When families undergo the separation or divorce of parents, each member of the family has to reconstruct not only an external world but also an internal one. The external world has to be reconstructed in terms of children having perhaps two homes instead of one, parents working out suitable child-care and new financial arrangements, Christmases and birthdays being renegotiated. The whole arena is fraught with potential points of difficulty and there are an increasing number of agencies set up who offer parents help with the practical and emotional issues so that the whole process runs as smoothly as possible for the children and for the adults. The internal world reconstruction is less visible but is usually played out in the external arrangements. It is the child’s internal world that I want to focus on in this article.
If children have been brought up with two parents, they have a sense inside them of two parents working together. Their sense of security is laid down at a very early age, when they are still babies, as firstly a dyadic (twosome) relationship is established with the mother, then a third person is allowed in i.e. the partner of the mother. This is an important moment as it is the third person who fulfils the role of allowing the baby to experience the mother not just as his possession but also as a person who has other relationships. It is the first experience the baby has of sharing the mother. If a baby is born to elder siblings, he will of course have to share his mother with those siblings, but they are fellow dependents, not a big independent adult.
So, by the toddler years, the child is feeling relatively secure about the fact that he is not so all-powerful that he dominates the world (his mother), although his tantrums might tell you that he still wished he did! Instead, he knows his place in the world as a child who has two parents to look after him and to look after each other. He feels secure in that knowledge and can be freed to concentrate on his important task of developing through his crucial childhood years, without having to think about how he survives.
It should be stated here that if a child is born to a single parent, he can still feel secure in his world. The single parent carries the ‘couple’ in him or herself. Every single parent knows that feeling of having to be ‘mum and dad.’ Firm decisions and boundaries need to be made whilst being an available and receptive parent too. It might be harder without an actual partner being there and even more necessary for the parent to make it clear to the child that she has other friends and interests too.
However, for a child who has grown up with two parents, what happens when he learns that his two parents are no longer a couple who want to live together? Temporarily, his sense of security collapses. He has firmly lodged in his mind the parental couple and he now has the task of separating them in his mind. He loves them both individually but he also loves them both as a couple. He has an ‘internal catastrophe.’ Added to that, one parent, usually the father, leaves the home. Whoever leaves, the child experiences an immense sense of loss. He loses not just the ‘couple inside’ but in addition he will see one of his parents for significantly reduced periods of time.
How does the child manage all this? Children are very adaptable and if they have a secure early upbringing, they are able to make the adjustment. They can change their internal picture of the ‘couple inside’ to one where the couple are both still parents but they are separate too. This process can of course be helped enormously by the managing of the external processes. If parents can set up adequate contact arrangements and can reassure children that they are still there for them, security can be re-established in a different way. If loss can be talked about and acknowledged, it is very helpful. If new partners are on the scene, they need to be introduced gradually, until the child has managed to separate his parents ‘inside’ his head, not just in the external world.
Many children of separated parents, once they have processed the change, find it hard to put their two parents together again in their minds. This might feel painful to the parents but it is important to respect. Christmases and special occasions where both parents are together can be useful and necessary but boundaries should be crystal clear for children so they do not have to keep changing their internal picture of their parents. If parents try to hold onto a false picture of being together once they have made the break, children can become confused and angry.
Parental separation is a painful process for all concerned and not one that would be recommended. However, sometimes it is unavoidable and can be preferable to parents staying in a destructive relationship. Then it is important to remember that, with thoughtful work, recovery is very possible. Children often express feelings of being happier once the ‘dust has settled’ as they can recognise how much happier their parents are living apart than they were living together. At times families will need to seek help from agencies who can assist thinking if emotions become too overwhelming, although most children just need time and loving attention as they adjust to the huge change in their lives.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists