What good does it do to know some things when we can’t change the outcome? Like the question of whether a child can foresee the parents’ divorce, knowing that we can’t alter the fact that there’s going to be a divorce? And that the child’s going to be in pain?
The answer’s this. That pain is inevitable. What we can hope for is to ease it.Deeper knowledge gives us the perspective and the ability to ease the child’s pain through patience, understanding and firmness. But how can a child tell if his parents are getting a divorce?
Related Reading: 8 Negative Effects Of Divorce On Children
When Children Can Foresee Parents’ Divorce
Whether a child foresees the parents’ impending divorce depends on three factors, which are linked like the three Borromean rings—removing any ring results in two unlinked rings. All three are needed for children to foresee the divorce.
If we are thinking how can a child tell if his parents are getting a divorce, there are ways to do that. The level of marital conflict on the one hand, and on the other, the child’s level of emotional understanding and the ability to draw inferences of what leads to what—these latter two depending on the child’s age.
Level of marital conflict
In marriages with low visible marital conflict, children are found to be unprepared for the news of an impending divorce, according to a study by Hetherington and associates.
Not only does low level of parental conflict catch children by surprise, the news can also be terrifying in its suddenness. It’s difficult for them to come to terms right away with the fact that their stable world has been shaky all along.
Says Rekha, “When we spoke to our children that we were going for a divorce, they were surprised. At that point, my ex and I weren’t spending any time together even when we were in the house. I didn’t realise until then that what was obvious to us wasn’t obvious to them.”
“The notion that your child is unhappy because you’re unhappy is simply not true,” says Judith Wallerstein in What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce. “If your external behavior looks normal and you really enjoy being a parent – while your internal state is lonely or dying from boredom – your child may not notice your unhappiness.”
Incidentally, high marital conflict also means that children who experience it adjust better to the separation than those who experience low levels of conflict. They may, in fact, see it as welcome relief from their parents’ fighting.
This doesn’t of course make high marital conflict better. It simply causes a different kind of pain to the children.
Related Reading: How To Explain Divorce To Children
Children’s age is a deciding factor
A movie dialogue known for its near-predictability is the child asking the fighting parents, “Are you guys divorcing?”
Yet, the ability to foresee a divorce from a ringside view of their parents’ conflict isn’t universal to children. Much boils down to children’s ability to understand complex emotions and their ability to draw inferences between the past and the future — if A (marital conflict) has occurred, it can lead to B (divorce). These factors are related to children’s age.
Conflict is distressing to children, even months-old infants respond to others’ emotions although they are yet to learn the terms for these. Connecting the dots comes much later.
Speaking of inferences, children younger than three are able to understand simple “who”, “what”, and “where” questions and answers. Between ages three and four, they understand simple “how” and “why” constructs. Between ages four and five, simple “when” questions are also understood, according to Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting by Frank John Ninivaggi.
Speaking of emotions, children of 6 to 11 years advance in their understanding of complex emotions. They are more capable of taking into fuller account the events that lead to emotional reactions, according to Young Children’s Understanding of Everyday Emotions by Janet Kuebli.
Still, children between 5 to 8 years do not understand the concept of divorce. Further, “…children who have not yet reached adolescence cannot comprehend why a violent person just doesn’t stop if they are asked to show some restraint,” says Wallerstein. “They have no clue as to why a person behaves badly when drunk.”
By 11 years, says Ninivaggi, a beginning capacity for critical thinking and realistic causality begins to mature. Children begin to make the deductions, “A causes B. If A occurs, then B or C or D might follow.” Their mental capacity enhances, enabling them to consider the future “what might be” from “what has been”.
Yet, given the inability to make sophisticated deductions, adolescents (largely pre-teen years) are unable to connect the dots between their parents’ marital conflict (what has been) and divorce (what might be). By the end of adolescence though, they begin to interpret the causes of marital conflict and how the conflict affects the relationship.
Related Reading: 10 Things To Do When You Are Thinking About Divorce
They understand better in the teens
When asked about her parents’ separation when she was a 12-year old, grown-up Aparna said, “Although I had seen the daily violence and had spent frequent nights at a relative’s place, I didn’t foresee my parents separating permanently. Nor, when my parents separated did I foresee that divorce was inevitable.I kept trying for years to get my dad to stop drinking, to get them back together.”
During the teen years, their understanding of emotions and ability to draw inferences expands.
Anita’s teenage son had his parents’divorce on mind when he said to her after yet another high-conflict situation, “What will we do if you walk out? See, you don’t have anything to fall back upon.”
Sometimes though, it isn’t that children foresee it by themselves. One or both parents begin to treat children as confidantes, talking about the troubled marriage or even to sound them out about a decision to separate.
In the end, there is no good solution to prevent children’s pain. All that remains is the parents’ ability to set aside their own pain and anger and handle the children with patience, understanding and firmness.