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A world breaks apart: When parents split up

Julia Vergin fs
May 21, 2019

Parents may have good reasons for separating. But their children often find their world in shatters. It doesn't have to be an endless catastrophe, though, if adults don't forget one thing: that they remain parents.


Developmental psychologist Harald Werneck vividly remembers the 12-year-old who wouldn't eat the school lunch his dad had packed for him. The child's father, as a result, got so furious at the boy that he then divorced the boy's mother and moved out — or at least, that's how the boy had worked it all out in his head.

Children have their own perspective on their parents' separation. They draw conclusions that may seem absurd to an adult mind, and yet they make perfect sense in the child's eyes. And these misinterpretations stick.

So what can parents do to make separation easier for their kids? And what are the things they should not do, no matter how angry, sad or hurt they may be, if their relationship implodes?

It doesn't have to be bad news

To try to answer those questions I spoke to children as well as psychologists.

Corinna, a nine-year-old, said she'd been enjoying "a pretty regular morning" until her mother asked her to come into the living room. That's where she was told her that daddy would be moving out. That day.

Corinna says she was blindsided, scared, that she didn't understand what was going on.

Yet isn't that to be expected from children whose parents split up? Isn't it always a bad experience?

"No," says psychologist and family therapist Beatrice Wypych. "If the parents fought a lot when they were still together, separating can actually make things more relaxed," she told DW.

Parents who are constantly at war with each other end up poisoning the atmosphere at home, Wypych says. They're so preoccupied with their own situation that they basically forget about their kids.

Once that relationship is over — and with it, the long-running conflict — mom and dad can focus on their children once more.

Yet many kids just don't get enough background information. They can feel the tension or hostility between their parents, but they don't understand its source.

"If you don't communicate with your children," Wypych says, "they're left alone with their feelings and try to make sense of things themselves."

You're not to blame!

Another woman I spoke to was Anica. Now 28, she says her parents, too, fought frequently before they separated. "My mom was always sad," she says. "And as a child, you think you're the one to blame for it."

For psychologist Werneck, this childlike assumption comes as no surprise. "Especially at preschool ages, children think very egocentrically," he says. "They believe that they've more or less contributed to everything that happens in the world."

Many parents, he adds, simply forget to tell the children that they're not to blame for the failure of the relationship.

Read more: Psychology: A happy partner is the elixir of longer life

Infographic: Children of divorces couples more often show behavioral problems

Nine-year-old Corinna says she has never blamed herself for her parents' separation.

Her mother, though, did expect her to take sides.

"My mother expected us to be angry with our father," she says. "That was my mother's biggest mistake. She made her problems with my father ours."

Emotional orphans

Wypych, who also works as a legal psychologist, says kids ultimately lose both their parents when the adult parties become obsessed with their mutual conflict. The children, she says, "are like emotional orphans." The mother talks badly about the father, while the father talks badly about the mother. The children, meanwhile, are forced to stand between the two and are ultimately torn apart. A damaged parent-child relationship is the natural consequence.

Wypych explains that when one party talks badly about the other in front of the child, they probably don't consider the fact that some of those negative words or labels can end up sticking to the child as well.

"A part of the child is therefore made permanently bad," she says. And the collateral damage to a child's self-esteem, she adds, can be massive. 

Read more: Psychology: What are anxiety disorders?

A child holding on to the hand of a parent
For children, stability is most important - especially when the parents go different waysImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

No matter how "justified" adults may consider their own aggression, their insults, their small acts of revenge against their soon-to-be-ex-partner to be, for the child listening, it is cruel.

This much was also confirmed by the people who shared their experiences for this article.

"What matters is whether the parents manage to separate their role as a [former] couple from their role as parents," Wypych says. It may sound like a feat of strength that borders on the impossible, but there's no clear way around it.

The therapist therefore recommends that dysfunctional couples who do have children seek professional advice on separation. Many non-profit organizations offer such services. It is important, she says, to continue to convey to the children that they are safe and that they can come to both of their parents with any and all concerns.

Parents and friends

For the separated parents who are still reading at this point — and who are perhaps breathing a sigh of relief because they've managed to remain friends with their ex-partner — this arrangement, too, is not always easy on children.

"As adults, and above all as psychologists, we would naturally describe this as the better starting point," Werneck says. "The children ask themselves, though, 'Why did my parents separate at all?'"

Whereas children who once had "screaming parents" can see an improvement in their day-to-day lives after separation, children whose parents did not have obvious problems — and yet still pulled apart — perceive the event as a great loss.

So are children from divorced parents doomed to unhappiness?

Beatrice Wypych says no.

As an adult, it's important to deal with the things we experienced as children and to put them into context, she says.

You can then ask yourself: What competencies have I acquired through these difficult experiences that, despite everything, will help me lead a fulfilling life?

Psychologists agree that a negative or positive interpretation of one's own life story is decisive for present happiness. "Of course, this sounds much simpler than it is," Wypych admits.

First and foremost, though, parents who do separate should try to see the world through the eyes of their children.

Then, for their kids, a divorce doesn't have to be an endless catastrophe.

Read more: Workplace feedback doesn't have to crush you

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