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Impact of Divorce on Children
The Sound of Little Hearts Breaking
One afternoon last week, I sat in my office, waiting for my clients to arrive. I had spent more time than usual preparing because I knew this session was going to be a tough one.
My clients are professionals; they have four grade school-aged children and what most people would consider a good life. Nevertheless, after months of therapy, they had decided to go their separate ways and today was the day they were telling their children.
Caught up in their anger and disappointment at each other, they had told me previously that they had kept their fighting away from their children and that the little ones were unaware that anything dark was looming on the horizon. I knew from my years of experience that this was unlikely. Children often know well before they are told, sometimes before the parents are able to admit it themselves. In fact one of the boys had already started acting out, refusing to go to school and, once there, fighting with his friends.
The boys filed in with their mother. They greeted me with toothless grins and dishevelled politeness and settled down on the floor. Dad brought his daughter and she ran over to her brothers, poking and teasing them as big sisters like to do. Their parents looked at each other, both of them unwilling to be the one to deliver the news.
“Why are we here?” asked the daughter, clearly accustomed to speaking for her siblings. When there was no immediate answer, she looked scared and went over to her father, wrapping herself around his leg and hung on as if for dear life. And suddenly the boys were asking too: “Why are we here? What are we doing here?”
The time had come. I had stocked up on chocolate and juice, but the children didn’t want to be placated. I sat down next to them, aware that I was about to tell them that the world they knew was about to change.
“We need to have a chat” I said.
“No, we don’t.” said the girl immediately. “We’re leaving; I don’t want to be here.” Her brothers joined in: “We don’t want to be here. Let us go.”
I said to them: “This is very sad …..your mum and dad are going to live in separate houses from now on. They love all of you very much; this is not your fault.” I could hardly finish my sentence.
The children stopped in their tracks and huddled together, like orphaned animals. The girl threw herself on floor, saying “No. Stop. Don’t do this. I have a happy life and you’re going to spoil it.” She addressed her parents directly and begged them. The boys held on to each other and cried. The littlest one ran to Mum and clung on.
Then, just for a second it was quiet. The parents, who until now had been deafened by their own pain and frustration, grew still as well. And in the silence I felt that we could hear the sound of little hearts breaking.
…Their daughter said through her sobs, “my life is going to be like Georgie’s.” I silently crossed my fingers and hoped Georgie’s parents had been kind to each other when they separated. “I knew this was going to happen. I told you to stop fighting - but you wouldn’t listen.”
Then the bargaining began: “We won’t be naughty anymore; we’ll be good.” The youngest asked if it was because he’d painted on the walls. I jumped in quickly to shut down that line of questioning. “It’s not your fault.” I told them. “These are adult decisions and nothing you did caused them.”
Something about this response galvanised the parents into action. Seeing their children blaming themselves, both felt compelled, almost as one, to explain that it was because they weren’t getting along anymore, that they were fighting all the time but that they both loved their children as much as ever.
As the room calmed down, the daughter spoke up, in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s ok she said. We still have time.”
Her father took her hand. “I have to move out this weekend.”
And after a pause: “Can we sleep in the same bed tonight then, all of us in one bed?”
So that’s what they agreed to do. They filed out, heads down, holding on to each other.
…As a therapist who works with families, one of my most important roles is to help create healthy family relationships, without judgement. To do this we keep our values, beliefs and emotions in check so that the focus stays with the client where it belongs. There’s no doubt that some couples do better apart, and I know that working with the parents over the next months will help those children to make sense of what has happened and to navigate into their new lives. But professional distance notwithstanding, sometimes it is hard not to be affected. With half an hour before my next appointment, I had a good cry.
After I had had my moment, I reminded myself that this is exactly why I choose to work with families: to ensure that in our absorbing world of grown-up choices and as we make fundamental decisions about how to live our lives and structure our homes, we still hear the small voices of those it impacts most of all.
I took a deep breath ready for my next client.
(note: personal details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)