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What Happens to the Children?

Hindie M. Klein, PsyD

The marriage is ending.

Let’s start with some facts. In the general population, 50% of marriages end in divorce within 10 years.  60% of divorces occur for couples between the ages of 25-39.  Over 1,000,000 children are affected by divorce per year.  Half of these children will grow up in families where the parents stay angry and resentful with each other.

Unhappy parents have a hard time raising happy children.

Children of divorce have higher rates of substance abuse, conduct disorders, depression, interpersonal problems and problems in school.

In the Orthodox world, the statistics are different, most assuredly less.  However, frightfully, they are accelerating rapidly.  Some say 20%. And there is a shift in why this is happening.  Years ago, a couple got divorced for “extreme” reasons:  domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, infidelity, or untreatable mental illness, to name a few.  Nowadays, it’s all these reasons and more.    Couples get divorced because they are too impatient or intolerant or not emotionally connected enough to see it through and learn the skills that can help them have a really good relationship and a really good marriage.

Landmark studies like the ones done by Judith Wallerstein and others indicate that years later, both men and women are still quite angry at their former spouses. It is important to remember that often anger is the manifest, or outer, layer of emotion that is being used to cover up the latent feelings underneath—that of sadness, pain, shame and despair.  This anger can be dealt with in many ways:  some turn their anger inward, causing depression. Many use their anger to bitterly malign their former spouse.  Often their goal is to destroy any possible relationship their Ex might have with their children.  The rationale:  the ex-spouse is not worthy of a parent-child relationship.  

WHAT DOES THIS DO TO THE CHILDREN?
Even in the best of circumstances—what we might call an “amicable” divorce, the children will be affected in a highly emotional and significant way.  The goal of a “good” divorce is for parents to communicate effectively, without bitterness and rancor, and not let the children get “caught in the middle”. Their commitment to their children should fuel their energies and enable them to work together to help their children cope and adjust to the changes brought on by the divorce. 

Unfortunately, more often, there is maligning, accusations, spitefulness and deep anger.   This creates an environment for the children that is fraught with instability, despair, confusion and frustration and can only lead to feelings of low self-esteem and poor adjustment in all areas of living:  psychologically, socially, academically and behaviorally.

In a word: The negative reactions and behaviors of the parents are what prevent the children from coping and adjusting properly – not the divorce itself.

This fundamental and crucial concept is difficult for parents to digest and internalize.  Why? Because it requires parents to own their feelings, to own their behaviors and to realize that it is their behavior, not only the other parent’s that can be harmful to their child.

HELPING OURSELVES, HELPING OUR CHILDREN
Taking Care of Everything, Including Yourself

Several years ago, I spoke to a group of parents concerning “doing it all and self-care”.  Consider the following:  you are on a plane, awaiting takeoff.  The flight attendant begins her (or his) Safety and Security announcements.  At one point, she notes the oxygen mask stored above and states that if oxygen is necessary, a mask will drop down.  She describes how the mask must be placed properly over nose and mouth.  And then she will emphasize that if you are travelling with a small child, please put the mask on yourself first, before you place the mask on your child.  In other words, you can’t care properly for your child, if you haven’t properly cared for yourself.

Parents who are divorcing or divorced need to take care of themselves so that they will have the positive energy to care for others, particularly their children, who most assuredly need them more than ever at this time. Some ways include:

Support Groups. Hearing that you are not alone and that your situation is not entirely unique can be supportive and helpful.  Sharing experiences, and giving and getting advice to and from others can be nurturing and empowering.

Friends and Family.  Allow yourself to get the support and empathy you need by allowing them to pitch in and help you, whether it is by babysitting, taking your child to Shul on Shabbos, or going out for some relaxation time together. It is best to choose a family member that can be strong with you and for you, respect your privacy and understand their boundaries.

Taking Time to Relax.  Sounds impossible? It doesn’t have to be.  Here’s a good example of how friends and family can be a big help.  Let them take the kids for an afternoon or evening or even 2 hours, so that you can have some time to yourself.

Keeping a Diary.  This is a very helpful way to make sense of your experiences, to express emotions and to reflect on how you want to proceed.

Therapy.  A licensed mental health professional, such as a Psychologist, Social Worker or Mental Health Counselor can provide an excellent opportunity to discuss experiences and raging emotions and help release tension and frustration.  A good therapist knows that they can’t necessarily change what is going on but, by being empathically attuned to your experiences, can provide you with increased emotional strength, and help you to come to your own decisions about what and how you would like to proceed.  A good therapist will also help you understand the intricate dynamics that will help address why you chose this person as a spouse, what went wrong in the marriage, and how you can avoid future painful relationships.

HELPING YOUR CHILDREN:   WHAT’S IT LIKE FOR THEM?
“I remember when my parents divorced.  I was 7 years old.  Neither of my parents fully explained to me why they were divorcing and I was so confused.  I assumed it was my fault, it was something I did. I felt so guilty.  I spent so many years trying to repair that, trying to get them back together, even though I knew deep down that they really shouldn’t stay married.  I just hoped that once they got back together, everything would be alright and I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty anymore. It really affected my self-esteem.  I know better now, but it took years”.

These are some composite statements made by young adults about their childhood experiences.  Why are children so quick to take the blame?

Children need to see their parents as perfect people, beyond reproach.  Their attempt to gain mastery over their world, coupled with their view of parents who are loving and good and who will keep them safe, leave them no room for anything but self-blame. In addition, often children hear parents arguing over child-related issues, which further enforce their view that it is their fault and theirs to correct. 

It is imperative that you tell children from the outset, that the divorce has nothing to do with them, and that it was your decision as parents, and what you, as parents, think is best for the family.  

DON’T LET YOUR CHILDREN GET CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
Children see their parents as a part of themselves. They know that it took 2 parents to create them and as such, they are a reflection of each parent.  From a child’s point of view, when one parent says negative things about the other, the parent is not only maligning the other parent, they are maligning the child.   As one child noted:  “Please don’t say those horrible things about Daddy.  When you say those things, I feel you are saying bad things about me too. If you can’t say anything nice about Daddy in front of me, just don’t say anything at all”.

Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to ensure that your child will not get “caught in the middle:

DO’S:
Send a clear message to the child that while getting divorced, you love them and have their best interest in mind

Assure them that it is not their fault.  

Assure them that each parent will try their best to have the best possible relationship with the other parent- and mean it

Work together with the other parent to develop  a visitation schedule that is best for the children

Empathize with your child, acknowledging is a very difficult time for them, but letting them know that there is hope for a better, happier future

Get help for your child from an outside non-judgmental party, if they feel they need to talk to someone other than the parents.  Therapists, Rabbis, or school counselors are all possible options.

Take the high road

DON’TS:
Do not malign the other parent

Do not fight about the children in front of them; it will only increase the child’s guilt

Do not use the child as a messenger, or pawn of manipulation

Do not use the child as a Spy

Do not use your child as a therapist, sounding board, or confidante.  There are others in your life that can fill that role

CHILDREN AND DIVORCE:  A COMMUNITY CALL TO ARMS
Making sure that children of divorce develop optimally is not only the responsibility of the divorcing parents.  As Hillary Clinton noted:  “It takes a village……”   As the number of children from divorced homes fill our Shuls and Schools, educators and Rabbis alike need to affirm their commitment to these children and to their spiritual, academic, social-emotional and behavioral growth. 

I recently had an enlightening conversation with Rabbi Aaron Kotler, of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood.  Rabbi Kotler, who is exceptionally psychologically minded, spoke of how the Jewish Home serves as the central vehicle for children to absorb the Jewish way of life.  Children develop their sense of our mores, values and practices through the delivery system of Jewish parenting and the Jewish home.  If this system is disrupted via divorce, how do our children develop the skills and the confidence needed to perpetuate the Jewish way of life? 

Rabbi Kotler says this requires that the ‘village’ step in with extra help for these children.  He suggests that schools develop a Protocol, or Management Plan that can be both general, utilizing a simple set of checklists, and tailor-made for each child.  Each year, the School Principal, and the child’s teachers would meet to discuss the child and his or her specific needs, particularly pertaining to the divorce.  The Plan for each child would incorporate variables such as gender, age, cognitive development, current family situation, and so on, and then be tailored to the needs of the child. It may require simple steps such as ensuring that the child has someone to pray with on Shabbos or to do homework with, or, at times it may require a far more intensive set of interventions. The outcome of their discussions could then be reviewed with the family Rabbi.  Together, Rabbi and School would collaborate, ensuring that the child is not on the ‘outs’ in school and Shul and that the broken home is reinforced by community.  

Rabbi Peysach Krohn, the noted Maggid, talks passionately about Children of Divorce and community involvement.  In his first invited address on this topic, given at an event co-sponsored by OHEL and the Task Force on Children and Families at Risk in the Orthodox Jewish Community in May 2009, Rabbi Krohn gave out little cards with different helpful suggestions on how to help the children and parents, such as offering to take a 10- year old boy to Shul, or inviting a divorced parent and children for Shabbos lunch. 

Rabbi Yanky Horowitz, of Project YES and of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, has developed classes for women who are either divorced or widowed.  Rabbi Horowitz teaches women how to learn Mishnayos with their sons!! This is an innovative concept that can be immeasurably helpful both for mothers and their sons, who otherwise might not have anyone to learn with them each evening.  

These Rabbis, all progressive thinkers, have developed ideas that when implemented can truly make a difference in the lives of children of divorce.  Our goal as a community is to foster this mindset for every Rabbi, every Mechanech, and every inspirational speaker.

At OHEL, we have been passionate about helping children of divorce for many years.  Now, with the significant increase in divorce, OHEL is providing a number of new services and programs to best meet the growing challenges and needs of such children. Upcoming on Sunday 18 November is a Webinar for divorcing or divorced parents, family and friends entitled “Don’t Let the Children Get Caught in the Middle” and on Monday 19 November is our second Webinar for Rabbi’s and Educators entitled “Reinforcing Anchors for Children of Divorce.”

As Rabbi Reuven Fink, the noted Rabbi of Young Israel of New Rochelle, recently told me, “Rabbi Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik spoke about “mimetic Judaism”, from the word “mimicking.  Children mimic what they see.  Parents act as role models for their children to “mimic” and develop.  If this is disrupted, what role models do children have to mimic?”  He continued to note that it is only when parents behave properly with their children, even after they get divorced, and only when the Rabbis, Educators and the community are involved, will the children have proper role models to help them perpetuate their sense of self, as individuals and in Judaism. 

The author would like to thank M. Gary Neuman, LMHC for his helpful research and writings on children of divorce.  Mr. Neuman is a noted therapist, speaker and expert in the field of divorce and is the author of Helping Your Child Cope with Divorce, the Sandcastles Way (Random House, 1999), as well as several other books on marriage and relationships.

Dr. Hindie M. Klein is the Director of Clinical Projects for OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services.  She is a psychologist/psychoanalyst who maintains a private practice specializing in the treatment of children, adolescents, adults and couples.  Dr. Klein can be reached at Hindie_klein@OHELfamily.org

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