Couples who are separating or getting divorced need to think more about what’s best for their children.
SHE’S one of the world’s leading authorities on child development – so if Penelope Leach feels that children are being damaged by the way their parents are handling separation and divorce, we usually sit up and listen.
So strongly does she feel about the issue that she’s devoted her latest book, Family Breakdown, to it.
Her message: We must start ‘doing’ divorce better.
Although still low compared to international levels, divorce and separation rates are rising in Ireland – there was a 500% increase in the number of broken marriages between 1986 and 2011 (the first divorces were brought before the courts in 1997), while in the same period the number of single-parent families in the country more than doubled.
Leach says we need to focus on how to make the process less harmful to children.
“I think everyone tries to think about the child, but we tend to see divorce as adult business and concentrate on property and money, and what people do not understand is that divorce is also child-based.
“We need to think less about our adult rights and more about what is suitable for our particular children.
“We... have a responsibility to do as little harm to the child as possible.
“The best way to summarise the damage is that when parents split up, the children feel it’s they who have been rejected.”
Schoolchildren are simply not mature enough to understand, she says, adding that although they’re important to their parents, much of adult life, including divorce, has nothing to do with them.
Not only do parents often fail to realise that this is the way the child is thinking — they often don’t even consider such a possibility, she says.
And even when they do, they’re often puzzled because they cannot understand why a child would blame himself.
But children do, warns Leach.
She has plenty of examples. One child of about seven, confided to Leach that “Daddy left because I’m a girl and not a boy”, while another, a boy one or two years older, told Leach that “Daddy left because I am so noisy – he was always telling me to hush and I didn’t”.
Very often children in this situation will be terrified that they are going to be abandoned by the remaining parent, says Leach.
It’s logical enough from a child’s perspective, she points out — if Dad left because the child was unlovable, why on earth would mum stay?
Leach is also concerned about the “time-sharing” of very young children — she believes it can be disruptive to the normal development of a baby or young toddler.
This can happen when a baby or very small child – for example about 18 months old – may be closely attached to one parent, for example the mother, but is being regularly sent off to stay with the father.
“Unless the child has a very close relationship with the other parent, the shift between may be developmentally damaging.”
The answer to this, says Leach, is that fathers who want equal share in raising a very small child may need to spend six months getting to really know that baby and learning how to care for it.
Court rulings determining for example, that a child must spend two nights a week with the father when the father is not ready for it can be extremely damaging, she believes.
“Research says it takes about six months to build a close enough relationship with a baby or young toddler, and that’s the stage where it is okay for them to stay over.”
The time-sharing idea can overly focus on the parents’ wants rather than on a child’s needs, she believes, acknowledging that this is not a popular message.
“We must discuss the child’s parenting and make plans for the children where are for their benefit not our own.”
Divorce doesn’t just upset young children – it also disrupts adolescents, who start believing that they were wrong all along about their parents’ marriage.
“It makes them doubt their own sense of history,” she says, adding that the teenager now thinks twice about family photographs and wonderful holidays, wondering if they were really so marvellous in reality
“You are never too young or too old to be affected by your parents’ break-up.”
Family Breakdown: Helping Children Hang on to Both their Parents by Penelope Leach is published by Unbound, €16.99, Paperback, €6.30 e-book
* Separating parents should “be absolutely determined” that whatever happens to a marriage or partnership, they should both go on being good parents, advises Leach.
* Acknowledge it may require a Trojan effort to communicate with your ex-partner about parenting in a constructive way.
* Understand the concept of mutual parenting and help one another to be a good parent.
“You need to say to yourself that your role as a parent is completely separate from your role as a partner – the marriage might be over but parenting will never be over,” says Leach. “I’m not saying everyone can do it. Some parents cannot get beyond ‘polite parenting’ while others cannot speak to each other.”
However, she counsels that the closer you can get to mutual parenting the better for the child.
* Explain to your child that you and your partner may not love each other any more, but that each of you will always love the child.
* Emphasise that you want your child to go on loving and visiting your ex-partner – and that the child should enjoy it.
* Distance is a major issue – if separated parents live near each other it makes everything easier. It’s a good idea to consider where you will live when you are approaching separation.
“This is the kind of decision they have to make early on when adults are most angry and hurt and least capable of thinking clearly and logically,” says Leach, adding that it’s an issue which should be considered if at all possible.
“A lot of people don’t think about this til it is too late,” she says. It’s only afterwards they realise that distance means they may hardly ever see their child.
* Following separation, be careful about introducing new partners to your child.
Remember that new affairs can often break up again and don’t always lead to a second marriage.
“The child may get very fond of the partner very quickly,” she warns, adding that if the relationship breaks up and the new partner leaves, the child may once again experience the feeling of being left behind.
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