HRT: The life of a child in a war zone between divorced parents may serve as a basis for developing psychiatric disorders later

The new book “Child in the Center of (Conflict) – Parental Divorce, High Conflict and Alienation: Science, Theory and Clinical Practice” written by our Director, Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, and psychologist Mia Roje Đapić were featured at HRT in the program “Hello Croatia” on March 9, 2020. The book is intended for professionals and parents who divorce and have children. When asked what makes this book different from other books about divorce, the director emphasized:

– In this book, we have not only talked about the so-called an ordinary divorce, or a friendly divorce or a divorce where the parents can agree, but we talked about the one that most causes problems for the children, which is a divorce where the parents cannot agree, where they put the child at the center of the conflict, where the child lives in the war zone sometimes for years, where they have not really seen one another or seen a child since their conflict. These are children at risk of being emotionally abused, these are children who are often emotionally abused, and these are children who often go through the system as unrecognized emotional abuse, and are ultimately not protected by either their parents or the system. That is why we wanted to dedicate these books to these children, and to experts who work with these children and with such families, to get some guidance, because there are no such books on the market, at least not in Croatian, on how to work with children who have already been alienated or are on the way to being estranged from one of the parents.

Invisible wounds of children in divorce when parents are in conflict

Mia Roje Djapic explained that these were invisible bruises and invisible wounds of these children:

– There’s a wonderful illustration that shows that. For example, when it comes to the physical abuse or punishment of a child, these are the bruises on the body that are quite clear, they are visible and it is clear to the child that this should not happen, and it is also clear to experts that the child is physically abused. So these are the wounds that are visible. These emotional-type wounds can be invisible at other times, and these are then children who pass under the radar in the system without being recognized adequately. And research and clinical practice shows that abuse is abuse. Not only in divorce, but also generally emotional abuse is the least explored, the least recognized, abstractedly. Or, let’s say, let’s give the parent a chance to improve, that the child wants to be with that parent. We always ask our colleagues what if that sexual abuse. Would we say the same. Shall we say “but the child wants to be with a person who is a perpetrator of sexual abuse”. So one of the additional goals of this book is to put emotional abuse and those children into focus.


How much time has passed since that emotional abuse begins until it is revealed, the editor asked.

– Unfortunately, a lot of the time, precisely because these are bruises that are invisible, precisely because we say “well, in every family there are problems, it is better for a child to have a mom and a dad”, so when a child says “I want to be with a parent without no matter what abuses me because I want to get parents love”. Because emotional abuse is something that even the experts cannot recognize from the first. And some who recognize don’t want to react. They do not want to react, because some experts say if the child is emotionally abused, parents may come to mind, so we will give them a little more time. This is an area where there is so much passion. In a high-conflict divorce, there is a lot of passion, and professionals who protect a children often get threats from their parents, the parents’ threats to put them in the media, whatever they do, and then in fact the anger of the parent directed at the other parent is directed at the expert. So even the experts protect themselves in some way, and they do not respond in time, but abuse is abuse. We, are responsible towards the profession and towards the law. The penal code is very clear. Anyone who notices and suspects that abuse has happened must react. If he does not respond, he may be imprisoned for up to three years – said the director.


How to help such a child?

– What really matters – added professor Gordana Buljan Flander – is that we who work with children and who meet children every day, from teachers in the school to kindergarten teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, really put the child in the center and that if we suspect that something else has happened, include and involve other institutions. We can’t do it alone. Not just healthcare, not just education… We all say the system is sluggish, but let’s ask ourselves how much we have contributed to the sluggishness of the system, how many of my colleagues, how many teachers, how many pediatricians… how many times have reported emotional abuse in the family. And then when we say why the center did not respond, we get that the center did not have information. So it’s easiest for us to point our finger at some part of the system, but let’s all see that children in high-conflict divorces are the least at risk of being emotionally abused, so let’s have an eye on those children and let’s react in time. Children have been living in the war zone for years. I have children who are 7-8 years old and live in a war zone between parents for 6 years, for otherwise do not even know. And then later we wonder why our children are problematic, why they run away from home, why they are anesthetized with drugs and alcohol … Well, of course, to cover up their wounds on the soul, it is easier for them not to see in what situation they live than to deal with it. And we are the ones who have to deal with it.


What to say in such a situation to parents who are obviously terrified of the situation they are in, so that it does not somehow break on the back of their children?

– What is very important in a divorce is to separate the parent part and the partner part. Being a bad husband or a bad wife does not mean that he or she is a bad parent. Being angry with ex-partner does not mean that the child should be angry too. What happens is that the parent somehow combines anger with the anger of the child, and is no longer able to distinguish personal anger from the anger of the child, need from that of the child. And this is the same kind of neglect of the child and the child’s needs, and that child actually feels as if it has ceased to exist. These children often act overwhelmed when they enter, in resistance to authority, and when you ask them to make a decision for themselves, let’s say if I pass this test or you will, and then they fall apart. So they can’t make the simplest decision, because they just learned to follow what someone else is saying. These are children who think they are not worthy of love because one parent has rejected them in head and the other parent – they have to earn love all the time by rejecting other parent. So, the child will turn to themselves “I am not good enough, I am not worthy of love”. So, a parent who is in such a situation, I would definitely advise them to be informed about these things and the consequences that can occur, since children very often know how to act OK at first. We are told by parents that the child gains no weight, has good grades at school. And then puberty comes, adolescence comes, and then we see the fruits of what happened earlier. So, I would advise parents always to think ahead of what can be – said Mia Roje Djapic.


The task of growing up is to connect the good and the lodges in every parent and in other people

– I wanted to tell my parents that the task of growing up is for the child to put the good and the bad in the mom and to put the good and the bad in the dad so that it can blend the good and the bad in the people. If we bring up a child that one parent is black and the other is white, that one is perfect and the other is nothing, then the child in the so-called splitting, in a split, and they will not be able to later connect the good and the bad in humans, their world will be black and white and this is a good basis for later psychiatric disorders, eg for borderline personality disorders. And actually these kids are really at risk of having many, many problems in later functioning. And all parents who say “here’s not asking for dad” or “not asking for mom” and it’s good for us not to talk about that parent at all, we should actually think about what they do to that kid in the long run. That child, if he sees that mom and dad are in conflict, first starts telling dad what dad wants to hear, and mom what mom wants to hear. And the child loses himself. That child, at 12, 13 or 14 years of age, will be at a much higher risk of listening to peers when they tell him to drink, let’s do drugs, because he is used to listening to another, he has no self, no opinion, no stand. So the parents in this trouble of their divorce, in their need to prove that the other one is not only wrong as a father but also as a mother, not only do they not really see the child but also do great harm to the children. Unfortunately, relatives, friends often take sides, dad or mom and thus further encourage the abusive behavior of the parents towards the children, without looking at where the child is and what the future of that child will be – said the principal.


Of course the child wants the parents to get along and be together, but sometimes it’s really impossible. How do you explain to your child that things will not be as they used to be or what they want them to be?

– Of course, all children would want their parents to be together, and when you ask the children of divorced parents, except in some extreme cases where there was domestic violence and divorce comes as a relief to the children, the vast majority of children will say that it is their wish that mom would still they will be together again. Explaining to the child that mom and dad are not together as a couple is not that much of a problem, the child may be sad, but it passes, the child adjusts to new circumstances if the parents behave appropriately. But we cannot explain this second part to the child, which is “we will no longer talk, we will no longer cooperate and we can no longer be in the same room as you”. Well, that child, when he has a graduation, celebration or wedding celebration, cannot have both parents together. This is not something that should be explained to the child because it is something that should not be reached in principle. Parents do not have to be some best friends, but they do need to sit around some important things, about schooling, about congratulating a child on their birthday, not being burdened with conflict, this is not so impossible, regardless of their relationships and resentments. We have one wonderful message in a film made by our young people from the Center’s Youth Committee: “I wish my parents loved me more than they hated each other” said Mia Roje Đapić.

I often tell parents that the biggest gift they can give a child is to tell each other a good day and talk to each other nicely

– concluded professor Gordana Buljan Flander.


Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center can not be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   

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