Walks in the Wasteland: The Experience of Children in Divorce and Separation

Just like all psychotherapists, what I do is inspired by my own life.   It is therefore no accident that I work with children who experience the divorce and separation of their parents.  My earliest memories are of my young cousin, traumatised from the divorce of his parents, having to be peeled away from his father to return back to this mother’s home. I can still hear the screaming pain of this little boy, who was too old to have the relief of unconsciousness of what was happening to him and too young to be able to articulate his feelings in words.  What I knew then and what I know now, is that divorce and separation is a devastating wasteland of the emotional and psychological life of the child.

For decades we have not been allowed to say that divorce and separation harm children, because to do so has been considered wrong in a world in which the rights of women have been a priority concern. Somehow, by saying that divorce and separation harm children, we are assumed to be saying that marriages should never end and individuals should not have rights.  None of which is true.  Marriages do end.  In the days when they couldn’t end or it was more difficult to end them than carry on being miserable in them, people found a way around that and continued their lives and fulfilling their own individual needs regardless of the laws of the land.  That marriage and relationships are difficult to sustain is a fact of life, it is about human nature and the evolution of individualism, in which  individual rights to  happiness comes to mean more than family and community.  It is part of the continuum of personhood and what it means to be human at any given time across the centuries.  Accepting that and the reality that post divorce law change in the early seventies brought wave upon wave of marriage and relationship breakdown, does not mean that we should ignore what this does to children.

And yet that is what we have done over the decades, in promoting the myth that divorce and separation do not harm children.  In fact we have repeatedly ignored the reality that it does do harm and that for children, the ending of the parental relationship, heralds an entry to a wasteland that no child should have to encounter.  Not only have we abandoned generation after generation of children to walk that wasteland alone, we have pointedly, and determinedly, avoided the reality of what that wasteland looks and feels like to a child, concentrating instead on the myths promulgated by the women’s rights movement, that a child’s needs are indivisible from those of their mothers.  Whilst there is a widespread belief that children’s rights are now central to the whole process of divorce and separation, the truth of the matter is that the child’s right to be heard, which is enshrined in Article 12 of the United Nations Rights of the Child, can be regarded as being harmful to children of divorce and separation in and of itself.

Article 12 of the UNCRC says that children and young people have the human right to have opinions and for these opinions to matter. It says that the opinions of children and young people should be considered when people make decisions about things that involve them, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand on the grounds of age. It also says children and young people should be given the information they need to make good decisions.

All well and good and perhaps entirely appropriate for children who are being healthily and properly supported informed and guided.  For children of divorce and separation however, Article 12 produces a burden like no other.  A burden which is handed to them at the very time they need their parents the most.  The time in their lives when, instead of being asked their opinion, they need to reassured that their parents are still there and still capable of caring for them.  Article 12 articulates the damage we have done and continue to do to children of divorce and separation because like the CAFCASS ‘wishes and feelings’ reports, it renders the child responsible for guiding adult decisions, a responsibility no child should be handed at the time when they have just entered into the bomb site of their emotional, psychological and spiritual lives.  A triple pressure which leads to life- long problems for many and a clearly articulated adverse life experience in the studies which demonstrate that trauma of this kind leads to life long challenges.

I have worked with children of divorce and separation for over two decades and I am now working with the adult children who were traumatised by divorce and separation in the decades gone by. What I see when I do this work is the manner in which the trauma of the unheard and untended past, is stored in the body as well as the mind, leaving a legacy of embodied toxic shame and guilt.  What I see when I do this work, are children locked in the cage of an adult defended self, children who are terrified and traumatised by the repeating themes of loss and abandonment.  Children who are adults now but for whom the world has not moved on from the moments they entered the wasteland.

As Alice Miller told us  –

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”

When I meet these adult children and enter into the wasteland with them, what I feel first is my own anger and frustration that here are children of a forgotten land, children who were abandoned to the terrors of coping alone with the most monumental and primal fears. Children whose parents in the divorce and separation process were not helped to cope with their adult suffering so that they could tend to their children’s terrors and comfort them, but who were incited to the battle for their rights and in the process were drawn away from their primary role as keepers of their children’s safety and towards something else.

That something else was about individual rights, women’s rights, personal rights.  Adult rights in divorce and separation have trumped children’s needs for the continued love and reassurance from their parents for more than four decades now.  And what that attitude has left in its wake is a trail of human devastation. Because in the midst of the fight that parents are forced to have are children, whose right to an unconscious experience of childhood has been systematically stripped from them as their parents battle on.  Children who have been routinely thrust into the wasteland of the post separation landscape without anyone or anything to accompany them.  Children who have had to cope with the worst of what life throws at them whilst the world looked the other way.

And we wonder why so many children use the coping mechanism of rejecting one parent and alignment with the other in this wasteland.  And why so many generations of children have grown up with one parent but not the other.  And why so many grow up to find themselves unable in the end to maintain their own adult relationships for any length of time.

And as a global society, we collectively spend time arguing about whether parental alienation exists or doesn’t exist, whether it should be called this or that and how it should be treated or if it should be treated.  We collectively spend our time dreaming up new ways of asking children what they think should happen and we proclaim ourselves ‘child friendly’ if we include children in the mediation sessions with their parents.  We do anything and everything but what we should be really doing, which is recognising the risks to children in divorce and separation and  guiding parents  in ways which ensure that they do not cast their children out into the wasteland of terror, which comes when the people a child depends upon for their very survival turn feral and upon each other.

In some instances, where parents are driven out of their minds with pain and suffering over divorce, or, where there is a trans-generational compulsion to trauma repetition, or where opportunist others make use of the vulnerability of the separated family, the wasteland can cause the kind of terrorised enmeshment that forces a child to align and reject –

“The same anxiety, however, if it reaches a certain maximum, compels them to subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor. Through the identification, or let us say, introjection of the aggressor, he disappears as part of the external reality, and becomes intra-instead of extra-psychic” Salvador Ferenzi (1932/1955, p. 162).

These are the kind of scenarios which come howling down the generational narrative on one side of the family to force the child into fearful allegiance.  They are real and they are present day risks to children but they have been ignored, excused or misinterpreted in our collective effort to ‘forget’ the harm that can be done to children.

We haven’t noticed them for forty years or more because we have been too busy concentrating upon the rights of adults.  Far from Richard Gardner being a distraction from our understanding of what happens to children in divorce and separation, I would argue it is the worldwide focus on the ideology of women’s rights which has caused us to abandon generation after generation of children to walk the divorce and separation  wasteland by themselves.  When services to support families through divorce and separation are based not upon a psychological understanding of what happens to children when their parents separate, but upon a political ideology, trauma in children is overlooked, dismissed or minimised. It is excused, justified and ultimately  continued because no-one dare say the unsayable.

But I will say it.

Divorce and separation is a terrifying, life changing and ultimately traumatising experience for children which requires us not to hand decision making power to the them but to take responsibility for caring for the divorcing family from a psychological not a political perspective.  As adults we must take responsibility so that children do not have to and in doing so we must be grown up in every way about it.

Wringing our hands and blaming ourselves is futile, asking forgiveness and self flagellation is meaningless and simply continues to hand our children the responsibility to carry the consequences of the decisions we made.  And before anyone tells me I am being preachy here,  I was a single parent to a child whose father left before she was born and I see the consequences of that action upon her life three decades later.   I see my own role in that too and I take responsibility for it.   I do not write about or do this work without personal experience.

My whole life in fact, has been about the personal experience of divorce, separation, alienation and abuse and how to transmogrify that into healing for others.  My earliest memories are of a child screaming as he was peeled away from his father to return to his mother and the anxiety, anger, rumination and blame that this caused amongst adults.

I knew then and I know now that the reason why so many  children of divorce and separation suffer so badly is because the adults in their childhood did not take responsibility or pay enough attention.  They were not helped to do so but instead were and are encouraged to focus upon their individual rights.  For four decades or more children of divorce and separation have lived with untended and unmet needs.  These are neglected children because for too long all of our support for the divorcing family has been about adult rights.  In the shadow of that children’s needs have been completely overlooked and it has caused immense harm to far too many.

Because of political ideology, collectively our eyes were blinded and our ears were deafened and we all hoped that if we looked away long enough it would go away and it would turn out ok.

It is not ok to neglect a child’s needs.  It was never ok and  it never will be ok.  Forcing parents to fight for their rights by pushing them into individualised adversarial positions and in the process telling them that their kids will be ok so long as they are not living in poverty is not ok.

Walking the wasteland with children of divorce and separation is like walking in a psychological bomb site and picking up broken limbs and battered hearts.  Asking a child in this wasteland what they would like to happen to them, is like holding their severed foot in your hand and asking them what shoes they would like to wear.  These children do NOT need to be asked for their views or opinions. What these children need first is their pain to  be heard, what they need next is the fundamental knowledge and experience that adults are there to help them.  Then, when decisions are made about their future, they need guiding hands and reassurance that the world will remain stable so that their terrorised selves can rest again in peace.

Helping adult children of divorce and separation is about going into the wasteland which is frozen in time and letting the child inside the adult know that someone is there who understands.  Someone who cares enough to be there until  the hardened defences begin to soften and fall away.  It is about helping children in a terrorising landscape, who continue, as adults, to cry out for  our help.

I have been listening to the pain of children in the wasteland of divorce and separation for almost all of my life.

It is time now to make their voices heard so that the rest of the world will listen.

(The title of this blog is inspired by the courage of an adult child in recovery from whom I learn so much.  With admiration and gratitude for all that I learn in my journey through the wasteland with all adult children of divorce and separation).


 

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London Conference August 30/31 2018

 

Special Session – Day Two Morning

Unpacking and Addressing Concerns about Alienated Children and Article 12

Prof. Gordana Flander

Child And Youth Protection Centre of Zagreb

Prof. Dr. Sc. Gordana Buljan Flander, Director of Child Protection Centre Zagreb, has spent thirty years of her careers on children. As a Pediatric Pediatrician at the Zagreb Children’s Disease Hospital, she often met with abused and neglected children who did not have the necessary protection of adults. She was therefore one of the first to recognise this issue in Croatia in the early 90s and devoted her further work. She is the founder of the counselling line for abused and neglected children “Brave Phone” and the initiator of the establishment of the Child Protection Centre of the City of Zagreb, recognized by the Council of Europe as a model of good practice and thus presented at the UN. Prof. Dr. Sc. Gordana Buljana Flander is a recipient of numerous awards for her work, including the award to the Polyclinic multidisciplinary team awarded by the International Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) in 2008. Along with her professional work, she has been actively engaged in scientific work and has also published numerous scientific and professional papers at international conferences and publishes books, manuals and brochures for parents, children and experts.

Website

In this special session, Professor Flander will discuss the risks to alienated children posed by Article 12 of the UNRC in the context of her work in Croatia with children who are emotionally abused in divorce and separation.  Professor Flander will also chair a discussion panel which will include a leading Croatian Psychiatrist and Family Court Judge, to unpack a better way to support children in the post divorce and separation landscape.

Professor Flander is a powerful advocate for children in Europe and a champion of abused children, her work in this field is a driving force for positive change and the Family Separation Clinic is delighted to be working with her and her team in the development of EAPAP and other projects devoted to raising awareness and developing services for alienated children and their families everywhere.

This special session opens discussion about parental alienation as a form of emotional and psychological child abuse, which will be further explored throughout the day.

Buy tickets for the EAPAP Conference here 

7 Comments

  1. “Walking the wasteland with children of divorce and separation is like walking in a psychological bomb site and picking up broken limbs and battered hearts.”

    I pick up on your words “psychological bomb site”……..and wonder where have the psychological bodies/ organisations been on this issue all these years? Why have they not spoken up? Why have children in these circumstances been left in the hands of legal people and /or social workers……none of whom are usually practising psychotherapists as well? So often I felt that the wrong person was being assigned a task they were not professionally trained to do…….and helpless to stop it happening.

    Why have psychology professionals in general not been shouting from the rooftops about the pain of children of divorced/separated parents? Why have they let themselves be sidelined by the likes of eg Cafcass? Anyone, and everyone, who has ( and continues to) ignore/sideline the emotional anguish of children in these circumstances should be ashamed of themselves. Divorce is tough and rough on all involved…. adults, and children…….the emotional chaos it involves needs gentle, supportive psychological help……not endless legalised posturing.

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    1. Agreed Sadsam, absolutely agreed. I don’t know why psychologists have let themselves be sidelined other than their terror of the ideologues and the real risks inherent in working in the post separation landscape, one of which is becoming used by one parent against the other and then being complained about and sanctioned by a governing body which does not understand the issues – as I was and as so many of us who do this work often are. The risks are greater than some can stand and the experience of children get forgotten in that. Which is why we are building a dedicated governing body for people who work in this space, it is the only way we will build more responses to help.

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      1. Maybe too many of them are just not, emotionally, ‘up to the task’ and also short on what should be the prerequisite skill of honesty. Fear seems to be the driver (over love and courage)

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  2. “…but upon a political ideology, trauma in children is overlooked, dismissed or minimized.”

    I have seen and felt that trauma taken even further, wielded as another weapon to justify its very creation and continuation. Through it all, and still today, “but think of the children” runs through my head like a tape loop.

    A political ideology. And a sick, selfish one.

    I salute you Karen, for addressing this with such rare honesty. I hope you don’t acquire another batch of “fans” for speaking the truth.

    Thank you.

    Like

  3. We have political schizophrenia when under Article 12 we don’t respect a child’s “right” to choose to leave education until they are 17 and yet we respect the “right” of a child as young as 12 to choose to leave a normal parent.

    Liked by 1 person

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