Children suffering from outdated divorce stigma

May 07, 2023 - 08:59
Nowadays, as more and more topics are viewed with more open-mindedness, most adults would somewhat agree that, while a couple should try their hardest to mend their issues together, divorce is a reasonable last-resort after nothing has worked out.


Illustration by Trịnh Lập

 By Việt Dũng 

I recently came across a social media post from a mother seeking advice on how to help her child cope with her plan to divorce her husband, and this unfortunate predicament got me thinking about how this genuinely complicated topic is being perceived by children.

The post detailed the poster’s struggle with her marriage and how divorce is the only solution, but she is concerned with how her six-year-old child has constantly said that they want to live with both the father and the mother at the same time. She is understandably worried about how to make sure her child can grow up and be mentally healthy.

Nowadays, as more and more topics are viewed with more open-mindedness, most adults would somewhat agree that, while a couple should try their hardest to mend their issues together, divorce is a reasonable last-resort after nothing has worked out.

In fact, divorce can be a great solution for a couple that is not compatible with each other to live healthier lives, and even help some people escape abusive spouses. Some people have shared stories about how they wish their parents would have split up instead of trying to tolerate each other and failing.

“I don’t want to divorce my terrible husband because my children will be very negatively affected by that,” is something that plenty of wives in Việt Nam (and other countries around the world) have said. And over the years, I have seen opinions on this mindset gradually changing; many people perceive it as the person’s inability to cut off a toxic relationship, using their children as an excuse.

I am usually in favour of parents going through a divorce if they really cannot work things out, but posts like the above-mentioned one are a reminder that things are not so black and white.

That was not even the first time I saw such a post. A few years back, I read a story about how a mother could not divorce her husband because her child literally begged her on their knees not to split the family up. There have also been stories about children who think their divorced parents do not love them anymore, or blame themselves for the divorce.

A friend of mine, Nguyễn Việt Anh, 26, told me that when he was young, he heard his parents talking about how the parents of his cousin (who he is really close with) are always angry and somewhat abusive toward each other, and remarked that they should consider a divorce. Hearing this, Anh got very upset at his parents for even suggesting that.

Lately I have been thinking to myself, “why do children see divorce as a terrible thing?” I completely understand that if a child of a seemingly happy parents suddenly get asked whether they want to live with mum or dad, that might bring out some very strong emotions.

But to ponder a step further: why do they react so negatively? Most children would not be sad if their parents get a new job, hairstyle, hobby, car, pet, friends, etc, so why would they react so badly to parents divorcing? This may sound like a stupid question, but I believe that re-examining things that most people consider “obvious” is always a good thing.

I have a young nephew that loves watching educational TV programmes that teach him good values and morals, like how he should help his mothers do chores, be polite to his father, and be nice to his siblings. One day it dawned on me: all of these TV programmes for young kids always feature a traditional nuclear family - always a father, a mother, and usually two siblings.

I also realised that many other children’s sources of information, including school text books, usually feature this type of family, especially when I was young. There have been children comics that have child characters with dead mothers or fathers, but divorced parents are definitely rare.

Most of us have an idea of “normal” instilled in us at a young age, through media, education and our environment. We know that it is “normal” to have a mother and father because the things we read at a very young age indirectly tell us that, and the books we learnt taught us to be familiar with the concept of mothers and fathers.

I believe that this understanding of a normal family extends further. Young kids internalise that “a happy family” consist of a mother, a father and themselves, always happy, smiling and being nice to each other no matter what. And so, if their family is not like that, they are “unhappy”.

My acquaintance Nguyễn Lê Gia Linh, 22, agreed with me, saying that “children today still have very limited knowledge of family diversity, and what intimidates children is the contradiction between ‘the norm’ and reality”.

Obviously a parent’s divorce will always negatively affect children regardless of their media intake; it is a disruptive change in family environment, in what they are familiar with. Young children might be more prone to anger, depression, even blaming themselves for their parent’s divorce.

However, I believe that the best way to alleviate these negative effects in children of divorced parents is showing them that their situations is not unique to them, and their family dynamic being different from others is not a terrible thing.

When I was 14, I used to watch on TV a very famous animated comedy series for kids called Phineas and Ferb, which is a light-hearted show about two brothers making outlandish inventions during their summer holiday.

While the young me was mostly captivated by the series’ humour and creativity, one thing that stuck to me is that fact that the main characters are from a blended family: Phineas’s mother, who had given birth to him and his older sister, divorced her husband before the series started, and went on to marry Ferb’s father, who also had Ferb before breaking things off with his wife.

While the show never draws explicit attention to this untraditional family dynamic, it is very clear that the members of this family love each other dearly. Phineas is very close to his brother and father, even though they are not related by blood. Another reoccurring character is divorced and has a daughter who spends her time between her two parents, and they all respect and care for each other, even when the mother is hinted to be dating another man.

This show, and other modern children’s shows portraying children with a single parent or same-sex parents as normal, are teaching their young viewers that there are more types of family models than the traditional nuclear family, and this does not make these children “unhappy” or “abnormal”. And I definitely think there should be more of these shows and comics.

Linh said that in addition to media, it is crucial to have parents and schools to educate children on different family forms and be more understanding towards divorce or separation.

Media, education and the surrounding environment have a large effect in shaping the values, morals and mindset of people, especially young impressionable children. And when young children are more used to seeing a wider variety of environment and conditions like having divorced parents, it is more likely that they will subconsciously perceive them in a more nuanced light. VNS