• Divorce can be a destructive and damaging process  

  • Managing the impact on children is crucially important

  • If you are going through a divorce and need support for yourself or your children, you can find the right therapist to support you here

Divorce. When I was growing up, I thought divorce was what happened to other people’s parents. The word sounded foreign, scary and dramatic. When my parents told me that they were separating, the ground beneath my feet felt as if it were crumbling.

I could hear the words, I understood the message, but I so desperately wanted it not to happen.  So I did what 15 year old children do when hearing something unpalatable – I put my fingers in my ears and sang loudly to block out the reality of what I was being told. I felt intensely angry with them both. I was devastated; it felt like an explosion in my life. Of course life goes on. The impact on me as a teenager was severe. You see, there isn’t any “good” time to lose a way of life. My parents had waited until my sister and I were “old enough to understand”. There is a misguided belief that one can ever grow old enough to be unaffected. “Understanding”, doesn’t ease the pain. The loss is just as palpable and the grief is still there. People who have to separate must remember that for the child or young adult, the grief is not just about not seeing either parent less often, but a child mourns the loss of not having mum & dad in the complete package, as a unit, any longer. So I’d daydream that my parents might bump into one another at a favourite restaurant and fall back in love and buy a new house for us all to be together. In my early thirties, I felt a twinge of hope for reconciliation when they finally made peace and were able to be at my wedding together. Many years after their divorce, having each been re-married, my parents confided in me separately that they wished they’d worked harder on the marriage, and that the loss wasn’t worth it. I recall feeling some relief. Relief that I was right as a child, that they had made a mistake.

I qualified as a counsellor and worked for many years for Relate. I was fully aware that part of the reason for my career choice was to somehow help other people going through relationship difficulties not to do anything hasty and to put the children first. I worked with children affected by parental conflict and realised that as a child, I would have welcomed the help of an adult to put things into perspective and to be able to express my sadness and anger. In my own work I seek to create an environment where children can explore the emotions inspired by their parent’s divorce, as understanding one’s own feelings is crucial in order to heal.
Now I am able to see that as a teenager and in young adulthood, I was terribly insecure and fearful, becoming over attached to potential partners very quickly and intensely fearing rejection. The shock of my parents’ split made me cling all the tighter to my future relationships and with my first husband I tried to build the perfect “chocolate box home”, as if to ‘undo’ the experiences of my childhood. Divorce is something which has shaped my life as an adult, and has had a marked effect on my professional life and interpersonal relationships. Parents going through a divorce should undergo the process with extreme sensitivity and caution, with the knowledge that such an event may cause a resounding impact on the future lives of their children. I feel I would have benefited from the professional advice and sensitivity which is more openly available today, and would emphasise the importance of communication between parents and their children.

How to help your children cope with divorce:

  • Tell your children about the split as a couple. Get help (professional if necessary) to find the right words and to choose a time when they can unpack the emotions after being told. They will never forget the experience of hearing this news; be honest, be calm, be loving to them no matter how they react.
  •  Don’t hide your own distress; it’s ok that they understand that with all change (even positive change) there is loss, that you will all be grieving.
  • Do tell them that you love them, and reassure them that mum will always be mum, dad will always be dad, despite the separation.
  • The way you handle the split is instrumental in limiting the damage to the child or young person.
  • Allow your child to express the hurt and sorrow and anger that comes from hearing that mum & dad’s marriage has in effect “died”.
  • Co-parent them where possible and keep the lines of communication open.

Further reading

Your parents' divorce is always painful

How does divorce affect young children?

Relationship therapy saved our marriage

Minimising the destructive impact of divorce