Aug 14, 2012
Children Coping With Divorce
Social worker Hinda Schryber offers ten points to think about when you are in contact with a child whose parents are divorced.
By Hinda Schryber, Jerusalem, Israel - N'shei Chabad Newsletter
I write this piece as a child of divorced parents, as an adult, as a mother and wife, as a social worker, as a campaigner for children’s rights, as a campaigner for adult survivors of abuse, as an advocate for children, and most importantly, as a survivor myself.
Here are ten points to think about when you are in contact with a child whose parents are divorced.
1. It was not the child’s decision that his/her parents would get divorced. The child was not consulted.
2. Parents can divorce each other but parents can never divorce a child (and a child cannot divorce his parents). The child belongs to both of them forever. Even when a child has been removed from an abusive or criminal parent, that child is still their biological child.
3. You can take a child to another country – another planet! – but you can’t break the bond between parent and child.
4. Whatever type of person that parent is – even in the most horrific scenario – he or she is still the parent of the child. So before you say something about the parent – even if it is true – think about the impact on the child. For a child to believe that his or her parent in evil is almost impossible. Bad-mouthing parents to a child of any age just leads to confusion and trauma.
5. Asking children to choose which parent they want to live with is akin to asking them which hand they want to cut off. Children should never have to make this decision. If the parents cannot work this out between themselves it should be left up to trained professionals, courts and batei din.
6. Regardless of which parent the children live with, they feel bad for the parent who is alone. They worry about him or her, they worry whether their parent is eating and sleeping and if they are okay. Lots of reassurance is called for.
7. Splitting siblings should be an offense punishable by the courts. Ask any siblings who have been split up and they will tell you that.
8. When a child’s parents divorce, something within that child is forever broken. The child’s life is changed forever and while the child may feel relief, he or she may also feel shame, guilt, embarrassment, sadness, loss and fear for the future.
9. Remember that even after divorce the parents still share the child, and this involves school meetings, celebrations, simchas, shivas, etc. You can never truly walk away from a spouse if you have had a child together.
10. I believe that divorce may be the right decision under certain circumstances, but I also believe that the children should be considered as much as the parents. I believe the children are an equal party to the proceedings, and that they too have the right to be represented.
Too few divorces are carried out with dignity and compassion for the children.
I can appreciate that often there is one parent who is not cooperating or is abusive, and the other parent has to deal with this (which has often been going on for a long time). However, the way it is dealt with is so important for the children.
I know that divorce can involve an enormous amount of anger – but that anger is neither understood nor desired by the children, and it needs to be kept away from them.
I know that divorce can involve a lot of distress – financial, physical, and emotional. But the more all of this can be kept away from the child’s view, the better. The parent’s distress and anguish is the children’s distress and anguish and they are helpless to do anything about it. The children will have enough feelings of guilt and will ask themselves enough times whether the divorce was their fault.
So what CAN we do...
We can reassure, reassure, and reassure some more. Tell the children that it was not their fault – but don’t make the mistake of blaming the other spouse, because the child will neither understand nor accept that. Better to tell the child, “Difficult things happen, we don’t always have reasons or explanations for them but we have to believe it will be okay. Hashem is in charge, and I’m here for you.”
The more dignified the behavior of the parents, the more integrity they use, even while feeling anger or being faced with their spouse’s anger, the better the child will cope. Children learn mostly by example, and this is no different.
Find a safe place for the child. There will be times when the divorce is overwhelming and the child will need some time out, so cultivate an escape. This could be a grandparent, an aunt, a friend, someone who can take over in rough times, so the child gets a little break from what is happening.
Make sure the child isn’t being used to convey messages, money or anything else between the parents. Imagine how a child feels to be put in that position. Don’t turn the child into the mature, capable parent and yourself into the needy, lost, upset child.
If the child is going for sleepovers to the other parent, then ENABLE it – send them with their favorite toy or blanket, or food they like. Believe me, it will be hard enough for the children, and nobody likes having two homes. (Children with two homes often feel homeless all the time.) With your helpful and considerate behavior, and by not trying to make the children miserable when not with you, you can make it easier for them.
Let the children express their feelings – whatever they are. Always remember that they are children.
Children of Divorce Speak
I truly believe my parents were right to get divorced. They were two completely opposite people, from opposite cultures, without much in common. They never really agreed on anything and the fighting and arguments got worse and worse the longer they were married. There was no physical violence but there was plenty of emotional abuse flying from both sides.
They had two children, my sister and me.
There were other elements of my early family life that were not within normal range, but I am going to try and stick to what was connected to the divorce.
As a young child, I thought that what went on in my family was normal, totally normal. Not until I was much older did I have any perception that it was not a favorable environment for anyone to grow up in.
My mother was not well so we had many live-in helpers. From a very early age I was responsible for myself and my younger sister.
When I was told by my mother that she and Daddy were going to “live in separate places,” it was an enormous shock to me. That was all I was told, not why, not when, not how. I remember asking who I would live with and I remember – at the age of 11 – being told I could choose.
Choose – between my parents. No, that was not a choice I could make. When I was repeatedly asked by my parents ( not by any other person ) where I wanted to live, I would freeze. Looking back, I think that by freezing I made it clear that I was not going to make that decision and it would have to be made for me.
In the country where I lived, between the ages of 11 and 12 one has to take examinations to get into high schools. Like the other kids, I took them all.
I failed each one miserably. There were some exams that I could not take altogether.
My parents, who had been told by the school principal that I would pass easily, were shocked by this. So I was taken to a psychologist.
I nonchalantly told the psychologist what was happening in my house. He offered my parents two choices: to send me away to boarding school, or place me in a foster home.
They chose to send me away to school. I would return home only once every three months, and thus the problem of where to live became easier.
I loved the school. Most boys hated it, but I l loved it because there I knew I had a bed, food and a safe place to go.
Aside from holidays, there were visitation days when the parents could visit the school. Whenever one of these days came up, my parents would argue over who would come. Sometimes neither of them came, and I joined the small group of boys whose parents lived abroad and couldn’t come for the day.
At no time did anyone ever talk to me about my parents’ imminent separation or divorce.
I also had no idea what was happening to my sister, and frankly, this was the worst thing for me, as I had always been close to her and felt responsible for her. I learned later that my sister went with my father.
From the day I left to go to boarding school I had no contact with my sister until seven years later, when I asked a counselor to initiate contact with her.
If I could change one thing about what happened, that would have been it – that she and I would not have been separated. To lose the security of my parents’ marriage was one thing; to lose my sibling as well was awful.
When I left school I learned from my mother that I was to live with her. The court had actually given custody of both children to my father, but he had decided that I should stay with her – I think to look after her because she was so sick.
My mother bad-mouthed my father all the time, and used me to obtain money from him. She would tell me there was no money for clothes for me and sometimes even for food, and that I should ask him for money. When I would go to ask my father he’d tell me that my mother should ask herself. I soon realized it was easier to go without.
Years passed without any contact between me and my father or sister. I finally left my mother to study at university when I was 18. With professional help, I initiated contact with my sister and father. Until his death my father says he regretted the missed years of contact with me. To my sister I had become a stranger.
My father and mother were not able to be civil to each other, not even in our presence. All family events, such as my engagement, marriage, the births of our children – were fraught with tension.
I was often the mediator between my parents, and I would have to divide the grandchildren’s time equally between them and make sure their visits never overlapped. They spoke about each other with venom – each one said the other was mentally ill. It was a burden that my sister and I bore most of our lives, dealing with our parents.
So many people asked me, “Why did you stay with your mother?” I don’t know – because at age 12 that’s what I was told to do! Did I really have a choice?
I know now that there is often one child who is the korbon, who carries the responsibility and the burden. Often it is the eldest child, as it was with me. The only sense I can make out of this was that my sister was spared that role.
Did either of us have a role model of how a family is? ...No.
Did either of us have a choice? ...No.
Did either of us want this for ourselves or for our children? ...No.
Did either of us as children receive professional help in any way? ...No.
Did we survive? ...Oh yes we did!
How? Through some of the smallest but kindest deeds that individuals did for us, both of us. Through all the Shabbos invitations we received. Through the kind angels that let us see inside their homes – the good and the bad, so we could see what a home and family looked like. Through the woman who told my sister she could study and helped her process an application to school. Through the Rav who took me into his school even though I wasn’t up to par.
Through the people who realized our pain and saw us as separate beings from our parents and simply stroked us – encouraged us, took us seriously, realized we had potential and wanted to see us grow. They took our hand and showed us the way.
I’m 30 years old now but I am still very much affected and shaped by my parents’ divorce. This is because they did not handle it in a moral and decent fashion. They were too emotionally involved in the divorce. Understandable but unfortunate.
I am an only child. My parents divorced when I was a baby. I don’t even remember my father, since he disappeared from my life at that time. I know he has remarried and has new children in his new family, but I have not met them. He does not even send me a card on my birthday or call me before Yom Kippur when all fathers bless their children. Every day I live with the knowledge that my own father does not love me or want to know me. It is hard for me to believe that anyone would love me when he doesn’t. My husband sometimes has a hard time convincing me that he does care for me – what kind of man would care for me? I feel inherently unlovable. I pray to G-d I don’t pass on my issues to our two children, who are as yet babies.
My mother remarried thirteen years ago. She tried to get me to be close with her new husband, but I did not want to. I was already a teenager and the last thing I wanted was a forced “relationship” with some artificial “father.” I wanted my real father – but he didn’t want me.
My mother wouldn’t let up. In fact, at one point she used to sit all three of us down to dinner and then disappear. This little trick of hers, which made me deeply uncomfortable, was supposed to create conversation and intimacy between me and my new stepfather. It did the opposite. I couldn’t stand the little tricks, so I ran away from home. Now I hardly speak to my mother at all. When I do see her, she still pushes her husband on me; ugh!
Had my parents handled the divorce differently, I would be a different person. Had my father insisted on remaining part of my life, and made it his business to contact me regularly – to congratulate me on my accomplishments, to see if I need anything – I would have felt lovable. And I would have known how to relate to a man. I had no close relationship with any man until I got married. You can imagine how unprepared for marriage I was…!
Had my mother understood that her new husband was HER new husband but NOT my new father (not when I was already a teenager!), I would have felt I had a home where I could feel comfortable, safe and secure. Instead I felt homeless from the time she remarried until I married my husband. Feeling homeless, I made myself actually homeless.
I hope and pray my marriage lasts. Sometimes my insecurities and fears drive my husband crazy. I know I should get help but I cannot stand sitting with a therapist and being expected to talk. It reminds me of those suppers with my mother’s husband.
Hinda Schryber is the director of Ohr Lanefesh, an organization funded and licensed by the Israeli health ministry that provides psychiatric rehabilitation in the community.