Doctor Foster - think of the children!
“Mum, I’m going. I was going to move out anyway, but I’ve had enough of Dad and you, and not knowing. I’ve got no school, no friends left. I hate myself. I just want to start again…. You won’t see me again. It’ll be better, I think. Love you.”
So we heard the devastating message that Tom Foster left for his mother, Gemma, in the final moments of the BBC hit series, Doctor Foster. Gemma’s biggest fear, of losing her son, is realised, and in a moment of over-whelming clarity, she understands the horror of what has happened, and even that the warning signs had been there all along: “this terrible thing was there, the whole time, and you didn’t see it”.
I watched Doctor Foster with an increasing feeling of discomfort. Sometimes I could hardly watch. How could Gemma and Simon not notice the damage their fighting was doing to their only child? Tom had become a weapon in their relentless battle to ruin each others’ lives.
Increasingly anxious and withdrawn, Tom had tried to force himself on a girl at a party, fought with his best friend, and been expelled from school. All the while, his parents indulged in behaviours including manipulation, stalking, abusive messaging, lying, gaslighting, and Tom even overheard them having angry sex on the dining room table. Simon became increasingly abusive, and Gemma seemed unable to move beyond her anger and hatred.
No wonder Tom wanted out – his parents could have written a book on “How-to-damage-your-children-after-divorce”.
I don’t believe that divorce inevitably damages children. I believe that it depends to a large degree on how the adults behave.
So, what could Gemma and Simon have done to limit the damage to Tom? What can you do to help your children cope with the upheaval of divorce?
Your children don’t want to be made to choose
Your children love you both, and they don’t want to have to choose between you. Avoid criticising your ex to the children. It may be hard sometimes, but you can feel proud of yourself for rising above your feelings, and keeping your dignity. Instead, use your support network – your friends, your coach, your therapist – as sounding boards for your feelings against your ex.
Reassure them that the divorce is not their fault
Many children feel that their parents’ divorce is somehow their fault – “if only I had been better/less noisy/hadn’t argued back, this wouldn’t be happening”. Your children need reassurance that it isn’t their fault as they grieve. Give them oodles of love. A 20 second hug has the power to make you feel good, so hug long and often!
Help them to understand and process their emotions
We are often told that children are ‘resilient’ and ‘adaptable’. But divorce will rock a child’s world. Just as I advise you to acknowledge and feel your own emotions, you can encourage your children to feel theirs. Listen to their concerns and worries, reassure them that their feelings are normal. Check in with them regularly and let them know you are interested in how they are feeling. Watch out for signs that they are struggling, such as changes in sleep or behaviour patterns. You may not be able to solve everything, or give them what they want – which is often their parents back together – but you can acknowledge and validate their feelings, and ask them if they can think of anything which would help make it feel better. Developing these skills will help your children to deal with the upheaval healthily.
Remember to have some fun
There is nothing like laughing or smiling to make you feel better. The same applies to your children. So go out and do fun stuff. Build sandcastles, sing along to loud music in the car, watch funny movies, spend time with friends and family. Whatever you and your children love to do, go do it!
Minimise disruption to routines
Consistency will help children to feel secure. If your child has a favourite story or toy for bedtime, make sure they have it with them. My youngest son took to sleeping with a tea towel during my divorce. It gave him reassurance and comfort if he woke, and it was a constant in his life. If you can, try to agree consistent boundaries on things like bedtime, phone use, TV time, gaming, food, with your ex.
Look after yourself!
When I was writing this blog, I wondered whether to put this as number 1 on my list. If you look after yourself, you will be better able to look out for your children. You always have choice, so choose to eat regularly, try to get enough sleep, and take some exercise. Acknowledge how you feel, be your own best friend, and be kind to yourself.