Even when alone, I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath I share with others on learning of a teenage suicide. How harrowing it must be for parents who suspect or know of their child’s confusion or anguish about their sexuality, or of their being the object of bullying or of internet sexting. Fearing the threat of exposure, or of what has already become known or disseminated, may tip the emotional balance and court disaster.
Over the years, I’ve experienced the suicide of two friends, and a very dear relative, but their actions were taken as adults. After the shock, and sometimes a sense of failure for not having offered some critical word or action, one comes to accept a well-considered mature decision, as hard as it is to contemplate the desperate sadness or physical pain that provoked the act. But can there ever be acceptance of the young having taken this path?
What now comes to mind is that time almost twenty years ago, when our family court was rocked by two teenage suicides, one following the other by only months, their parents locked in War of the Roses combat. Shocked and saddened, a colleague of mine was galvanized to action. The result: the expert from out of town was invited to come and steer us in some new directions. Our collective sorrow led us to seek greater understanding about children experiencing this traumatic time of their parents’ divorce. We yearned for knowledge that would draw us back from hell and into the light.
Neil Kalter, a research psychologist and author of “Growing Up With Divorce”, addressed a large group of lawyers, mental health professionals, and virtually all of the Court personnel, judges, magistrates and parenting specialists. Some things he said that day, I continue to repeat to most of the parents I meet with, usually on the very first day of mediation.
He said: all children of divorce experience two fantasies.
I remember being surprised that this well regarded social scientist was willing to be so universal in his approach. Taking note that divorcing parents eventually separate, he described the fantasy that follows the departure of a parent in this way: children who have only experienced a home with both father and mother present, fantasize that if one parent can leave, what’s to keep the other parent from leaving? The fear imagined is of complete abandonment.
Kalter suggested that we tell our clients about this and urge them to reassure their kids, who rarely speak of this fear, that despite their separation, both parents will always be there for them. And these comforting words should not be spoken only once, but repeated often during the difficult early days, and beyond. Each time I think about this and mention it to others, I’m surprised anew that it was not more obvious to me before that day, but it was not. Do parents of gay youngsters offer this support?
The second fantasy Kalter described was far less easy for me to understand. And it was this: children of divorce blame themselves for the divorce.
I remember thinking, how, or why, can this be? Perhaps, I thought, this might be true of adolescents, acting out in negative ways as they push away from childhood, but otherwise it made little sense. Well, I’ve become a believer, for as I tell parents about this, I often see them nod their heads in sad acknowledgment.
The father of a seven year old once told me he overheard his son tell a playmate: if only I had done my homework, my parents would not have split.
Almost funny, if not so sad.
Most divorcing parents agonize over the impact on their children and seek to assure them that they are not blameworthy. But these days, children of divorce, however difficult their transition to parents living apart, are not likely to be shamed by their peers. What a much greater challenge to somehow build a protective shield around a youngster who fears being exposed to public humiliation.
Do they also fear abandonment and blame themselves?