MARITAL separation and divorce are among the most potentially stressful experiences that adults can endure.
For parents in particular, it’s acknowledged that levels of stress can become unbearable as they struggle to cope with helter-skelter emotions, all the practical challenges that sole parenting presents, along with often guilt-ridden concern around how their children are coping.
In the words of the creator of the US Sandcastles programme for children of divorce, US psychotherapist M Gary Neuman, divorce often brings a landslide of new problems to parents’ doors at a time when their ability to cope has never been worse.
The most recent census figures show that the number of divorced people in Ireland has increased from 35,059 in 2002 to 87,770 in 2011.
However, despite this 150% increase in numbers, parenting through divorce and separation remains a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland as the country continues to have one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe.
So how are Irish parents coping with divorce and separation? We’ve all become accustomed to the standard line from Hollywood A-listers as their marriages hit the bottom of a crevasse: “Celebrity A and Celebrity B would like to announce that they have filed for divorce and would respect privacy at this time as they concentrate on the needs of their children.”
But are the needs of Irish children being met by their separating parents?
Frances Treacy, a relationship and parenting mentor who has established a Separation Support group in Cork, isn’t sure. She believes Ireland is “so far behind” in terms of providing supports to families going through separation and divorce. Ms Treacy, who lived in the US for years, says that, in many states, parents and children must attend co-parenting workshops if a divorce is to be finalised, whereas here, she says, such supports are limited, with very little in place in the south of the country. Irish children, she believes, are adversely affected by a stigma around divorce that still lingers.
It’s not that Irish parents don’t have their children’s best interests at heart, says Ann O’Kelly, a doctoral fellow at the Unesco Centre in NUI Galway and a family mediator with the Family Mediation Service.
“I wouldn’t like to blame anyone,” says Ms O’Kelly. “Parents do try very hard to work in the best interest of the child but it is a really difficult time and you are being expected to deal responsibly with somebody that you are in conflict with. And all the time you are dealing with the emotions of letting go, of hurt and of anger. You really do need support from family and friends,” she says.
Blaming splitting parents for messing up their children’s lives won’t help parents or children either, she says. Separation and divorce are relatively new to Ireland. “I would say that sometimes Irish parents don’t get it right but it does happen that they do too,” says Ms O’Kelly. “I think that, as a society, we are still grappling with divorce and grappling with the issues it can present.”
Ms Treacy, a mother of two who has been through a divorce and whose own parents divorced, says it was the lack of support she experienced that prompted her to set up Separation Support. Primary and post-primary teachers had also told her of the challenges they were facing in school from parents still deep in conflict.
“One man told me how he’d been a principal for more than 30 years and that badly handled separations were becoming more of an issue,” says Ms Treacy. “But it all came to a head on a First Holy Communion day. A little boy come up to him with tears in his eyes. Both his parents and extended family were at loggerheads outside the church about who was taking the boy for the rest of the day. ‘Sir, sir tell me what to do’, he asked his school head,” says Ms Treacy. “That man told me how it was the first day that, as a principal, he couldn’t find a solution to a problem. He didn’t know what to do, how he could help the boy. Shortly after he decided then that he wasn’t equipped for his role as principal any more, was too old and was out of his depth. He decided to retire.”
Executive director of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, Seán Cottrell, agrees. He says that problems associated with relationship breakdown are becoming more common and that school pick-ups can be fraught with conflict.
“We get letters from solicitors instructing that the children are only to be collected by the mother and another from the father’s solicitor stating that he will be doing the pick-ups,” says Mr Cottrell. “As a rule of thumb now, we ignore such letters unless there is a court order attached.”
If you want to put the child’s interests first, he says, it’s important for school teachers and principals to be informed early about separation, as most schools have practices in place to help navigate potential landmines. Ideally, the school can then invite both parents so that they can hammer out a plan of action about the child’s school life.
“We will often agree, for instance, to set up separate parent-teacher meetings as attendance at these can cause too much grief and we don’t want to add to it,” says Mr Cottrell.
SCHOOLS will also talk to parents about events such as birthday parties and Communions and how to ensure the child’s best interest is served. “We want to avoid things like children being given invitations to hand out for birthday parties that are really competing events between both parents,” says Mr Cottrell.
“I think everyone is equipped with the common sense to know that you shouldn’t fight in front of your children, but there are plenty of examples where children are used as a football and this is caused by stress. When you are stressed, your judgement is impaired and you lose perspective, you do things you would not normally do.”
The country’s Family Mediation Service, a non-adversarial method of dealing with separations and divorce, says they encourage participating couples to be “child-inclusive” by asking what are the child’s needs? They advise couples on how to create a framework where the child is able to discuss their feelings with parents, extended family or friends and where all sides of the family keep the child at the centre. “To do this, there is blame culture around breakdown that must be avoided,” Ms O’Kelly says.
Ms Treacy also counsels that while extended family support can make all the difference to emotionally over-burdened parents, the role of the parent can’t be supplanted as “no one knows their child better than a parent”.
“More than anybody, you can determine how the separation is impacting on his or her life,” says Ms Treacy. “If handled well, a child can be allowed to grow and thrive in time.
“Kids experience high levels of stress in a divorce. They feel sad, confused, conflicted and often guilty but they don’t have the coping skills to deal with it. And often they don’t want to admit how they feel to parents as they can see the parents too are hurting. It’s one of those times when they need parental guidance most, but you might just want to stay in bed all day.”
The ideal for separating parents is to co-parent, where mother and father have an equal input and involvement in their children’s lives. But, as many separating parents will quip, they would hardly have separated if they got on with one another and so how realistically can they be expected to magically agree now?
“But just because you couldn’t make one kind of relationship work doesn’t mean that you cant be successful in co-parenting,” says Ms Treacy. “If you both have the goal of allowing the child to grow and thrive and really want to put their interests first, you can do it. In the short term, just focus on trying to be respectful and co-operative with your ex. And do all you can to bite your tongue and hold your anger.”
Anne Staunton of the peer support group Rainbows Ireland says good grandparents can be a godsend to separating parents. “Many children and couples will rely on them, as they are often very good at putting aside their own views,” she says.
Just like Ms O’Kelly and Ms Treacy, she also underlines the importance of allowing a child speak freely with uncles, aunts, and friends. “Children really will appreciate being able to talk,” says Ms Staunton. “We’ve heard children say: ‘Mummy says it’s a secret and I don’t want it to be a secret.’ It shouldn’t be a secret. We also try and remind parents that there is two stages to separation: A more uncertain transition period, and then a second more stable period as everyone adjusts.”
What is worth remembering is that the ramifications of divorce aren’t short-lived. When parents learn to co-parent successfully, it will stand to them for many years to come including at Communions, Confirmations, funerals, graduations, and other major family events, such as their children’s weddings.
As Dr Neuman likes to remind everyone: “Out of the countless studies conducted to measure children of divorce, from their academic performance to their self-esteem, one truth emerges repeatedly: It is parental conflict, not divorce itself, that places children at risk in virtually every area of their life.
“In fact, children from intact families with high level of conflict fare no better in psychological tests than children where parents divorced. Conversely, most children of divorce who witness little conflict between their parents do as well as children from in intact homes.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved