and associated feelings in their own time in order to facilitate optimal healing. With regards to their anger towards a specific parent, it is important that the parent continue to make regular attempts to contact their child, regardless of how painful it may feel to be shut off.
The child should feel that, while the marriage has ended, the parent will be there for them unconditionally. This should be done without expectations or demands, but with dedicated and gentle patience.
It is also imperative for children not to be placed in a position where they may feel pressurised to choose sides. Divorcees should avoid speaking ill of one another and should, where possible, encourage a relationship with the other parent.
While a grieving parent may find a caring confidant in their child, it is important to remember that they are children and that it is not their responsibility to protect or heal their parents. Parents could opt for an alternative outlet, such as a friend, therapist, support group or recreational activity.
Depending on the mode of therapy, children who are brought to a psychologist may learn to deal with maladaptive thoughts and beliefs, alongside learning behavioural activities to ease anxiety and distress. Often this is done through play, music and/or metaphors. Regardless of the therapist’s approach, children can expect to enter a place of safety where they receive support, develop emotional awareness, make meaning of the loss of their parents’ relationship and build on their ability to cope.
Who is Antonia Roos?
Antonia Gueorguieva Roos, originally from Bulgaria, is a Clinical Psychologist in Garsfontein, Pretoria. From the age of five she trained to become a classical musician and excelled in music performance and composition. Along the way she recognised her compelling interest in the human mind and decided to pursue a higher education in psychology. She completed her degrees at the University of Pretoria (BSocSci; BSocSci Hons) and University of Johannesburg (MA Clin Psych) with distinction. Antonia strives to facilitate healing by continually learning and developing as a person, sharing her knowledge and experience, and treating matters of the heart with the highest level of respect and support.