“Divorce is in itself a traumatic experience for every family, and as every third marriage in Croatia ends in divorce, among which as many as a third are highly conflicted, the youngest members of the family are in an unenviable position. In addition, children are exposed to great stress because of the choice of which parent to live with, which is an additional psychological burden, and lawsuits that can take years can greatly affect them. Our eminent psychologist Gordana Buljan Flander gave some concrete advice to parents so that the youngest in all this can go through as few consequences as possible”, writes journalist Elma Katana in the introduction to the text published on T portal on May 17, 2020 entitled “One third of divorce is highly conflicted, and Gordana Buljan Flander revealed to us which question is most difficult in the world for children of divorced parents”:
“The global coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the daily lives of many families, so many have experienced what it looks like when, due to isolation in the same space, we have a home office, school or kindergarten – in a variety of variants.
Due to this crisis situation, exacerbated by stress due to fear of infection and the earthquake that hit Zagreb in March, it is undeniable that family relationships have never been more tested.
In China, after the initial containment of the global pandemic, the phenomenon of an increasing number of divorce claims arose because partners were doomed to each other for several months, without the possibility of occasional escape to socialize with friends or family members.
Will there be such situations in our country and how to deal with divorce in general if it occurs, we asked our prominent psychologist, prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.
‘Difficult situations in life often have two outcomes – they connect us more or distance us. I am sure that no good relationship, including marriage, will fall apart because people are more together, but it is also possible that some problems that have been pushed under the rug for a long time, combined with less communication and increased stress levels, escalate into current circumstances, and even lead to divorce’, said Gordana Buljan Flander. In March this year, she published the book ‘The Child at the Center (of Conflict)’ with psychologist Mia Roje Đapić .
A global pandemic and everything it carries, she thinks, can bring us closer and further apart.
‘I always believe in people, relationships and their beauty. Let’s look around and we will notice many examples of compassion, empathy, helping those who are in some trouble. In this direction, I would also give advice to all families – talk, share feelings and encourage empathy with words and deeds. This is a great opportunity to rearrange life priorities, recognize true values and learn to deal with stress, after which we can come out strengthened as a community. It is logical that we will quarrel at home someday, that we will not agree. Minor conflicts are part of normal life and beyond such extreme circumstances. The goal is not to have no conflicts, but to learn to resolve conflicts together in a constructive way and to come out of them with a clear message that, despite disagreements with someone’s words or deeds, we love each other and we will be fine’ says the psychologist.
In isolation, many, especially parents with younger children, often have trouble finding time for themselves.
‘Time for oneself does not have to be perceived as a luxury, nor should it last very many hours. I believe that everyone can find 15-20 minutes for themselves in each day and do something for their soul. Maybe we’ll get up before the others, maybe be alone during the day, or stay longer awake in the evening. Some will walk the dog for themselves in time, some will drink coffee in peace, plant flowers, read a dozen pages of a book, or talk to someone they miss on the phone. When we know that that part of the day is waiting for us and we are looking forward to it, it is easier to endure those parts of the day that are not so relaxing for us’, said Buljan Flander.
Accumulated stress can ‘heat up’ accumulated family problems, especially if there have been marital crises before.
Parental conflict is the most harmful for children
Whatever decision you make, parents need to be aware that many studies have shown that unsettled family relationships will leave a mark on children.
If a divorce does occur in the end, the psychologist adds, parental conflict is the most harmful for children.
‘Research and clinical practice clearly show that children are not so much harmed by the act of parental separation itself, but by parental conflict, which can be present in whole families before, during and after a formal divorce (or separation of parents). There is no age for children to protect them from the harmful effects of parental conflict. For young children, many think they are too small to understand, which is partly true, but that is why it can create bigger problems. Young children feel that something is wrong and do not understand what, so they feel great insecurity and unpredictability at an age when safety and routine are key to their healthy development. Some think that adolescents are less sensitive because they look like ‘little adults’, are important to their peers and give the impression that they do not need their parents as much as before, which is also wrong. Adolescents find the security provided by their parents and their guidance a key value’ she said.
Most children, she explains, have a hard time with their parents’ divorce at first and need time to adjust, just like during other big life changes, such as moving to another city.
‘However if parents work together and make arrangements, if they function with less conflict than before divorce, children almost always adapt to new circumstances so they can say they have two homes, two families. It is important to present divorce as a joint decision of the parents, to emphasize that the children are never to blame and that mom and dad are forever there as parents, even though they are no longer a couple, that they will always love the child the most and make arrangements. And then it’s important to really live that way. This is especially important in these conditions, which are inherently insecure and which lead children to feel unpredictable and anxious. It is important that they can now rely on both parents as a source of comfort and security, and not that, with all their worries and uncertainties, they have to ‘look after’ the parents, taking care not to argue about when and how to contact the child with the other parent, whether someone paid alimony and the like’, she warns.
Danger of emotional manipulation of parents
Still, she says, some divorces are friendly and in them the parents, after the initial turmoil that is common because we are all people of flesh and blood, manage to establish a warm and friendly relationship.
‘Others are divorces like making a deal, in which parents communicate on a fair‘ business ’level, without too much warmth, but manage to agree on important issues. The problem arises in high-conflict divorces, when parental conflicts do not subside, but are maintained or even intensified over time, and children find themselves at the center of conflicts. Approximately a one third of divorces have such characteristics, and in our Center about 50 percent of children who experience the separation of their parents live in conditions of their high conflict’, adds Buljan Flander.
The danger in high conflict divorces – emotional manipulation.
‘We don’t have accurate data on how many children experience emotional pressures from one or both parents in a divorce, primarily because those pressures come in a thousand different forms and because they don’t affect all children equally. Some children will have strong emotional reactions to even the slightest pressure and will bow to one parent, while other children, despite systematic emotional manipulation and abuse, will seemingly function well for some time. Unfortunately, from the experience of clinical practice and expertise in divorce proceedings, I can say that children are often at the center of parental conflict, which is a neglect of their emotional needs, and if we do not urgently put an end to this as a system, they are at high risk of emotional abuse, she points out.
Parents, put your child in focus!
In the context of divorce, Buljan Flander points out that parents must separate the partner and parental roles and really put the child in focus.
‘If your ex-partner is the last person in the world you want to talk to or see, keep in mind that a child needs both mom and dad, freedom of relationship with both parents. Do everything in your power to help the child meet that need, regardless of your own emotions towards your ex-partner and the resentment you have. Of course, you won’t agree on everything – if you had worked great as a couple, you probably wouldn’t have broken up. But remember to weigh what is more important – that you are right in a particular situation or that your child grows up happy and healthy. Show the child that you are happy and satisfied with the fact that he/she loves the other parent and that he/she is nice to them’ she explains.
A few more tips:
- Do not question the child about how he/she was with the other parent, expecting him/her to tell you that he/she was not nice or that he/she missed you too much to please you.
- Do not show sadness and dissatisfaction, verbally or with facial expressions, when the child goes to the other parent.
- Don’t talk ugly about each other in front of the child, but not in front of others if that child can hear.
- Don’t stop the child from hanging out with the other parent’s family and relatives (love is never too much for a child!).
- Do not ask the child to pass messages to the other parent.
- Don’t leave out memories and stories about the other parent from the conversation. When you say ‘good day’ to yourself and agree at least on the child and his/her needs, you have given the child the greatest gift.
The worst question for children is who they would like to live with or who they prefer, mom or dad, said Buljan Flander.
‘Unfortunately, I often hear that adults, sometimes professionals, to put children in a position to choose. Of course, the child has the right to express opinion, will and desire, but the authentic will and desire of the child should be examined by a professional in an appropriate way, which is by no means a directive examination and placing the burden on his/her back, the same burden that is too heavy for adults. The processes related to deciding who a child will live with and how they will socialize with the other parent take years because experts cannot decide which parent is more competent. Then, after years of trial, it happens that the child is expected to say who he/she wants to live with. The children often tell me that it was the most difficult question in the world because if they say they want to live with their mom, they make a sad their dad, and if they say they want to live with their dad, they will make a sad their mom’ she said.
The child is genetic, and thus emotional, half mom, half dad, she adds.
The rights of the child are above the rights of the parents and each of us adults
‘Any parental behavior that implies that a child should denigrate or reject one parent is actually asking the child to reject and nullify half of themselves, and that half he/she ‘got’ from the other parent. Children who do this under the influence of one parent develop psychological splitting, a very dangerous cognitive distortion (distorted way of experiencing and reasoning), because of which they see the world in black and white and perceive themselves, others and life as perfect, and at other times awful, without integration of the ‘good and bad ‘, warns the psychologist.
One of the main tasks of growing up is to ‘connect’ the good and the bad (in mom, dad, yourself, people, life), which is impossible for these children and they are at increased risk of developing serious psychiatric disorders.
‘While it doesn’t have to be seen in children at a given moment, emotional abuse is by definition also behavior that is likely to harm them – and we are likely to see that harm in adolescence. That is why it is important not to wait, but to experience emotional abuse as seriously as it is and protect the child, just as if it were physical or sexual abuse. Prolonged giving opportunities to parents (to understand what they are doing, to change themselves…) is unfortunately often depriving children of opportunities. Here it is important to listen to the profession and act quickly, coordinated and uncompromisingly. The rights of the child are above the rights of the parents and each of us adults’, emphasized Gordana Buljan Flander.
Source: T portal: https://www.tportal.hr/lifestyle/clanak/trecina-razvoda-je-visoko-konfliktna-a-gordana-buljan-flander-nam-je-otkrila-koje-je-pitanje-djeci-razvedenih-roditelja-najteze-na-svijetu-20200517
Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.