What you need to know:
Find a trusted counsellor to help the child through the process if you notice him or her exhibiting serious emotional and cognitive problems. Children from divorced parents heal emotionally three to five years after the divorce.
He walked out of the classroom door yet again. He just couldn’t concentrate on the lesson. His mind had wandered home after his parents had signed divorce papers the previous week. He was in boarding school and he was the last to know. He was devastated.
For fifteen years he had lived with his parents, he saw them going through endless quarrels and fights. Their relationship was always on and off like a light switch. It was not a surprise to him that they divorced. Perhaps, this was a good idea because it would bring the long term bickering to an end, once and for all. But nothing prepared him for it.
“Finally, peace would prevail at home,” he thought to himself. “But when will I see Dad again?” he wondered. Stephen, a happy-go-lucky child had now become a loner imprisoned by his own thoughts.
And no one knew what was going on in his life. His grades dropped by several letters, each to the bottom of the class faster than the speed of sound. That term’s report was the worst he would take home in many years. But all this did not matter to him. He missed his father.
Divorce affects both parents and children in no small measure. The effects on children can be short and long term. The short term effects include sadness, stress, anxiety, mood swings and the long term effects are depression, inability to create solid and enduring relationships, and substance abuse.
However, every child responds to divorce differently depending on their age, temperaments, social support system and the closeness (or lack of it) of their relationship with both parents. Some people have equated the pain of divorce to the pain of bereavement.
Divorces are regulated by the Divorce Act. Divorce proceedings include the following steps: 1. Filing a petition 2. Supporting documents to the petition 3. Summons 4. Answer to the petition 5. Mediation 6. Hearing 7. Decree Nisi, leading to Decree Absolute.
According to a report titled Deep Dive into Divorce and Separation in Uganda 2020, family legal problems are the fifth most prevalent type of justice need in Uganda after crime, land, neighbors, domestic violence and employment.
However, they are the number one category in the family legal problems and account for about 7 per cent (about 370,000 people a year) of the whole adult population of Uganda that experiences divorce and separation every four years.
In her book titled Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss Psychiatrist, introduced the five-stage grief model that people go through when they grieve. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, commonly called DABDA. Not necessarily linear in development, these stages can also be skipped by some but common observable patterns indicate that divorced parents go through some or all the five stages of relationship loss. Surprisingly, children, too go through the same emotions like their parents in case of grief.
How to help children
Keep same routines at least for a year. Their holidays, meal times, house, friends, so as to minimise shock that might result from the changes. This gives them a sense of security.
Give cuddles, verbal assurances, affirmations and validation. Listen to them attentively. They long for parental connection. They are anxious that they will be abandoned by parents the same way they have divorced each other.
When telling them the reasons for your divorce, be truthful, but age-sensitive. Do not overwhelm them with information or blame your partner for the divorce or say bad things about them. You may have ceased to be partners, but you will always be parents.
Keep the boundaries. Children are moved by a strong sense of justice and compassion. Some will want to replace the parent who has moved out of the home by playing the role of spouse to the parent who they are staying with. They should never be your confidants. Remember they are children and you do not want them to be cast into a role they are neither qualified for nor able to perform. This is toxic for them.
Some children will retrogress to previous development stages like bed-wetting. They may also develop bad tempers, tantrums and aggressiveness. This is normal and as a parent, handle them with patience, care and love, knowing it is stage that will pass.
Create time and give them attention when they want to talk and space when they want their privacy. Allow them time with both parents. Research shows that children cope best with divorce when they continue to have regular contact with both parents.
Do not date another person immediately after the divorce but if you have to, do not involve them. Children are likely to resent this person. Children may see them as the reason for your divorce.
Even if it is you who asked out of the relationship, you will hurt, somehow. For your own emotional health, relax, enjoy yourself and associate. Do not play super dad or super mum in order to replace the spouse who has left; emotionally or financially.
Find a trusted counsellor to help the child through the process if you notice emotional problems.