You and your husband are splitting up, so is your child, literally. Can you minimise the damage in any way? Koh Joh Ting of HealthAnswers reports.
Table 1: Rates of Divorce between 1993 and 1998
Duration of marriage
Under 5 years
20 years plus
(Compiled by: Ms Anamah Tan with figures from Dept of Statistics, MCDS, Family Court)
|"In 1988, for every one divorce in Singapore, there were 10 marriages. In 1999, for ever one divorce, there were four marriages." - Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, at the Family Forum, May 27 2000.|
Little Kenny (not his real name) was mad. Burning mad. How dare the maid refuse to listen to him! He grabbed a knife and pointed it at her. Kenny, 7, had just been out with his father, and his mother had been quizzing him on what they had done without her. She found it easier to ask her son than to ask her ex-husband directly.
Kenny is only one of the rising number of children with divorced parents these days. His story came to light during a recent public forum, Psychosocial Disturbances in Childhood and Adolescence, organized by Mount Elizabeth - Charter Behavioural Health Services for teachers and school psychologists.
"It was a pattern of behaviour that only occurred after a visitation with his father," noted the family therapist from Counselling and Care Centre, Mrs Juliana Toh. "He was angry to be caught in the cross-fire between his parents."
Children In The Cross-Fire
According to statistics compiled by Ms Anamah Tan, a noted family lawyer of some 20 years' standing, the proportion of divorces has been rising among marriages of less than five years. Divorces are also most pronounced in marriages of 20 years and over.
In 1993, divorces cases accounted for 14.1 per cent of all marriages of less than five years' duration. In 1998, this proportion rose to 17.5 per cent. In 1993, divorces in marriages of 20 years and over accounted for 13.9 per cent of all divorces. In 1998, this figure jumped to 21.3 per cent.
During this period, said Ms Tan, the divorce rate has been climbing at an average rate of 10 per cent per year. "If this trend continues," she said, "We are going to have more younger children growing up without one parent."
When Things Fall Apart
"Parental warfare can be devastating," said Ms Tan. "As long as parents continue to be antagonistic even after the divorce. The problem is worsened if grandparents bad-mouth the other parent. And the parent the child lives with continually has to stabilise the child after that."
The child's sense of self has is also affected by what he sees going on around him, said Mrs Toh. "When other adults tell the child that his daddy is 'bad,' the child will reason 'since half of me comes from daddy, does that mean I'm half bad?'"
"Children get a sense of self by their interactions and relationships with people around them," she explains. "When a divorce takes place, his ideas and experiences of his mother and father, and who he is in relation to them get questioned."
Questions such as 'Who is going to take me to school?' or "Who is going to help me finish my homework?' run through their minds. These may be mundane questions, but they are vital links in the chain of events that make up the stability, the predictability and continuity of the child's sense of self.
"What we often find is that a child tries to right a wrong marital situation," said Mrs Toh. "They will refuse to go to school, they will leave their room untidy, they will try to fall ill - all in a bid to get the couple to fuss over them and stop their fighting."
But these so-called solutions last only for that period of time. "And the children will work even harder to get their parents' attention to divert them from the divorce."
What The Child Feels
Parents should pay attention to what the child is going through, she said, especially if the child is angry.
First of all, the child is losing a parent when a parent moves out. The rituals he is used to with the parent come to a stop. It is a period of uncertainty, and he sees no visible end to it. He feels a sense of unfairness, and is most certain to be very angry with the custodial parent.
"If he dares show his anger at you," said Mrs Toh. "It's because he has confidence in his relationship with you. But it is indeed cold comfort to the custodial parent."
Anger is a dicey emotion because the child can feel angry with himself for not having saved the situation. He may feel guilty and depressed, even helpless, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.
This is why, in her therapy sessions, Mrs Toh would try to convert the sense of anger into sadness. "Anger is so very hostile, it is harder to work with. When the child is allowed to cry, it creates an easier entry point for the therapist."
Providing Continuity For The Child
To help stabilise the child's sense of self, she encourages him to go through the positive feelings or experiences he has shared with both parents.
"I'd try to get parents to limit changes like switching schools," she said. "And I ask questions like 'Which part of you or daddy do you like sharing and want to keep?' or 'What do you like when you are with mummy?' It helps put him in control of the positive experiences he has shared. He gets to maintain a coherent sense of self so that he won't fall apart when a parent leaves."
Next, divorced parents should never use the child as a messenger or a mediator between them.
"You may end up with a withdrawn child who is not noticed at school. You won't know if he harms himself. Try to understand what he likes to do and draw him out. Look for the strength in him and build from there."
Finally, parents should come up with a coherent story to explain the divorce to their children.
"It is not to take blame, but to take responsibility for a connection between the child and the parent," she said. "The forget, the child also has his own version of the story and has doubts to clear."
It can take many therapy sessions with parents before the coherent story materialises. After all, the child has his own story of why things fell apart, and has doubts to clear.
Accent On The Positive
More needs to be done even among the people surrounding children of divorced. Teachers should not think that delinquent children come from broken homes and stigmatise them.
The point, Mrs Toh stressed, is that parents should build on the positive experiences with your child after their divorce. This includes not putting down your ex-spouse in the presence of your child.
"There is a trend linking disruptive behaviour in school with being a child of divorce. Many parents have worked very hard to help their child, and it is not true or fair to say that divorced children tend to be delinquent."
|A Child's Bill Of Rights|
Or what divorcing parents must not forget when they fight, according to Ms Anamah Tan, family lawyer:
||The right to express love for both parents|
||The right not to be asked to choose sides between their parents.|
||The right to privacy when talking to either parent on the phone.|
||The right not to be told bad things about the other parent's personality or character.|
||The right not to be placed in the position of message carrier.|
||The right to remain a child and not to be used as a parental confidante.|
||The right to express or not to express feelings, both positive and negative.|
||The right to remain active in both parents' lives.|
||The right to be protected from parental warfare.|
||The right to be told about changes such as moving, custody arrangements etc.|
||The right not to be cross-examined by one parent after spending time with the other parent.|
||The right to have some stability in their lives through reasonable custody arrangements.|
||The right not to be asked to become the family spy.|
||The right not to be told negative information about their grandparents.|
||The right to honest answers to their questions.|
||The right to be loved unconditionally.|
Date reviewed: 14 July 2000