Dealing with parents’ divorce as an adult

Dear Carin

You advised a 56-year-old woman whose problem from her youth resurfaced, to seek professional help. I too am experiencing problems in my life such as anxiety, low self-esteem and at times anger outbursts. I also have commitment issues. It has nothing to do with sexual abuse, but rather the relationship of my parents (their divorce when I was five) and also that they are not there for me. I am currently 21 years old. Can you please advise me on other methods apart from seeking professional help as well as reading.

Parents divorcing can have a severely negative impact on a child, especially when the child is very young and not fully able to understand why their home, which was their world, got disrupted.

In the personal history of the child, parental divorce is a watershed event. Life that follows is significantly changed from how life was before. Young children are very dependent on their parents for their psychological and social development, and divorce tends to intensify the child’s dependence.

For the young child, divorce shakes trust in dependency on parents who may now seem to behave in an extremely undependable way.

They surgically divide the family unit into two different households between which the child must learn to transit back and forth, for a while creating unfamiliarity, instability, and insecurity, never being able to be with one parent without having to be apart from the other.

The dependent child’s short-term reaction to divorce can be an anxious one. So much is different, new, unpredictable, and unknown that life becomes filled with scary questions. What is going to happen to me next? Who will take care of me? If my parents can lose love for each other, can they lose love for me? With mom or dad moving out, what if I lose the other too?

Answering such worrying questions with worst fears, the child’s response can be regressive.

By reverting to a former way of functioning, more parental care-taking is often required. There can be separation anxieties, crying at bed times, bed-wetting, clinging, whining, tantrums, and temporary loss of established self-care skills, all of which can force more parental attention. The child wants to feel more connected in a family situation where a major disconnection has occurred.

Children of divorced families tend to have long-term adjustment difficulties when there is ongoing conflict between their parents.

Children’s adjustment is also determined by the amount of conflict the parents had before the divorce. If there was not much conflict in the home the child is able to adjust better after the divorce.

Although the distress of not being with both parents is one of the most painful parts of divorce, it is the continuing relationship that children have with their parents that is essential to their long-term adjustment.

Besides the difficulty of having to cope with your parents’ divorce at such a young age, it seems your parents did not manage the post-divorce process very well and did not make much effort to be there for you and support you. This more than likely made you feel abandoned by them. They should have been there for you but it seems they just carried on with their own lives. They did not provide you with the emotional and caring support that you needed growing up.

That you are struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, anger outbursts and commitment problems is totally understandable.

I still would recommend that you seek professional help but it seems this is not what you want.

Perhaps you could start by reading books on the effects of divorce on adult-children. One book I can recommend is written by a local author, Judy Klipin, called Life Lessons for the Adult Child. It is easy to read and contains helpful exercises which helps to work through some of the issues pertaining to dealing with a disruptive and chaotic family life and childhood.

I am writing to you because I need your help. How can I move on from my three miscarriages? I get angry quickly these days and I blame myself for everything. Please help.

Being pregnant and going through the expectancy of a new baby is a very joyful and emotional time. The parents, especially the mother, look forward to seeing, holding and nurturing their baby. The loss of a baby through miscarriage is a very painful experience. While miscarriage may be viewed as common, for the mother or parents it will not be experienced that way. It is a very personal and emotional experience. Miscarriage can cause a woman the most acute sadness she has ever experienced.

Miscarriage is one of the least recognised forms of pregnancy loss. Because miscarriage usually happens very early in the pregnancy, there is often the misconception that the degree of loss experienced is in proportion to the length of the pregnancy.

Its impact generally seems to be underestimated, except by those who have had one. What seems far more relevant is the loss of an expected child.

Attachment is based on the expectations, fantasies and hopes for the child which are mixed with an intense emotional involvement.

For many women who speak about their miscarriages, they speak in very personal and relational terms – with miscarriage feeling like the death or loss of a person. They commonly show the same range of feelings reported in other bereavement situations and have been found to experience two phases of mourning:

* The initial phase, characterised by denial as a means of coping with the loss.

* The acute mourning period, characterised by increased feelings of anger, guilt, self-blame and jealousy.

Having had three miscarriages must have intensified these feelings for you. I am really sorry and I hope that you can find help and support while you go through this very painful grieving process. I strongly recommend that you find support. Perhaps you could contact Famsa, as they have counsellors who can help you speak about your feelings of intense loss and deep sadness.

* This column will appear every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774. Provide sufficient information about your difficulty.

This will help Carin give you an appropriate response.