The Nearly Forgotten: Children of Divorce

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Recently, a mother said to me, “I made two smart decisions in my life, Dr. Lightman. The first was to get married and the second was to divorce. At least I have three beautiful children.”

Indeed, her children are beautiful, inside and out. But are they going to be whole? With their childhoods compromised – let’s admit that “friendly divorces” are pretty much an oxymoron – we should be concerned.

Divorce is rampant. According to the National Marriage project, the divorce rate doubled between 1960 and 2009. Yes, divorce can save people from a bad marriage. However, research shows that divorce can also erode a society. Divorced adults are more likely to experience economic difficulties and depression, which then trickle down to kids. Because there can be fewer economic resources, many children of divorce experience disruptions such as changes in child care, living arrangements and schools. School performance? Yes, it is often compromised. The bottom line: Turmoil for an unforeseeable amount of time. And potential emotional neglect.

Divorce dissolves families and weakens the belief in the family as a critically important social unit. In addition to unifying people through marriage and blood or adoption, the family provides the educational, financial and emotional support that its members need to thrive and optimize their potential and development.

Because divorce is ever-present and growing, people question whether having a family is a worthwhile goal. This is called cynicism and cynicism is not a pretty thing. It can grow deep roots and cast a long arm that shadows many generations into the future. Cynicism is ugly and dangerous.

Our continuity as Jews is intertwined with the weltanschauung that a Jewish man and a Jewish woman meet, marry, build a Jewish home and community and have children, and then instill within those children the very same weltanschauung. Since the revelation at Har Sinai, our Torah has been handed down from generation to generation through the family unit. It’s an extricable part of what makes us tick.

While there is so much to be discussed about divorce, the focus now is about children, the nearly forgotten victims of this epidemic.

Let’s be clear from the outset that many divorced parents are doing a yeoman’s job of trying to raise whole, healthy children. I am in awe of them. But even the ones doing the best still need our attention and support. But no judgment. Ever.

First, we need to remember that it is the children who need to be at the center. Everything must be done to protect them from their parents’ unhappiness rather than being involved in it.

Respect this truth please: Children do not get divorced from their parents. For Yaakov, Daddy will always be Daddy and Ema will always be Ema. There are no replacements. Period. Even if a parent is “out of the picture,” that parent is still very much in the child’s mind and is often “bigger” in their head than the hands-on, ever-present parent. This needs to be accepted and addressed. By the way, the primary care-giving parents will be the target of the child’s ire for a while.

In most cases, children will identify with the same-gender parent. This identification is natural and constitutes an important building block of a child’s personality. Regardless of whether parents are divorced, daughters identify with their mothers and sons will identify with their fathers. It’s important to keep this in mind when, for example, a child hears one parent say “You eat like your father” and then he sees that parent roll her eyes. Another example is a parent saying, “If you keep being like your mother, you’ll never get anywhere in life.” These kinds of comments can negatively impact a child’s natural development whereby the child’s mental and emotional growth can become mired and stuck. It’s not a good place to go and can take years of therapy to undo the damage.

Further, divorce can create “gaps” in the family structure and in the lives of each parent. Many children come to these gaps like bees flock to honey in order to fill them. A child may try to solve his parent’s loneliness. Sons may try to discipline younger siblings like Daddy. Daughters might become their fathers’ companions. Never should the gap-plugging take precedence over the child’s personal development. If it does, pull the plug. And fast.

What do you do when, in the aftermath of the divorce, a child has two homes and divided loyalties?

It is not uncommon for children of divorced parents to become involved in a “triangle.” The triangle occurs when a third person is brought into a one-on-one relationship. The third person becomes the “go-between” who is in the middle of the two people who should be dealing directly with one another. Children of divorce often become the “go-between” for their parents as they try to bridge the gap. Parents may place them there as they try to pump for information when a child returns from spending time with the other parent. Strong one-on-one relationships is the best antidote for post-divorce family functioning.

It’s easy for a divorced parent to confuse his concerns with his children’s concerns. Please don’t. When you think that you are feeling concern for your children, don’t rush into any action. Stop, pause, breathe deeply and ask yourself, “Am I projecting my own issues onto this fabulous child?” Deal with your feelings first. Give your feelings names. Only then can you help your children if they are really feeling those feelings.

Some divorced parents go way overboard in becoming either too soft or too hard on their children. In other words, some parents become the “fun parent” where there is little, if any, discipline and boundaries. Others morph into this controlling entity, even when the child is with the “other parent.” Rather than “co-parenting,” these parents are “competitive parenting.” I’m not going to connect the dots here about the pointlessness of it and the negative impact on children.

Let’s now discuss divorced parents and the useless emotion called “guilt.”

Guilt can loom large here. Why?

Most parents have a biological drive to protect their children from harm. We bring these magnificently beautiful, helpless tiny creatures into this world whom HaShem has entrusted to us to nurture and grow into amazing awesome people and, with Siyata D’Shmaya, we escort to the chuppah so they can do the same, thereby perpetuating the species and the Jewish people. It is how we survive. If we sense harm, it is the automatic reaction for most of us to protect our young ones. Think of the Mama Bear who wants to claw out the eyes of and dismember anyone who would wound or maim any of her young ones.

Divorce causes harm. The healing process can last a long time and the scars even longer. Some divorced parents fantasize about how life might have been different for their children (meaning less painful) had the marriage survived.

No wonder why guilt abounds amongst divorced parents.

If you, Mom and Dad, see yourselves as being too soft or too hard, stop now. Get help, if needed. Seek counseling to better deal with whatever is driving this behavior. We are surrounded by information and professionals. Avail yourselves accordingly.

Always have in mind that for children to thrive, they need to be physically, mentally and emotionally safe. The original family unit for children of divorce is gone. But don’t destroy your children as well. Put them ahead of whatever issues you have with your ex-spouse. Please.

As tacky as you may think this is, make a list of 7-10 positive qualities or memories about your ex-spouse. Perhaps he writes well. She might have helped to design the Parochet in a shul. The two of you had a fabulous trip to wherever with the kids. Speak nicely about your ex-spouse in front of your children, even if it is painful. Your children will appreciate it.

Create new memories with your children. Make your house or apartment into a home. Tape pictures onto the refrigerator or freezer. Shabbos should be Shabbos, complete with a meal, a Dvar Torah and even some sibling fighting. That’s normal, by the way.

We Jews who have always excelled at community building need to improve our community-building skills with divorced families. At the recent Sister-to-Sister weekend, my wife and I spoke with many divorced Orthodox Jewish women about what they and their children need. (Sister-to-Sister is the only women’s organization within the Jewish community that supports divorced women and their children.)

We agree that all children must have caring, loving, emotionally healthy adults in their lives. Yet don’t rush to assume that just because parents are divorced, these children are lacking in that area. Let’s say your child is friends with a child whose parents are divorced. Your interaction with the child and parents should be the same as it would be with others. If you believe something is amiss, do not rush in to “fix it.” Observe respectfully and listen well. Know the facts. Develop a sense of whether the other Abba or Mommy wants input. Speak with their Shul rabbi or perhaps a teacher or principal. No loshon hara. And do not disrespect the parents or children.

Some communities have organizations that match adults with children who need mentoring. Mentors enhance parents by spending quality time with children. For example, our community is blessed with TOVA, a mentoring network whose staff screens the mentors and works with parents and schools to make sure there is the right “shidduch” for each child and mentor. If you believe that a child you know may benefit, contact the child’s school or family Rav.

Treat all children the same. Don’t make their children feel more different from other children than they already do. Not every child wants to go to shul or Father-Son learning with Mr. Next-Door Neighbor. Offer to do so, routing it through the mother and/or father. Accept whatever the answer is.

Carpools. This is a big one, especially the non-school carpools for birthday parties and activities outside the school day. When only one parent is in the home and children cannot be left unattended, driving even 10 minutes can be a logistical challenge and impossible. Be Mevater and you drive a little bit extra. It will count up in heaven that you made the life of a single parent easier. Don’t even think about keeping a Cheshbon. Just do and thank HaShem that you can do.

Shabbos and Yom Tov meal invitations can be tricky. Some wish to stay home with the kids while others salivate to go out. People tend to be inundated with Yom Tov invitations but there are 52 Shabbosim throughout the calendar year and life can get lonely. Also, single parents may not have their children every Shabbos. That’s also an opportunity.

If you invite a single parent, perhaps with the family, and the answer is no, don’t be offended. They could already have legitimate plans. Respond, “We’d love to have you. When would it work for you?”

The single parent might invite you to their home. It may be a different Shabbos table to what you are accustomed. Open yourself up to new experiences. Some people need to host regardless of marital status.

Life is not simple. We marry, filled with hopes and dreams of our Binyan Adei Ad. When it does not work, invest in making it work. And keep on trying. When you’ve exhausted every avenue to make the marriage work and it is not working, tread slowly and delicately. Always remember that the pairs of eyes watching every move and listening to every conversation and their nuances belong to your children. Take care of them. Please.

As always, daven.

Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.