When it comes to divorce, everyone is concerned about the kids. Not that everyone who divorces has kids, but we don’t seem to have as much angst about childfree couples as we do about those who have kids, especially young kids.
For all our studies about how divorce impacts kids, ranging from doom and gloom to “the kids are all right,” especially if the parents are already divorced, we don’t seem to ask the most important people of all what they think — the kids themselves.
Well, Ellen Bruno did.
The longtime San Francisco filmmaker and international relief worker interviewed a handful of children aged 6 to 12 about their feelings about their parents’ divorce for her film-in-progress, Split.
Q: Why did you just interview kids — not parents, not experts — about divorce?
A: Sometimes as adults we get caught in the trap that we are in the know, and we will teach our children all they need to know. We lose sight of all that kids need to teach us. Kids are wise and intuitive, and when given the space to share their experiences, they speak a truth that is clear and profound. And kids listen to other kids, often far more attentively than they listen to adults.
Adults often believe that it’s best to keep kids in the dark about divorce. Buts kids have wild imaginations, and bits of evidence that our little spies collect or overhear often bloom into full-grown monsters under our kids’ beds. And kids often see this silence as keeping secrets, and that’s not fair. They often want and feel they deserve to know what is going on in their families, even if it is hard. After all, it’s their life, too.
So, parents can be silent — not always the best choice — but kids are making their choices around silence. Kids are really tuned into even the most subtle stresses and emotions of their parents. When divorce is stirring up the emotional pot for parents, kids often get into a caretaking role, protecting their parents from their emotional needs by telling them what their parents often need to hear: “I am fine. Everything is OK. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Often kids are really busy caretaking a parent who is sad or angry or depressed after a divorce. They fear that sharing their own feelings about the split will be a further burden to their parent. So in these ways, silence conspires against the needs of the kids.
Q: How did you find the kids?
A: I found these kids in and around San Francisco, friends’ kids, friends of friends, emails to my networks. But they are everywhere. People often comment about how articulate and emotionally intelligent the kids in Split are, but any child you give the floor to will make your socks roll up and down. Kids are brilliant. We just need to tune into them and let them know we really care what they think.
Q: What surprised you about what the kids said about divorce?
A: The kids’ feelings were incredibly consistent. Most kids hate when their parents fight, most hold onto some thread of hope that their parents will get back together — even after they have remarried. Going back and forth between houses is hard, but there are some advantages (the two birthdays is always a hit). Most feel weird around new partners at first, and are afraid they will get less attention. And what the experts say, in fact, seems to be true, that many kids feel the divorce was their fault on some level, even if they can’t articulate why.
Q: Did most seem to be doing OK or were most struggling?
A: I talked in length to 18 kids. Three were in a lot of pain, and it was clear within minutes that it would not be helpful to them to have this conversation, so we stopped. It was important that the kids in Split present as survivors, kids who have been through the worst of it and have come out the other side. This does not mean that they have it all figured out, that all their feelings are resolved, but they have moved onto their new lives. This is what kids need to see and hear — that it is hard, but you survive and they are even some advantages to the new formation of your family.
Q: Some of the kids mentioned there was a lot of fighting between their parents, and they were relieved when they got divorced. But, did the fighting continue?
A: The sad and sometimes happy reality about divorce is that your relationship with your kid’s other parent never goes away. But after divorce there are often far fewer incentives to be civil and respectful to each other. The ties that bind are shredded, and the communities that surround each parent often feel that degrading the other parent is a good form of support. Nobody really wins in that equation, but few people seem to know how else to do divorce. We are really in desperate need of some good models.
Q: Do you believe kids should have a bigger voice in custody decisions?
A: This puts too much burden on the kids. Kids usually love both parents and getting stuck in the middle of any tug-of-war is a miserable place for a child. But there does needs to be more of a place for children’s voices within the family. Are we really listening to what are kids are trying to tell us?