By Bunmi Sofola
It’s very rare that children caught in the middle of a divorce are told why it is happening. Some parents claim such an attitude is to protect the children while in reality, it is the adults whose interest and emotions are protected. Separation, single parents, remarriages and the ensuing step-parents and siblings – all the after effects of divorce are now part of a ‘normal’ family life. Today, a third or so of children now live with only one of their parents. So who talks to these bewildered children when things fall apart.
Evelyn was only eleven when her life fell apart a few days after she came home on holidays from the fancy private school she attended. Her father, a flirty DJ and a renowned entertainer was her hero. “There was this almighty argument and dad left, fuming he’d had enough. A few weeks later, I heard he’d moved into he palatial home of a socialite a few years his senior. Needless to say, the relationship between my father and I never recovered. When he was home, he used to ache me to some of these wild concerts and children’s parties where he entertained.
“That was some 15 years ago. Today, we have little or no contact. The last time I saw him, he was living with a scruffy looking friend, the fling that wrecked his marriage was obviously forgotten. All his trendy clothes were gone and he looked dull and grey beyond his years. Sadly, he is in denial when it comes to the break-up of the marriage and was quick to blame mum who he said wanted to trap him with children – responsibility he wasn’t ready for. I really pity him – he was a failure, a disaster. The `senior girl’ he was so eager to move in with threw him out when she couldn’t condone his excessive drinking and womanising”.
It is sometimes the information that parents choose to withhold from children that wreaks the most damage. Maryam, an attractive girl of 15 was nine when her mother, Kike, whisked her away from her father without any explanation. Lie was piled upon lie until a bewildered young Maryam insisted she wanted to live with her father when she started secondary school. “His place was nearer to my school”, she said, “and I was curious to find out from dad what had really happened to fracture our family. Reluctantly, dad told me it was mum who considered the marriage to be dead. She just bolted, taking me and all the furniture with her. I’m still bewildered about the way mum handled things – moving into a flat which I later learnt was rented for her by this bloated rich boyfriend of hers. He also got her a car and whilst I was living with dad, mum had another girl. My Money bag is not as forthcoming as he used to but mum deserves all the hardship she new experiences. It is only now we are rebuilding our relationship.
For Joys, a 16-year-old undergraduate, the pain of separation is still raw – her parents split up only two years ago. A beautiful young woman, she is still quietly troubled, sometimes tearful. Her parents – an IT consultant and a school’s administrator – don’t seem to understand the depth of her wretchedness and can’t conveniently explain why all that she knew and loved was torn down. Her family, says Joys, swims in a swamp of secrets and lies. “I’m somehow fearful of getting to the bottom of things because I suspected there’s ugly stuff underneath. I believe I was the expense and challenges of bringing up children that led to the collapse of the relationship. Nothing was discussed with my two siblings and I. We were simply downgraded from our posh private school to public school. It was humiliating to say the least”.
Sadly, today’s children are all too ready to blame themselves when their parents can’t make heir marriages work or last. But boys handle the pain and confusion differently from girls. Nine years after his parents separated, Cornelius, an uncommonly serious 22-year-old has only just accepted his parents are not getting back together. “When I was 12, they old me the time was ripe for them to split, but I thought: `I don’t think it is. Things can be sorted out”, he says. A typical reaction among children, unwilling to accept the finality of a decision way out of their hands. The tears he said came later. Did my parents ever worry about the effect the split would have on me? I know I worried intensely about how the loss of a father would affect me and whether I would go off he rails like some classmates in my shoes did. Thank goodness I have turned out well”.
As an Agony Aunt, I’m frequently contacted by young people seeking advice. Not too long ago, a young man, now 17, and a silver spoon kid wrote to me. His parents are divorcing and he has no one he could confide in. Disabled by grief, fury and loss of faith, he raged: “Dad never told me anything. He never thought to consider me or my brothers and sisters, to think about how important our family is to us. We asked for a family meeting but we got none. I can’t do my school work, can’t sleep, eat. And they tell me it just happens. It doesn’t just happen. They do this to us. We didn’t ask to be born. How do they think we will ever believe in love or marriage?”
Another letter came from a young woman who described the day her family splintered as: “just like a car crash for us kids. Out of nowhere, this blow, this noise, the pain all over, loss of consciousness. You come out of it but are never yourself again. I am insecure, mistrustful, cry easily, expect the worst, break up with men before it gets serious. They did this to me. It’s true, your mum and dad, they fxxx you up”.
“While nobody should feel they must stay with bullying, abusive or truly unsuitable partners, once you have children, you can’t just please yourself or indulge your own desires. It is really deplorable watching how many children are treated as objects by divorcing parents. Living together is not easy, but walking away has become all too easy. An intact family unit is more precious than anything else.
How to avoid stressful people
Surrounding yourself with energy-draining people not only makes you feel mentally exhausted, it takes a physical toll on your body too.
“Negative relationships are stressful, and this makes your body release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which, over and extended period of time, can depress your immune system and make you more prone to developing illness”, says Dr. Russel Roby, who specializes on how stress affects the body. That is why you need to make sure you surround yourself with energy givers not energy-takers. Follow Dr. Roby’s three-plan steps.
Step 1: Pinpoint the major players: The individuals you spend most of your time with play a big role in how energetic you feel. “People who support and encourage you and don’t allow you to focus on negatives will boost your energy levels. Others, `however, can siphon your energy. You can normally tell who these people are because you’ll feel exhausted after just 20 minutes in their company. Begin by making a list of the five or 10 people with whom you have the most contact each day and jot down how each one affects your energy levels.
Step 2: Prioritise your diary: Once you’ve identified the key positive people in your life – whether I is a family member who gives you unconditional love, a colleague who continually supports you or a friend who never fails to cheer you up – do what you can to reinforce these relationships. Spending more quality time with these people will make you feel uplifted. Next, do things to show these people how much you appreciate them. Cook a special meal for your best friend, surprise your mum with presents or give your partner a message. When you give to those who energise you, it comes back in abundance.
Step 3: Dump energy-sapping enemies. It’s essential that you take bold steps to distance yourself from energy-drainers. For example, people who put you down or chip away at your self-esteem. Once you determine who they are, ditch or limit your contact with them. If it’s someone you can’t physically distance yourself from, such as your boss or your sister, try to remove yourself emotionally. Remember, you are in control of your reactions to their behaviour. You don’t have to be at the mercy of others. Try to put these people’s behaviour in perspective top. Don’t take on their problems to fall into the trap of always being the person they dump their problems on. Also discuss the situation with your positive friends to tackle the stress they cause. The result? Not only will energy enemies be less likely to emotionally exhaust you, but by taking control of the situation, you will feel empowered and energised!