The marriage is ending.
Let’s start with some facts. In the general population, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce within 10 years. Sixty percent of divorces occur among couples between the ages of 25-39. More than a million children are affected by divorce per year. Half of these children will grow up in families where the parents stay angry and resentful toward each other.
Unhappy parents have a hard time raising happy children. Children of divorce have higher rates of substance abuse, conduct disorders, depression, interpersonal issues and problems in school.
In the Orthodox world the figures aren’t quite that high – but they are accelerating rapidly. Years ago a couple got divorced for “extreme” reasons: domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, infidelity, or untreatable mental illness. Now it’s those reasons and more. Couples get divorced because they are too impatient or intolerant or not emotionally connected enough to see crises 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 after a divorce both men and women are still quite angry with their former spouses. It is important to remember that anger often is the manifest, or outer, layer of emotion that is being used to cover up underlying feelings 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 the former spouse. Often the goal is to destroy any possible relationship the ex might have with the children, the rationale being that the ex-spouse is not worthy of a parent-child relationship.
Even in the best of circumstances – what we might call an “amicable” divorce –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 than not we see maligning, accusations, spitefulness and deep anger. This creates an environment for the children that is fraught with instability, despair, confusion and frustration and that can only lead to feelings of low self-esteem and poor adjustment in all areas of living – psychologically, socially, academically and behaviorally.
In other words, 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 them to own their feelings, to own their behaviors and to realize it is their behavior, not just the behavior of the other parent, that can be harmful to the child.
Helping Our Children
Several years ago I spoke to a group of parents concerning “doing it all and self-care.” Consider the following scenario: 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 emphasizes that if you are traveling with a small child, put the mask on yourself first, before you place the mask on your child. Because 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 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 friends and family members to pitch in and help you, whether by babysitting, taking your child to shul on Shabbos, or going out for some relaxation time together. It is best to choose family members who can be strong with you and for you, who can respect your privacy and understand their boundaries.
• Taking Time to Relax. Sound 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 a couple of 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 he or she 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 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 seven 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 all right 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 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 attempts 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, children often hear parents arguing over child-related issues, which further enforces their view that it is their fault and their responsibility to correct.
It is imperative that you tell children from the outset that the divorce has nothing to do with them, that it was your decision as parents, and it is what you, as parents, think is best for the family.
Children see their parents as a part of themselves. They know it took two 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, that parent is not only maligning the other parent, he or she are maligning the child. As one child implored: “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 Dos and Don’ts to help ensure that children won’t get caught in the middle:
Dos: • Do send a clear message that though you’re getting divorced, you love them and have their best interest in mind. • Do assure them that it is not their fault. • Do tell them that each parent will try their best to have the best possible relationship with the other parent – and mean it. • Do work together with the other parent to develop a visitation schedule that is best for the children. • Do empathize with your children, acknowledging that it is a very difficult time for them but letting them know that there is hope for a better, happier future. • Do get help for your children from an outside non-judgmental party if they feel they need to talk to someone other than their parents. Therapists, rabbis, and school counselors are all possible options. • Do take the high road.
Don’ts: • Don’t malign the other parent. • Don’t fight about the children in front of them; it will only increase their feelings of guilt. • Don’t use children as messengers or pawns of manipulation. • Don’t use children as spies. • Don’t use your children as therapists, sounding boards or confidantes. There are others in your life who can fill those roles.
Children and Divorce:
A Community Call to Arms
Making sure that children of divorce develop optimally is not just the responsibility of the divorcing parents. In the phrase made famous by Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village.” As more and more 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 mores, values and practices through the delivery system of Jewish parenting and the Jewish family. If this system is disrupted via divorce, how do children develop the skills and confidence needed to perpetuate the Jewish way of life?
Rabbi Kotler says the “village” must step in with extra help for these children. He suggests that schools develop a protocol or management plan that can be general, utilizing a simple set of checklists, as well as tailor-made for each child. Each year the 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 and current family situation and may require simple steps such as ensuring that the child has someone to do homework with or to pray with on Shabbos. (At times, far more intensive set of interventions might be necessary.) The outcome of these discussions could then be reviewed with the family rabbi. This type of collaboration would ensure that the child is not on the “outs” in school and shul and that the broken home is reinforced by the community.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn, the noted maggid, talks passionately about children of divorce and community involvement. In his first invited address on this topic, given in May 2009 at an event co-sponsored by Ohel and the Task Force on Children and Families at Risk in the Orthodox Jewish Community, Rabbi Krohn gave out little cards with helpful suggestions on how to help 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 Yakov Horowitz, founder and director of Project YES and Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, has developed classes for women who are either divorced or widowed. Rabbi Horowitz even 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 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 in every rabbi, every mechanech and every inspirational speaker.
At Ohel we have been deeply involved in helping children of divorce for many years. And in light of the significant increase in the number of divorces, Ohel is providing many new services and programs to best meet the challenges and needs of such children. On Sunday, November 18, there will be a webinar for divorcing or divorced parents, family and friends titled “Don’t Let the Children Get Caught in the Middle” and on Monday, November 19, we will hold our second webinar for rabbis and educators titled “Reinforcing Anchors for Children of Divorce.”
Rabbi Reuven Fink, noted spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Rochelle, recently told me that “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. If this is disrupted, what role models do children have to mimic?”
He went on to note that it is only when parents behave properly with their children – even after they get divorced – and only when rabbis, educators and the community at large are involved, that children have proper role models to help them perpetuate their sense of self, as individuals and in terms of their 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 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.
About the Author: Dr. Hindie M. Klein is 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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