Her thesis is a simple one: when it comes to divorce, don’t make the mistake of assuming that teenagers are adults. It is all too easy to see the vulnerability of young children – four, five, six years old – for whom parental figures are the centre of the world. Some unhappy couples worry about splitting up when their kids are so young. Some even put off the separation altogether – the traditional ‘let’s wait till the children are older’ approach to marital unhappiness.
Turn then to that burly 17 year-old, who grunts over the breakfast table, plays rugby at school, treats the house like a hotel and seems in a never-ending hurry to grow up. Who could be blame his parents for thinking ‘he’ll be fine’ and picking up the phone to their solicitor?
But as Joanna Moorhead so rightly points out in her article, teenagers are not adults, however much they may wish to be at times. Instead they are caught in that awkward halfway house between childhood and the grown-up realm. Life as a ‘young adult’, as the journalist terms them, is tough. All but the luckiest struggle find their place in an indifferent world, and they must do so without the confidence and wisdom only gained by hard-won experience.
For such kids, boring old Mum and Dad can be a vital source of stability and certainty. They know, as they venture out into the world, that if things go wrong they can retreat for a while, go home, enjoy some home comforts and the reassurance of Mum and Dad.
Divorce can come as a real shock at such an uncertain stage. To quote Joanna Moorhead:
“…young people start to question everything they’ve come to know as true and strong and feeling the rug pulled from under them can lead them to question all sorts of assumptions in their lives. Suddenly, everything they thought was real isn’t real. They start to wonder whether their parents ever loved one another, whether their marriage has been a total sham. They may feel guilt: did their parents stay together this long just because of them? And if so, what unhappiness has their existence heaped on them?”
Strong words. She mentions the sad case of Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, whose son Peter’s angry, swearword-sprinkled text messages in the wake of his parents’ divorce were splashed all over the national newspapers earlier this month.
Of course, every teenager and family is different, but I think the journalist is certainly onto something here. When it comes to family upheavals, younger children actually have a strange advantage. Yes, they are vulnerable and hugely dependent on their parents for both their material and emotional wellbeing, BUT….they also so young that much of adult life sails right past them. If their parents split up they will probably fail to fully grasp the implications of what has occurred and have no lingering memories of their parents together. In other words: younger children are both vulnerable and more resilient than older ones.
At the end of last month, a study recently noted that divorce and similar family upheavals can mean some children struggle at school – but only if the divorce or upset occurred when they were aged seven or older.
So what does all this mean? Many people have divorce thrust upon them by circumstance – their partner leaves them, their partner is unfaithful, their partner is violent. For such parents, there is no choice involved in divorce.
Others feel strongly that ‘staying together for the sake of the children’ is a deeply old-fashioned concept and that it is far better to make an honest break than subject children in a self-sacrificing way to an unhappy home life. I would not like to argue with them.
But their children will certainly have their own perspectives.
Photo by Horia Varlan via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence