Divorce and children
Mar 26th 2009
From The Economist print edition
JULIE LYNN EVANS, a well-known British psychotherapist, deals with troubled children with remarkable devotion and insight. As the recession puts added strain on many marriages, her account of the mental stresses and strains that parental break-up inflicts on children could not be more timely.
Many of the children Ms Evans sees do not want to talk at all, regarding grown-ups as untrustworthy or irrelevant. She starts by getting them to depict their lives in spray-painted graffiti on giant sheets of paper, or by making models from sand or clay. The outcome can be terribly sad: one depressed mother appears as a sagging black balloon; a dissolute absent father is scrunched up into a clay ball and hurled around the garden. It is hard not to agree with Ms Evans, that children from broken homes are almost always more distressed than their parents realise. The children she sees are clingy, rude, destructive or attention-seeking, and much else besides. Being ignored compounds the problem.
Her remedies are simple: rules and diversions. Self-discipline, unfashionably, is vital. Keep anguished and angry phone calls until after bedtime; children hate overhearing them. Don’t burden them with details about legal fights or sexual infidelity. Avoid arguing in front of them and above all do not demonise the other side, however badly you think your ex-spouse has behaved. Children have a right to two parents. Poisoning their mind against one of them is “stealing”
part of a child’s “natural physical, emotional and spiritual inheritance”, she argues. Some contact with even the most awful, addicted or inadequate parent is usually better than none at all: it helps the children make sense of what has happened. Very few parents, Ms Evans notes, have absolutely nothing to add to the lives of their children.
The other big lesson is that broken homes can be patched up from the outside. Grandparents, neighbours and others can offer children windows of happiness in an otherwise bleak week, with security, fun, companionship or a phone number (usually treasured but rarely used, in the author’s experience) to call if things become unbearable. Such
helping hands should be non-judgmental. The last thing a stricken
ex-spouse needs to hear is that they are drinking too much or cooking