The children destroyed by divorce

Last updated 12:57 07/10/2017

"[Children caught up in an acrimonious divorce] learn that love has no place in their home, and therefore, to not trust love from anywhere," says divorce strategist Suzy Miller.

The key to conscious parenting post-divorce, all the experts agree, is to try not to let the emotion of the adult relationship crash into the parental one.
In hit British TV series Dr Foster, a divorced couple increasingly use their 15-year-old son as a pawn in their poisonous game.

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It may have been derided as silly and over the top, but if hit British TV series Dr Foster did one thing, it shone a light on the ugliest side of divorce; the weaponising of children caught in the crossfire between two warring parents.

Each week viewers watched in horror as Dr Foster and her ex-husband Simon increasingly used their 15-year-old son as a pawn in their poisonous game. While his parents purported to want to do the right thing by him, they seemed to hardly notice as he grew more troubled and anxious.

How, we asked ourselves, could parents be so blinded by rage and wrecked with revenge that they couldn't see the damage they were inflicting on their child?

But this is something which Caron Burrow, a British psychotherapist, sees all the time in her practice. "I've had children in my family therapy sessions asked to draw what is happening at home and they'll draw a war scene with mum and dad shooting each other and them standing in the middle.

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"Rage makes children invisible and the protective, parental instinct all too often comes second to the anger and hatred they are feeling for their partner."

Sharon Court*, 45, a social media strategist from north London, understands this well. She won't be going to her oldest son's wedding in a week's time because of the ongoing vitriol she feels towards his father, despite them divorcing almost 20 years ago.

"I just can't face seeing him as I know I'll end up in an argument and I don't want to ruin the wedding," Sharon says. "He had affairs and the final one ended up in a pregnancy - it was then I knew I'd never forgive him, even though I had stupidly before.

"Our children were four and six years old and when we parted. He said he would take my home, my pride, my job and my dignity. His nastiness towards me never stopped - even though he went on to marry someone else.

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"I tried to protect the children along the way but our anger was spilling out everywhere and they were terribly hurt. I have my regrets about that."

Around 42 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce - which affects more than half of all children by the age of 16. The damage this causes, says leading parenting guru Penelope Leach, author of forthcoming book Putting the Children First When You Divorce, is life changing and far-reaching.

"Parents often think teenage or older children are too old to care about their divorce and won't be harmed by it because they're caught up in their own lives," Penelope says. 

"But nothing could be further from the truth. When a parents' marriage breaks down with huge amounts of acrimony, it's a betrayal of everything they've known - love, trust, the family unit. To them, it's all been phoney and they become mistrusting of relationships in the future.

"It's even been shown that children of angrily divorced parents are more likely to divorce themselves."

June Brogan, trained counsellor and CEO at Relate West and Mid Kent, believes the repercussions can have a knock-on effect for three generations unless professional help is sought.

"Children in these situations learn that adults are not a safe point of reference," she says. "Parents should understand that by trashing your ex, you are, in effect, trashing your child because they are 50 per cent them."

This is certainly something that resonates with Samantha French*, 51, a teacher from Nottingham. She says the feuding between her parents and being forced to act as a conduit between them when she was 17 - and an only child - are the reasons she is single now.

"So many times I just wanted to close my bedroom door and tell them to keep me out of it," she says. "When my father left, my mother would alternate between bad-mouthing him and grilling me for information about his life and I didn't know what to do. Their intense love had curdled into intense hate and stopped them from noticing I was their child.

"Now if I get close to someone, I don't believe they will stay forever and I end it before it turns sour. I feel so sad that this has been their legacy."

Suzy Miller, divorce strategist and founder of, urges parents to remember this: "When children watch their narcissistic mother or father play out their games of mutual destruction, they are learning that relationships are not about love, but about control and 'winning', whatever the cost.

"They learn that a moral misdeed by one parent can be the excuse for a litany of misdeeds by the other, justified as retaliation. They learn that love has no place in their home, and therefore, to not trust love from anywhere."

The key to conscious parenting post-divorce, all the experts agree, is to try not to let the emotion of the adult relationship crash into the parental one, which needs to be kept entirely separate.

"Gently talking to your child about the situation and trying to understand the fallout on them is essential," June Brogan says. "Keep checking in with them. You can say, 'It must be so scary to see us argue like that. We used to love each other so much but this is very hard.'

"You should avoid putting down your ex too, however tempting it may be, because children should have no role in your break-up whatsoever."

Caron Burrow adds that thinking of your children as victims of war should help with your conscious parenting. "Respect that a child needs a relationship with the other parent, whatever he or she has done," she says.

"Keep your anger contained to your side of fence, doing your best not to talk about your other partner in front of them at all, even if it's on the phone to a friend. The focus should always be on the child's feelings."

If that doesn't work, perhaps just buy Dr Foster on DVD so you can see for yourself what really can happen when obsession pulverises a family.

* Some names have been changed


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