I am working on a book currently entitled: “Children and Divorce: The Effects of Abandonment and Estrangement: Understanding the Consequences, The Importance of Healing, And a Chance to Reconnect.” While doing my research, I have spoken with many adult children who have shared their stories on how this loss has affected their lives. I’m often saddened by these stories, but in awe as to how many of these adult children have risen above their loss to develop an emotionally healthy outlook on life.
That’s why I was compelled to watch psychotherapist, Gary Neuman, who appeared on one of Oprah’s last shows. He interviewed two young children, a brother and sister, who were abandoned by their mother when she divorced her husband — their father. The children were crying, and yet were remarkably articulate in their description of their thoughts and feelings regarding their mother’s abandonment of them due to divorce.
While parents divorce each other, they don’t divorce their children. Children nonetheless are the ones who live out the divorce because their day-to-day routines, not to mention their emotional lives, are so deeply affected by it. And of course, the impact of being estranged or abandoned by a parent as a result of divorce can have far reaching and long- lasting consequences. Many leading experts on children of divorce question whether the abandonment or estrangement necessarily leads to lifelong behavioral and emotional scarring. They have found that one parent’s love, nurturing, and support, can go a long way to helping a child overcome many of the emotional and behavioral issues that otherwise could ensue.
Divorce can affect the closeness of the parent – child relationship for a number for reasons and can take a significant emotional toll on the child. Joan Kelly PhD, one of the foremost experts on children of divorce, defines an estranged relationship between a parent and child as a diminished, thinned out, and less meaningful bond. And, she says that 24% of children from divorced families are seeing a parent once a year, if at all.
In his research, Robert Emery PhD, Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, found that nonresidential fathers saw their children only 4 times per month following divorce, and about 20% of children had no contact at all with their fathers 2-3 years after divorce. Other research concluded that, many college-age students of divorced parents who had a limited relationship with their fathers while growing up stated that they would have liked more contact with their fathers during their adolescence, would have liked to have been closer, and wanted more time together.
A parent’s rejection of a child or a parent’s inconsistent presence could drastically affect a child’s self esteem. One good parent who is loving and nurturing can overcome the negative affects of losing the relationship with the other parent. While the emotional impact on a child resulting from the loss of a parent’s relationship could be significant, it doesn’t have to be disastrous.
According to psychologist Marsha Kline Pruett PhD, while abandonment doesn’t heal easily, a good therapist and a good same sex therapist or male therapist, especially in the case of father abandonment, is helpful for children. In addition the involved parent should continue to build up their child’s relationships with other people, continue to help them have successful experiences in the world, and continue to talk with them.
I found the information Gary Newman offered this family interviewed on Oprah insightful and healing, especially for others in this same situation. This is what he advised:
Family is not a just about biology. Find role models who will support and care about you.
Be there for your kids. Be reliable, pay child support, show your love, and do what you say you are going to do.
Provide help. Initiate the conversation about their loss of the relationship with their other parent. Lend an understanding ear. Don’t lecture, and don’t feel you have to have the perfect answer.
Honesty. Find help for what to say to your children if you don’t know what to say.
Children need to be heard. You can’t control what the other parent does; you can only control yourself. To help your children get through their pain, ensure that they feel heard and listened to –that gives them value.
As you can see, one parent is enough to set their children up for love for the rest of their lives.
As both Joan Kelly and Robert Emery advise, you don’t want your children to see themselves through the lens of divorce; you want them to see themselves as regular children. Their self identification is important and you don’t want them to identify themselves as a child of divorce but rather, as an adolescent or young adult who says, “I am a graduate student in psychology,” or “I’m a musician and I plan to become a successful jazz pianist.” You want your children to perceive themselves with their own goals and aspirations, independent of their status as the children of divorce.