OPINION

Children turned against divorced parents in the Diaspora

Adults who experienced divorce during childhood may have more relationship difficulties

Dr Masimba Mavaza

Zimbabwean children abroad are being turned against their parents by those who have custody of them.

This ranges from a mother or father who has custody or social workers and foster parents. Some do this entirely out of spite and some do it mostly out of financial gain.

A lot of Zimbabwean divorced partners are eliminated from having relations with their children because of the “implacable hostility” of those partners with custody.

The normal prejudiced assumption is that a mother will give children kindly care, while a father swaggers off over the horizon.

As a marriage dissolves, some parents find themselves asking questions like, “Should we stay together for the kids?”

Other parents find divorce is their only option.

And while all parents may have many worries on their mind — from the future of their children to the uncertainty of the custody arrangement—they may worry most about how the children will deal with the divorce.

In a rare case, a High Court judge in London ordered that a 10-year-old girl be removed from her mother’s care because the girl had been systematically estranged from her father by her mother’s “ranting” against the man.

Ruling that the mother’s conduct was manifestly harmful for the daughter and contrary to her long-term interests, Justice Parker observed that the child had been manipulated into believing that her father did not want her; and she ordered that the girl should be taken into the care of social services as a half-way measure towards placing her in her father’s care.

The court heard that the girl was likely to be resistant to being reunited with her father without such interim measures.

The case torched a storm, with women groups complaining. The reality was it was a case which showed that men have always been made to look like devils; the word love has been removed from the lives of fathers and their children.

The High Court ruling stood out as an extraordinary moment, reversing normal prejudiced assumptions that a mother will give children kindly care while a feckless father swaggers off over the horizon.

While divorce is stressful for all children, some kids rebound faster than others.

The good news is that parents can take steps to reduce the psychological effects of divorce on children. A few supportive parenting strategies can go a long way to helping kids adjust to the changes brought about by divorce.

Research has found that children struggle the most during the first year or two after the divorce. Children are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief.

But many children seem to bounce back. They get used to changes in their daily routines and they grow comfortable with their living arrangements.

Others, however, never really seem to go back to “normal.” This small percentage of children may experience ongoing – possibly even lifelong – problems after their parents’ divorce.

This is more so when the father marries another wife and kids have to leave with a stepmother. Still, the father is as good a parent as the mother.

The case to the men reflected a phenomenon that they see all too frequently – the elimination of fathers from their children’s lives by unmitigated, unscrupulous demands on the children’s loyalty on the part of the mother with custody, along with the unremitting denigration and belittling of the father.

Most partners with custody of children go an extra mile to demonise the absent parent.

Even if the partner pays enough funds for the upkeep of the children, the children are always told that their father is playing around while the mother is suffering.

Fathers have been too often used as the scare crow, anything the child does, the child is reminded that a dragon with hands dripping of blood called father is coming.

Fathers have been made vampires and used to be the scaring devils of the house. In this aspect, the fathers are alienated from their children before they are divorced, by the time of divorce, the fathers are already viewed as evil ones who cannot stay with the children.

For those organisations, the only unusual feature of this case was that the harmful conduct of the mother was actually recognised by the court; and that, for once, officials did something about it.

It should be noted that conflicts of loyalty for the children do seem to be a common feature of high-conflict separations. It’s a huge problem for many couples and the children are made to make the most emotional wrecking choice.

The controlling parent is likely to be the woman and the estranged, undermined parent is likely to be the man. There are of course some men who try to turn the children against their mothers. This is very rare, but indeed possible.

It is called “implacable hostility”.

Divorce creates emotional turmoil for the entire family, but for children, the situation can be quite scary, confusing and frustrating.

Young children often struggle to understand why they must go between two homes. They may worry that if their parents can stop loving one another that someday, their parents may stop loving them.

Primary school children may worry that the divorce is their fault. They may fear they misbehaved or they may assume they did something wrong.

Teenagers may become quite angry about a divorce and the changes it creates. They may blame one parent for the dissolution of the marriage or they may resent one or both parents for the upheaval in the family.

Of course, each situation is unique. In extreme circumstances, a child may feel relieved by the separation – if a divorce means fewer arguments and less stress.

Divorce usually means children lose daily contact with one parent — most often fathers. Decreased contact affects the parent-child bond and according to a paper published in 2014, researchers have found many children feel less close to their fathers after divorce.

Divorce also affects a child’s relationship with the custodial parent—most often mothers. Primary caregivers often report higher levels of stress associated with single parenting.

Many studies suggest that mothers are often less supportive and less affectionate after divorce. Additionally, their discipline becomes less consistent and less effective.

For some children, parental separation isn’t the hardest part. Instead, the accompanying stress is what make divorce the most difficult.

Changing schools, moving to a new home, and living with a single parent who feels a little more frazzled are just a few additional stress that makes divorce difficult.

Financial hardships are also common following divorce. Many families have to move to smaller homes or change neighbourhoods and they often have fewer material resources.

The failure rate for second marriages is even higher than first marriages. So many children experience multiple separations and divorces over the years.

Divorce may increase the risk for mental health problems in children and adolescents. Regardless of age, gender, and culture, children of divorced parents experience increased psychological problems.

It may trigger an adjustment disorder in children that resolves within a few months. But, studies have also found depression and anxiety rates are higher in children from divorced parents.

Children from divorced families may experience more externalizing problems, such as conduct disorders, delinquency, and impulsive behaviour than those from two-parent families.

In addition to increased behaviour problems, children may also experience more conflict with peers after a divorce.

Children from divorced families don’t always perform as well academically.

However, another study published in 2019 suggested children from divorced families tended to have trouble with school if the divorce was unexpected, whereas children from families where divorce was likely did not have the same outcome.

Adolescents with divorced parents are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, such as substance use and early sexual activity.

In the diaspora, adolescents with divorced parents drink alcohol earlier and report higher alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and drug use than their peers.

Adults who experienced divorce during childhood may have more relationship difficulties. Divorce rates are higher for people whose parents were divorced. Parents play a major role in how children adjust to a divorce.

Here are some strategies that can reduce the psychological toll divorce has on children:

Intense conflict between parents has been shown to increase children’s distress. Overt hostility, such as screaming and threatening one another has been linked to behaviour problems in children.

But minor tension may also increase a child’s distress. If you struggle to co-parent with your ex-spouse, seek professional help.

Asking children to choose which parent they like best or giving them messages to give to other parents isn’t appropriate.

Children who find themselves caught in the middle are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

Positive communication, parental warmth, and low levels of conflict may help children adjust to divorce better. A healthy parent-child relationship has been shown to help children develop higher self-esteem and better academic performance following divorce.

When parents pay close attention to what teens are doing and who they spend their time with, adolescents are less likely to exhibit behaviour problems following a divorce.

That means a reduced chance of using substances and fewer academic problems.

Divorcing away from the familiar community is a new thing to Zimbabwean community who have been in the UK for less than two decades.

The society they are in promotes divorce. People are happy to announce that they have been in a 30th marriage. Marriage is now under attack and the children emerge as the worst victims of the sins of passion.

While couples agree that both parents should share responsibility for bringing up children and 85 percent agree that fathers are instrumental in bringing up children, the parent with custody never tells the child when the other parent has assisted.

They make it look like they are the only ones who are toiling to make ends meet. That consensus has been reflected in recent amendments to the Children and Families Act 2014 which now requires courts making child arrangement orders “to presume that the involvement of both separating parents in the life of a child will further its welfare”.

However, this is the English Law, the Zimbabwean couples mix both English system and their own system. They pretend to know and in the anger of their lunacy the children suffer more.

Even so, a parent who does not put first the emotional needs of the children, but is primarily driven to exact revenge upon a former spouse or partner or to impose punishment by frustrating or thwarting their relationship with their children is, in the very nature of domestic life, almost impossible to control. Children are more often used as weapons to fix the other party and indeed the child suffers more than the offending parties.

There is a great insidious undermining or disparagement of the other parent by snide remarks or the lurid exaggeration of imagined fears which require the children to line up their loyalties with the apparently threatened or embattled parent.

In this onslaught of an absent parent, the young children voice a determined preference not to see or be involved with a parent who has been vilified by the other.

How can anybody be sure that the child is expressing true feelings that have been freely developed rather than a point of view which has been inculcated by a manipulative parent?

Where contact with children is being frustrated or denied and the children themselves are rejecting a parent with whom they previously had good relationships, specialists in mediation and child psychology should get involved without delay.

But the system which does not understand the cultural background of a Zimbabwean will hide behind the term “the best interest of the child”.

Most children are forced to stay with parents who are manipulative and always remind them that their fathers are horrible no brains and selfish.

Parents have portrayed marriages as the most horrible institution in life. It will not be a surprise to find out that in few years, marriage will be wiped out of the important issues of life.

Diaspora has all odds against them, no helpers who understand them, the church pastors are mostly self-centred and do not promote families.

Most of them are powered by money. Relatives who are backing home decides to take sides of those who pay them the most. Life as we know it, has been thrown into a quagmire.

Children are being turned against their parents. Who is going to help the Zimbabwean couple abroad?

Let us remember that:

The sincerity of a husband is known during the sickness of his wife. That of a wife is known during the financial difficulty of the husband. True love of children is known during the old age of the parents.

The true nature of siblings is known during distribution of inheritance.

The sincerity of friends is known during hard times.

The true relatives are known when one is far from his country, lonely or sick.

True love is known when there is no means of benefit and a true believer is known during times of hardship.

In all, life is the teacher itself. May we grow in wisdom, understanding and patience.

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