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									The Split World and Confusion of a child of Divorce

By Suzette Heath

In the last 30 years of research into the effects of divorce on children the field has been
narrowed down and more understanding of the process has developed. People have always
assumed that the intact family was wholesome and nurturing while divorce is bad and
inevitably led to adjustment problems in children. The later more complex research into
children‟s experiences in marriages and after divorce highlighted the very crucial role that
conflict, especially the intensity thereof, played (also in intact families) in adjustment problems
in children and the attempts to solve the conflict.

It appeared that children from divorce, when compared to children from intact families,
showed very small differences (although statistically significant) in their general adjustment
and their difficulties were not necessarily outside of the normal to average range.

The crux of the matter is that even in “whole families” children are at risk to develop
adjustment difficulties mainly because of high intensity conflict and the inability of the parents
to solve their differences. Inevitably the children become the victims.

Direct and indirect effects of parental conflict on children‟s adjustment:

       Children independent of age respond to angry outbursts and aggression between
        their parents with physiological responses – increased cardiovascular and
        neurobiological activity, postural freezing, crying and sometimes flight. If this
        continues over a long time it can eventually result in the child experiencing difficulties
        with emotional and behaviour regulation.
       The children observe and model their parent‟s inability to solve their problems and to
        turn to conflict as a solution.
       High levels of conflict between the parents also affect the parent-child relationship in
        that parents become short tempered, less warm and empathic and less nurturing
        towards their children.

The good news is that much can be done to ease children‟s adjustment after divorce if we
understand the process they are going through, their fears and how to fulfil their needs.

In this respect it might be of value to understand how the battle between the separating
spouses to secure the children for themselves can affect the children and what can be done
to overcome these difficulties.

Keep in mind that up to now your child grew up in one world, with one house and two parents
who even though they had their differences, still belonged under one roof in the same world
where the school, the grandparents and holidays etc existed. Your child could get angry with
any one of you and not be afraid to express these feelings, act out against a teacher, parent
or grandparent without dire consequences.

When you separate and fight with your ex partner about who the best parent is and where the
children belong you are creating two worlds in which your children have to exist. Your world
where everything is done right and suits the child according to your view and the other
parent‟s world where the child cannot enjoy things, where the child is not treated well and
where you want to control and prescribe how things should be done. For instance if your ex
partner does not spend all his time with the children but leaves them with his family when he
goes out or has to work on his weekend, you are up in arms.

You are constantly looking for evidence that he is not a suitable parent, not enough
vegetables, not the right movies, not the right bed time etc. And you are pressing the children
for information so that you can disqualify your ex. But, unfortunately you are not disqualifying
him but your child‟s experience of his other parent. You are creating two worlds between
which your child has to oscillate. Your world, and the other parent‟s world.

Your child is not allowed to experience and be comfortable with their authentic feelings in his
world. When with one parent, the child has to repress his feelings and experiences of and
with the other parent and vice versa.

The child has to spy, lie, and carry messages from one world to the other without carrying
emotions across the boundary. Hence, this child now has to learn to pretend, to split off
emotions and to play games to suit different situations. Each time the child transfers to the
other world he has to change emotions like a chameleon change colours. This encourages
not only dishonesty in the outside world of the child but also dishonesty towards self. What
does this type of coping mechanisms bode for the future relationships and life of this child?

Examples of the two worlds this child has to live in:

Mom’s world                                      Dad’s world

    Dad is bad and I don‟t love and respect           Mom is a bitch and nobody who is sane
    him                                                 can respect or love her

    You cannot enjoy time with him or look            She just wants money and uses you as
    forward to visit him                                an excuse

    You are not allowed to take your toys or          If you take the expensive toys I bought
    clothes with when you visit him                     for you to her you will never see it again.

   He is not capable of feeding you properly          You are not allowed to take the clothes I
                                                        bought for you to her house
   He just spoils you and does not take care
    of you properly                                    She probably has a new boyfriend and is
                                                        neglecting you
   He does not really care about you and
    just wants to push you off to other                You can phone her but I cannot believe
    people.                                             that you really want to

None of these messages or beliefs is necessarily expressed in so many words but is very
evident through actions and attitude.

Transitions between these two worlds gradually become very difficult and even traumatic.
Children have to pretend that they did not enjoy the time with the other parent, they have to
act as if that they don‟t miss the other parent, they have to give information about their
experiences and about the „other world‟ without betraying the other parent. Children,
generally don‟t have the maturity to understand or strategies to cope with these situations
regardless of the level of development they are at.

They have to split off some of their emotions, deny that they feel and need certain things etc.
This leads to dissociation or repression of feelings and they survive by pretending or keeping
up a façade. They don‟t learn to be in touch with and regulate their emotions and behaviour.

These children are not in touch with their emotions but they look at mom or dad to determine
how they should feel.
How can parents overcome the two-world split and allow their child the best of one world with
parents, family and friends?

By allowing the child to live in one holistic world with different experiences. By not fighting
with the other parent about your spousal issues and not bringing the child into the battle.
Learning to compartmentalise your relationship with your ex spouse, that is to keep the
bitterness and conflict on that level and not contaminating your parental relationship.

How can I achieve this when I feel so done in and bitter? ….. There is only one way and that
is by putting yourself in the shoes of your child and seeing the other parent (family, friends
etc) through his or her eyes.Allow your child to feel safe in his or her world, to experience
father, mother, granny and grandpa, teacher and friends all in the same world where they can
laugh, miss, cry, be angry and look forward in a genuine way and be themselves as they are
and not what we want them to be.

Personality and identity is determined and influenced not only by what we like, think, behave
or do but also by our personal space, our cars, houses, clothes, toys and things we like to
accumulate around us. Whether Johnny prefers his remote controlled car, his teddy bear or
his crayons with him when he goes to bed or his favourite story book, shoes or t-shirt when he
visits the other parent.

These things that fill his personal space provides comfort and allows a more stable
experience of self and his world especially when he is changing over to the other parent‟s
house and will be missing his other house and parent. If he can experience both these
„houses‟ as being in one world where he can be himself without anxiety and fear it will
contribute tremendously to his emotional and personal development and eventual maturation
as a human being.

Allow the transitions between homes to be effortless and without problems, allow them to hold
your memory in a fond way while they visit the other parent, to experience their personal
space and identity in a congruent and stable way and to have both parents in their lives
without secrets, lies and conflict. Add the school, grandparents, church and friends to this
world and contribute to his ability to take part in society as a well balanced holistic being.

Allow them to wear, play, read and do everything they need to do as children according to
their own preferences and not because that is what you want them to do or pretend to do
while they are with the other parent. Also be sensitive when they miss the other parent,
encourage them to phone the other parent or have a photo of the other parent to hold on to.
When they don‟t feel well and want the comfort of the other parent try to be understanding
because they might need you for a different kind of comfort (maybe to play, or to fix things for
them, or to trust your support in other situations).

Author: Suzette Heath - Clinical Psychologist

For any further information relating to the article, please contact Suzette.

Suzette Heath

+27 72 277 7114

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