The vast majority of divorcing parents I meet are concerned about the impact ending their relationship will have on their children. They love their children, they do still want a family for their children and they don’t want the lives of their children to be more difficult.
The challenge always comes in the details of how to accomplish all that. These hurdles are compounded by a common mistake we, as adults often make: assuming that our child thinks the same way as we do.
That’s where Dr. John T. Chirban‘s book, Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through The Minefield Of Divorce may help.
Dr. Chirban, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, conducted The Divorce Study asking children about the impact of divorce on their lives and their relationships and asking parents how they met their children’s needs during and after divorce. They received over 10,000 responses and it’s those responses that Chirban shares in Collateral Damage.
The research results are broken down into two main categories – Guiding and Protecting Your Children and Navigating Divorce for Parents. In each chapter, Chirban shares insightful responses from the survey participants. For me, reading the recollections from people of how they perceived their parents’ divorce as a child at the time, is the most valuable. It shows how easy it is to misread our kids, to think that everything is OK and to be unaware of what they’re really thinking. Reading these will increase your awareness of what your child may be struggling with and that may create opportunities for you to support your child with those struggles now, rather than discovering them many years down the road. Fortunately, there are many more resources available now to divorcing parents than there were when some of the respondents experienced their parents’ divorce.
Topics covered include:
- Building the family—not ending it
- Tuning into your kids
- Meeting your kids real needs
- Stabilizing childhood
- Maintaining parent/child roles
- Being Actively Present
- Keeping kids out of the war zone
- Instilling trust
- Keeping open lines of communication
- Attuning to guiding, spiritual resources
- Inspiring with lessons for a meaningful life
Each chapter closes with a list of recommendations for parents.
Thankfully, this is not an academic research paper – it’s an easy read and any parent who does read it will come away with at least a few practical suggestions for supporting their child which will mean that time spent reading this is worthwhile.
There was one aspect of the book that I found surprising and disappointing. I found a few instances where Chirban allows himself to use the negative language of divorce and there’s still a hint that divorce is a life event that is a matter of choice, that somehow if we work harder at the marriage it can avoided. Some examples …
Stating, “the failure of a marriage does not mean the end of the family,” is true but I’d prefer, “the end of a marriage does not mean …” By continuing to refer to the end of a relationship as a ‘failure,’ we continue the message that if you divorce then you are a failure. This creates further damage to what many times is already fragile self-esteem and makes it even harder for people to move forward with ending what are often unhealthy relationships.
Stating, “children are the real victims of divorce,” is creating a scenario where there is only one victim. The truth is that divorce is an extremely difficult life transition and it impacts every member of the family and often the extended family. My belief is that as a society we need to make it easier for people to end relationships with dignity and respect and by giving people the tools to do this, we will lessen the adverse impact of divorce on families.
To Chirban’s credit, he does acknowledge that some parents don’t formally divorce but live essentially separate lives and the impacts on children in these marriages can be very similar to those experienced by children whose parents do divorce formally.
So a question for you … if your parents’ divorced, do you have a recollection of that as a child that still resonates with you or that you now recall and wonder why you thought that?