Helping kids survive divorce


Most of us are painfully aware that parents can seriously harm their children’s mental health. Research has shown we damage our children with particular efficiency when we get divorced with children who lose contact with their fathers more likely to suffer from insecurity and anxiety, less likely to achieve academically, more prone to substance abuse and teenage pregnancy and more likely to become divorced themselves. That is some knock-on effect.

The majority of child psychologists agree, however, it is not divorce per se that messes up children. It is how we handle it that really matters. Most divorcing couples are too busy dealing with their own traumas to tackle effectively, or systematically, the impact their split is having on their offspring.

In many parts of the US, many such families may be referred to a ‘divorce coach’ who teaches these warring and bruised parents how to put aside their own baggage and focus on the emotional welfare of their children. They provide practical strategies for doing this, and, crucially, often work with the children directly.

In new UK TV series about to be aired, three British families affected by divorce are shipped off to Houston, Texas to spend time with the divorce coach Christina McGhee, a social worker who runs seminars and workshops for divorcing parents and their children, many of whom are referred to her by the courts. The results are dramatic. We look at one family this week.

The Walkers

Angela, 29, a holistic therapist, and Kelvin, 40, a computer engineer.

“We’d spent most of the last two years screaming and shouting at each other,” says Angela, “I was desperate — I felt as if I was in prison at home all day with three kids and eventually realised the only way anything was going to change was if I took matters into my own hands.”

Angela packed up the kids, Callum, now eight, Eanna, six, and Honey, three, and left husband, Kelvin, in 2004.

Once separated, however, the situation between Angela and Kelvin deteriorated further. “We were at each others’ throats whenever we crossed paths,’’ says Kelvin. The strain on the children was impossible to ignore. “Callum became withdrawn and his school work was suffering,” Angela remembers. “Eanna started having major temper tantrums and Honey regressed to being a baby again — she went back to her dummy, wanted bottles, and was back in nappies.’’

“They had the worst of both worlds,’’ Kelvin admits, “we were apart, but still fighting. We knew things were going horribly wrong, but we just didn’t know what to do about it.’’ Angela’s parents divorced when she was two, and she lost contact with her father. She feared the same would soon happen to her own children. “It seemed the only way Kelvin and I could not argue, was by having no contact with each other.’’

On the way to Houston, Kelvin and Angela had to be seated in separate sections of the plane. There seemed no hope of civility, let alone harmony, but in the first session, says Angela, “there was this huge revelation: Christina told us that although we didn’t live together, we were still a couple — a really terrible one — and that this was harming the kids.’’

Christina told them they had to not only disentangle themselves from each other, but separate their relationship from their relationship with their children. They left Houston armed with a series of strategies that, says Kelvin “have shone a clear light on everything’’.

Kelvin and Angela now interact as if their children are a business in which they are joint partners: they have clear, set agendas and discussions take place in a neutral place — Starbucks — rather than at full-throttle over their children’s heads. They aim to reach a rational compromise, rather than fight for supremacy.

To help this along, they have instituted a “handover book’’ in which they write down all the information the other needs to know about the kids as they pass them to and fro (“If it wasn’t in the book, it wasn’t said.’’) What is more, they never, ever bad-mouth each other in front of their children. “It really does work,’’ says Angela, “It hasn’t always been easy but it’s a huge improvement.’’

These days Callum, Eanna and Honey are “so much happier’’, says Angela, “They don’t feel they have to choose between us any more.”

Honey has stopped demanding her bottle and is back on the potty. Callum is more outgoing and his school work is improving, and Eanna is much more settled.

Perhaps most miraculous of all, last year the Walkers spent Christmas Day together.

Is it possible to protect your children from the damaging effects of divorce? Three British families struggling to cope with marriage breakdown travelled to Texas to visit a specialist ‘divorce coach’. The results, says Lucy Atkins, were remarkable