What movies talk about divorce

Divorce is like an earthquake - when children talk about their parents' divorce

Max Peter

published on 11/30/2011

From: DIE PRAXIS DES FAMILIENRECHTS, FamPra.ch 3/2011. With the kind permission of Stämpfli Verlag AG, Bern.

Intervention approaches are presented on the basis of selected sequences from work in groups of affected children. Through personal concern, the author tries to show how parents can recognize, respect and protect the interests and rights of their children on their own responsibility. The essay appeals to specialist agencies, authorities and courts to stand up courageously and creatively for children of divorce and their families

How divorce changes children's lives

"He took my dog ​​with him." Oliver says it in a low voice, his head tilted forward so that he can hardly be heard. "Papa bought it with his money, but he said it was mine," he continues. “Now they're both gone and I only see them every two weeks. At night the dog lay next to my bed and when I couldn't sleep I petted him. " After a pause, he adds: "Now everything is different." One asks the name of the four-legged friend, a girl asks about its race, gender and color. Oliver stands up and marks that Struppi is about up to his knees.

Oliver was the first to answer my colleague's [1] question about everything that has changed since the parents' divorce. The other seven children in the circle slide back and forth on their chairs, look into space, adjust their clothes or try to get in touch with someone sitting next to them. One of them digs pictures of football players out of his pocket. Kathrin sits there huddled and is indifferent. It will stay that way until the end of the course. We could have excluded her from further visits after the first few hours, but the feedback from her mother on the parents' evening prompted us to keep the place open for her: Kathrin really enjoys coming to the group, feels good and spontaneously tells us something at home she experienced. In the tenth and final session, she will tell us that it is a pity that it is over because she liked it very much.

Each of the eight children - five boys and three girls between eight and twelve years of age - answers the question about changes in their own personal way. "I miss the kiss from Papi goodnight," reports Manuela, who keeps reminding the group that she wants to be spoken to as Manu. “Daddy's place stays empty at dinner”, “I can't romp around with my daddy in the evening”, “Now I can only hear his ghost stories on visiting weekends”, “When mom and I had arguments, Dad was still there to whom I could go », they can be heard in turn.

The youngest participant, Marc, slumped his shoulders and told the group: “Divorce is like an earthquake. Everything has changed for me! In the morning, before school, I can no longer help Papi in the stable and also no longer drive the tractor with him; I can only look after my calf on one weekend a month, ”he adds. Marc moved with his mother and two siblings from the stately farm to an apartment building. "I only see big houses when I look out the window," he adds. For a moment the group remains silent. It crosses my mind that I recently read that divorce is just a reorganization of family relationships. "Does your house have an elevator?" Asks Holger. When asked what has become different for her, Kathrin says dismissively, as if to herself: "I don't know." Manu stands up, she has to step out, urgently. Holger asks about the break.

The expressions and behaviors are exemplary and typical; they impressively reflect the mental state and living situation of children of divorce. We also perceive their signals of repression, of not wanting to be aware of and of defense, but we do not immediately question them; the children should be able to decide for themselves what they want to contribute and when. They must also be able to trust that nothing they reveal will be recorded and passed on as a statement for or against a parent. The concept of confidentiality is therefore introduced in every group and compliance with it is declared binding for all.

The protected setting of a professionally accompanied group makes it easier for the children to openly express their concern about what is happening. It is important that children find a place for themselves where they can talk about their experiences and also about their fears and name their pain; They should also be able to express their anger without fear.

Figdor [2] speaks of the "revealed pain" as the only pain that can be overcome. In contrast, the suppressed pain cannot be processed and ultimately leaves an unmistakable scar in the child's soul.

Among other things, it is having to say goodbye to familiar things and the loss of many everyday experiences with a loved one that are mourned by children of divorce, such as dad's kiss goodnight or romping around with him before bed. There are rituals in everyday family life that gave the children a feeling of togetherness and security and which are now missing. Sometimes, as in the example of Marc, children who move to another place of residence as a result of the divorce are deprived of a significant part of their livelihood. For some of the children, the sadness of what was lost is combined with the relief of confirmation of their premonitions of emerging family changes, as C. G. Jung also experienced and later described: «I was surrounded by dark hints of difficulties in the parents' marriage. My illness must have been related to a temporary separation of my parents. " [3]

For children from highly conflicted family systems, the irritation and uncertainty persists even after their parents' divorce.

Children in their parents' quarrel

Children are also massively burdened by the ongoing quarrel between their parents and their upbringing is thereby decisively influenced.

If children remain exposed to parental conflicts for a long time without protection, they develop protective mechanisms with which they try to evade this burden and their dilemma. For example, you gradually distance yourself from your parent living away from home and ultimately break off contact with them. Children also renounce this when they perceive that one parent is having trouble when they want to maintain a good relationship with the other. Mothers and fathers then endeavor to convince experts, authorities or courts that the decision for such refusals was made consciously and, of course, completely uninfluenced by the child. Some children are parentified completely unnoticed by their mothers or fathers, i.e. they are pushed into an adult role and to take on their positions. In emotionally charged times, this usually happens subliminally and cannot be seen by adults and certainly not by children. In any case, children show solidarity with the alleged victim and even feel valued as a confidante of a parent; they do not feel that their development is not ready to take on this function.

Gradually the realization is gaining ground that parentification is a form of psychological child abuse and must be taken seriously. Parentified children are variously mentioned in the specialist literature as a special case group of psychological abuse and the phenomenon is referred to as a child welfare risk. [4]

Longitudinal samples indicate that parentification represents a considerable emotional burden for the children concerned, [5] which can hinder their developmental tasks. [6]

In a research project carried out between 1996 and 1999 at the Institute for Social Pedagogy at the Technical University of Berlin, risk cases were analyzed, among other things: Mental abuse was in the foreground in more than ten percent of the cases, making it the second most common form of risk. [7]

The child protection group and victim counseling center of the Children's Hospital Zurich shows a total of 455 cases of child abuse in its 2008 statistics, including 94 cases of psychological abuse. After sexual exploitation and physical abuse, psychological abuse ranks third among all types of abuse recorded. According to additional verbal information, it must be assumed that the vast majority of the recorded psychological child abuse results from the context of parental separation and divorce. [8th]

One of the typical characteristics of parentified children is that they do not take good care of the rejected parent. Her dismissive attitude is consistent, as Manu put it in the group:

"I don't want to have anything more to do with my father, he died for me!" Marc, who was just about to demonstrate the latest model toy tractor to the person sitting next to him, suddenly sits there with his mouth open and looks at us in dismay; he would probably never say such a thing against his father. With sparkling eyes, Manu continues: “Because he doesn't give mom enough money and has bought a new car. And he goes on vacation twice a year with his 'newcomer'. He still owes Mama a lot of money from before. "

For the time being it is of no use that we try to show the difference between two types of love - couple love and parental love - using two fabric hearts. We are content to say, in general terms, that there are adult issues and children's issues, and that money issues are among the adult issues that children need not worry about. Later we will try to question Manu's attitude: «I, Manu, caught it somewhere that dad gives mom too little money. What memories do I have of dad myself? What did I do with my papa in the past that I might miss today? " We will find out that Manu has a hard time adjusting, at least she will remember that they used to decorate the Christmas tree together and that he taught her to swim.

It will be important to point out on occasion that it is entirely possible and perfectly normal to love both parents at the same time after a divorce.

Figdor [9] reminds us that one must take for granted that the separation of parents is extremely painful for all children who have been able to develop love relationships with both parents, even if these relationships may be conflicted.

Sean Hepburn Ferrer thinks about the meaningful child-parent relationship in his memories of his mother, the film actress Audrey Hepburn: «I believe the relationship with the mother or the father, the love and trust that it builds - or not - shapes our emotional life until death. The trust we place in our parents determines who we will love later. If this first relationship is incomplete, we will suffer from hunger all our lives and one day blame others for not feeding it when they are unable to. But what do we do when a father isn't around? How can we heal our world if we don't care for our children first? " [10]

Parent contacts as a high wire act for children

Oliver doesn't just mourn his dog. Like a tightrope act, he balances back and forth between mother and father every second weekend, carefully making sure that he can meet their demands and especially their need for childlike affection. He has long since understood that he has to take the side of the parent looking after him completely in order to have his own wish to be loved fulfilled. «I scold papi about mommy and vice versa. So both are satisfied with me. Later on, I have a guilty conscience because I like both of them exactly the same. " The group reacts spontaneously to Oliver's statement. "I feel the same way," say some and urge them to report on their experiences.

Seline is reproaching herself for once confiding in her father that she and her mother will soon move into a new apartment, although the mother had expressly forbidden her to do so. Later she wrote to the father in a text message that it was not true at all. "That was just a kind of white lie," she justifies. Seline rolls her eyes and drives on: “Dad told me I couldn't tell Mommy that he had a girlfriend. But when I tell Mommy about the weekend visit with Daddy on Sunday evening, it quickly happens that I also tell about his girlfriend - even though I actually hate her. "

Benj agrees: He doesn't like his father's girlfriend either, but at her repeated insistence he told Mommy that the girlfriend was now living with Daddy even though he shouldn't have disclosed it.

The children let their anger vent so that their mothers and fathers question them about the other parent. ÒÀÜWeòÀre not postmen! ÒÀ Oliver calls out.

We try to strengthen the children in their independence and to practice role-play with them, how they can deal with inappropriate demands of adults and dare to say no once in a while. The children spontaneously contribute their suggestions with astonishing ease. At the same time, their dilemma becomes noticeable because they realize that their quick-wittedness is still limited outside of the protected framework. We relieve them of the pressure of having to put what they have learned into practice immediately, and we will take up the topic again in later course hours.

The fear of not being loved

Most children find it difficult to set themselves apart from their parents, especially children of divorce. Children from divorced families experience first-hand that love can be withdrawn in the event of differences of opinion. They hear their parents say: "We don't love each other anymore, that's why we're getting a divorce." As a result, children will avoid anything that could lead to a deprivation of love. The fear of losing the carer after the parent has left is deep-seated in some children of divorce. Their hunger for affection and being loved makes them compromise, create white lies and tend to be pragmatic. They adapt, including where adapting harms them and runs counter to their legitimate needs and interests. They learn to "speak by the mouth" to adults, not only to their parents, but also to experts, authorities, judges, etc. "I can get everything I want out of the child that I want to hear from him," one judge said praised a children's talk that went extremely well in his opinion.

Seline can hardly be stopped in the group meeting today. She pokes at her father's girlfriend for what it takes. With a bright red head, she insults them in the worst possible way and leaves no good hair on her. “It's just the very last thing!” She adds at the end. We deliberately did not interrupt them during their ranting tirade. The warning finger also stayed down. Where else could Seline get rid of her pent-up anger without negotiating consequences at the same time? The children react differently: Some - they may have similar feelings - visibly enjoy the mood that has arisen, while others sit there in consternation and look at us questioningly: "You can't do that, right?"

We are interested in what is behind this anger, and we offer Seline to express these feelings as well. I stand behind her: «I, Seline, have now shown how angry I am at this friend. Does it sometimes make me sad because I don't have Papa to myself when I visit? " Seline does not hesitate: «She is always there! Always! I'm never alone with papi. And then there's Deborah, her child, who is supposed to be my half-sister! Pooh!"

“I would like to go to the cinema, eat ice cream or go to the swimming pool with Dad,” I interject. «Yes, to the cinema! I wish that. " "Does Daddy know that I would like that so much?" Seline suddenly turns around; In doing so, she actually disregards a rule: "No, definitely not!" "How could he find out about my wish?" I ask further.

Now children line up behind Seline: "I can tell him on my next visit," "I'll give him a call," "Write him a letter," they suggest one after the other. Seline ponders: "Make a phone call, maybe."

This added word “maybe” triggers a discussion about why making calls can sometimes be very difficult. It's a long way to go before we can practice the phone conversation between Seline and her father. Mirsa wants to play the father, Seline herself.

"Hello papa, this is Seline!"

Mirsa grins at everyone. "What do you want?"

"I want to ask you something," says Seline shyly and with a bright red head, as if her father could see her.


"I want to go to the cinema with you next Saturday, alone with you."

"Out of the question," says Mirsa, "on Saturdays we all go shopping together, you know that."

"Yes," it sounds resigned, whereupon Seline hastily hangs up the assumed listener; «I knew it! That does not work like this."

Mirsa sits triumphantly on his chair. The children giggle and get restless. Again I stand behind Seline: "I gave up quickly and said yes," I say. "What prevented me from sticking to my wish?"

"I don't dare to contradict Papi," she says meekly.

“Could I have had the conversation differently?” I ask further, looking around.

Reluctantly, children volunteer and stand behind Seline.

"I should have yelled at him," says one.

The group rejects the proposal as unsuitable.

"I could have told him that I am looking forward to the weekend and that I have a wish for Saturday."

"I could have said: Daddy, I want to go to the cinema with you again, like I used to."

Seline cannot take up any of these suggestions. "I'm afraid he'll get mad at me," she says.

Children whose parents have quarreled and remain at odds very often assume joint responsibility for the situation and try to mediate; in doing so, they often lose touch with themselves. They hardly know their own needs any more or they put them back. Contact with their feelings is also lost, which is why they can no longer be named.

Ultimately, the children distrust their own perception if it is repeatedly referred to as wrong by their caregivers. "Why don't you kiss each other when Daddy leaves the house in the morning?" "Dad was in a hurry today," the child replies. "But it was the same yesterday," objects the child. "What do you want to see again!"

Something else occupies Seline: Papa's "new ones". Not enough with Seline having to share her papa with her. The appearance of the new partner deprives Seline of her secretly cherished hope that the parents will one day reunite. That hurts her. In their distress, the children who have been cheated of their hope develop strategies for driving out new partners; every means is right for them to do so.

Of stubborn children and forced visits

Not all children look forward to visiting the other parent. Benj is one of them. Since the father got married again and had a child with the “new one”, he has seen him changed. His father's demeanor confuses him, especially when it comes to eating. He never used to tell him to eat fish because he knew that Benj didn't like fish. Now he allows the "newcomer" to force Benj to eat fish too, yes, he even supports her; "What is on the plate is eaten" is their common motto, to which they adhere relentlessly, and emphasize that they would not spoil him: "Not like your mommy does." Benj is not allowed to leave the table until he's finished. Nobody stands up for him, he feels at the mercy of adults. In addition, every time you visit, the question arises whether he is still singing in the children's choir. That is "effeminate", he gets to hear, and it is finally time for him to become a real boy.

In the end, Benj refuses to visit. An assistant is assigned to ensure that the "stubborn" goes back to the father every other weekend, as it is written in the judgment. Benj hides when he needs to be picked up. The defender, a respected man from the village, threatens to drive the defiant head out of him. The mother is held responsible for ensuring that visiting weekends are strictly observed.

«I would like to visit my father, but I just can't eat fish. They don't understand, ”explains Benj, and everyone around believes him. "And then they laugh at me because I sing in the children's choir," we hear him tell us further. Last Saturday he was picked up by the assistance for the visiting weekend from the father. Since he resisted, he was packed and pushed into the assistance car against his will. "I asked the man to at least tell the father that I don't have to eat fish this time, but it didn't do any good." We will hear this "It was of no use" from Benj many times over.

The children sit frozen in their chairs and hang on Benj's lips. What could he do? Perplexity spreads. To relieve the children, we explain to them the actual function of an adviser and the authority. So that we remain credible to them, we do not hold back with our opinion and question the action of this particular supporter. In addition, we will later recommend Benj's mother to request a discussion with the authorities, the counselor and the father. We bring up the issue of children's rights. Without discussing this with the children, we will also work to ensure that Benjamin and his father will initially see each other every second Sunday in the accompanied visiting meeting until the conditions for unaccompanied visits are created again.

According to a survey by the youth and family counseling service of the Pfäffikon / Volketswil region, highly conflicted divorced families employ specialist offices, courts and authorities above the masses. Issues with visiting rights problems make up around 30% of the services. [11]

The conventional practice of ordering assistance in the event of visiting rights problems can last a surprisingly long time. In practice, however, such measures are mostly ineffective. The cases are put in a drawer by specialist units or returned to the authorities due to a lack of willingness to cooperate. The thoroughly serious original plan of the authorities and specialist agencies to want to work for the well-being of the children ultimately ends in resignation. "If someone does not cooperate, we can do nothing," let the disappointed announce.

Of threads that break ...

Holger's contact with his father has long been interrupted. The boy has no explanation for this and is wondering whether Dad doesn't like him anymore? Is he still alive? Is it possible that he emigrated to America? In the first year after the divorce he visited his father regularly every two weeks. They had it well together, went on excursions, played football. Then suddenly there were no visits, the answering machine answered calls from Oliver. The mother's repeated assertion that Dad just didn't want to know anything more about them finally became a certainty for Holger. He often indulges his thoughts. How can someone who once said they were proud of their son just abandon them later? For Holger it is clear: Dad not only left mom, but him too.

"I haven't had any contact with Dad for a long time," says Holger. “I don't even know where he lives,” he adds. Then he says with a shrug: "I have no idea why that is." Embarrassed silence. Even Kathrin lifts her head and briefly looks at Holger, whose empty stare affects everyone. "Something should be done," someone mumbles. Finally Seline calls out: "We'll write him a letter!" Happy that someone makes a suggestion and breaks the leaden silence, everyone immediately agrees, Holger also agrees and will let his mother in on the plan at home. After some back and forth about the concrete procedure, the children agree that Oliver, as the group elder, should bring a draft to the next meeting.

... and of threads that are being knotted anew

So far, Mirsa has been cautious when it comes to bringing in the personal situation. He took a lively part in the experience of the others. Today he reports in the initial round: “I met my father!” He can be heard. Everyone is curious and wants to hear more from him. «Did you visit him? Where does he live? What does your room look like with Papa? " Mirsa looks to us for help, we pick up the thread: «It is not yet possible for Mirsa to be able to visit his father at home. After a long break, they have to get used to each other again. Maybe we will hear from Mirsa how it was at the meeting and where it actually took place. " Now it is possible for the boy to continue telling the story. He reports that they met in a house where other children were with their fathers, that they cooked and ate together, and later played. On the next first Sunday of the month he was brought back there by his mother and could then see his father.

Of course the children want to know why this is the case with Mirsa. Hesitantly, he explains how it came about that mom and dad often had arguments, that the police had to come because dad had turned the knife on mom, and that he and mom had to flee to the women's shelter until dad was expelled from the apartment. "Like in a thriller," says Holger with a thick voice, and Kathrin escapes a soft "Uii".

Oliver stands behind Mirsa and asks: "Was I scared?" “Not in the women's refuge anymore, but before that. I was very scared that something would happen to Mom. " We take up the topic in order to reassure the children with information about accompanied visits and to relieve them of the responsibility for extreme situations.

It was important for Mirsa that he could talk about what he had experienced and thus be able to accept his special situation a little better. This example showed the other children possible solutions for threatening incidents and encouraged compassion for others.

A letter brings clarification

Oliver's proposal for a letter to Holger's father is a bit long and is trimmed down by the group. It is immediately noticeable that Oliver does not blame the father at all, but restricts himself to bringing him closer to his son's situation. Above all, it expresses the fact that Holger expects at least an explanation. We attach a short accompanying letter in which we invite Father to contact us. Full of expectations, the envelope is sealed and franked. "Will he get in touch?" Manu expresses what everyone is asking.

The father has hardly received the letters when he reacts. He looks rather shy on the phone. He wants to talk to us as soon as possible.

A tall man stands in front of us at the agreed time and takes a cumbersome seat. He wipes drops of sweat from his forehead and first wants to know whether his "ex" is behind the letter; In the event he won't let her interfere with anything at all.

Holger's father tells us in his simple, pictorial language that he is also concerned not to see his son anymore. It used to take a lot of energy to pick up Holger at home and bring him back. And then he just couldn't stand parking in front of the house where he used to live. With a lot of love and work he has repaired the house over the years, laid out a garden, planted flowers, etc. Everything was free, "for the cat", he says resignedly and wipes his eyes. When he looked briefly over the fence into the garden, he was reprimanded by the "ex". And every time Holger said goodbye there were tears, both of them. All of this had become unbearable for him, which is why he didn't get in touch.

We are concerned; a supposed "raven father" has got a face. We explain to the father how his behavior was received and interpreted by Holger and later discuss possibilities of resuming and developing future contacts with his son. We inform you that after the conversation went well and with the consent of the mother, we will hand over the matter to a specialist office for further processing. Should we give Holger a message? "Tell him I haven't forgotten him and that he will hear from me," he says, visibly embarrassed.

About wishing and letting go

"I would like my dad to have a Playstation," explains Mirsa. He must have missed the fact that we asked for special requests, for those that cannot be fulfilled even in the largest department store. "If you could wish, what should your divorced parents do differently in the future?" "You shouldn't argue with each other in my presence any more," says Seline. «Mommy and Daddy shouldn't try to get me on their side anymore», «You should give me time to adjust to all the new things». Several times we hear of the wish that parents get along, talk to each other decently or that they move in together again, “so that we are a real family again”. “I would like to be able to go to my dad more often,” says Marc; a couple of hands go up: "Me too, me too!"

It is not easy for children to distinguish between wishes that will certainly come true, maybe come true, or never come true. It is just as difficult for them to think about what they could do themselves so that the wishes that initially could not be fulfilled become perhaps or even too surely achievable, such as the wish to see Daddy more often or to spend a day alone with him .

Rituals help children to say goodbye to their unfulfillable wishes, at least for a moment. The boys and girls eagerly write such wishes on little pieces of paper, which at the end are carried away by a balloon, accompanied by the loud hurricane roar of the children. Almost all of them will have one wish written down: "That dad and mom get back together."

A wish list of the participants can be put together from the groups for children of divorce that have been accompanied over the course of around twenty years:

Wishes that the children rated as not feasible:

  • Mommy and Daddy should get back together.
  • Parents shouldn't argue anymore.

Wishes that may come true:

  • I want to see Papi more often.
  • I want to spend more time alone with Daddy.
  • Celebrate birthdays and holidays together with mum and dad.
  • Mommy and Daddy are talking to each other again.

Wishes that can be fulfilled:

  • I don't want to play the postman anymore.
  • Papi should call if he picks me up late.

Implications for practice

If we not only listen to children, but talk to them and listen to them with interest, we will learn from them how they are really doing, what concerns them and what they need from us adults. When we allow ourselves to be touched by their descriptions, when we change from rather distant interviewers to reflective affected persons, we realize that the much-cited “child's well-being” has become an empty phrase.

As those affected, we will not accept it without being contradicted when children's interests and children's rights are neglected or even trampled underfoot. We will contradict and interfere if we even get to hear from experts, authorities and courts that nothing can be done about the obstruction or denial of the right to visit if one of the parents opposes it.

We will take on more responsibility towards children of divorce and their families and will work hard to ensure that in Switzerland too there is a growing awareness of children's interests and of observing children's rights in the event of a divorce.

Authorities will express their concern by advocating out of conviction that they create the greatest possible liabilities with their orders and resolutions, and admitting that violations of children's interests result in sanctions.

At least the same care and attention must be paid to children's concerns when settling the consequences of divorce as to adult interests. The prerequisite for this is the unreserved commitment of all the specialist departments, courts and authorities involved to focus and respect the interests, needs and rights of affected children in their considerations and orders.

For children in separation and divorce situations there should be enough low-threshold, professionally accompanied group offers where they can exchange their experiences, benefit from the resources of others and try out suggestions for better coping with the reorganization of the family system in the cognitive, action and emotional areas. [12]

Child protection in concrete terms

We are most likely to achieve solutions that are really child-friendly if we also orientate ourselves towards the child's perspective when defining the problem and choosing the appropriate measure. In this way, incorrect assessments and disproportionate measures can largely be avoided. It would then probably not occur to anyone to react to the desire to see Papi more often by setting up a visiting team. And hardly anyone would seriously try to use such a measure to force a child who refuses to contact the parent who is entitled to visit because they do not like to eat fish to comply with the visiting regulations.

It is well known that mothers and fathers are emotionally overwhelmed in a relationship crisis and also in divorce proceedings. Preoccupied with themselves, they temporarily lose sight of their children's needs. Your thoughts and actions are shaped by feelings of hurt, disappointment, anger, and often also the desire for retribution and victory. After the divorce, there is either radio silence or unabated violent arguments between some of the parents; the former partners do not or insufficiently fulfill their responsibility towards the children. The essential parental exchange on children's issues is made difficult or even impossible and the well-being of the children is massively endangered. Where communication and / or mutual agreement between parents is seriously disturbed and for this reason the concerns and needs of their children are no longer noticed, mediation with clearly defined objectives and stating the rules of the game can be helpful. Mediation as a child protection measure has the advantage over conventional measures that it involves both parents equally in parental responsibility and finding solutions; In the official decree, parents are instructed to settle the pending problems within the framework of mediation and to look for child-friendly solutions. This is in contrast to a visiting assistance, where mostly only the assistance as the recipient of the order is held responsible. In addition, the naming of sanctions creates the greatest possible liability for highly controversial divorced parents.

Of sanctions and coercion

The objection that sanctions are counterproductive, make it impossible to work with parents and also endanger the child's best interests, prevents some authorities from supplementing instructions to the parents of divorce with enforceable sanctions. The claim, however, contradicts practice and is partly responsible for the fact that in this country the social awareness of injustice towards violations of children's rights and children's interests is still little developed. In France, for example, the alienation of a child from a parent has been socially outlawed since such offenses against the child's best interests have become punishable. Experience from completed compulsory mediation shows that parents who initially reluctantly participated in compulsory mediation were increasingly able to change their attitudes and were ultimately able to recognize and use personal gain for themselves.

Equally untenable is the opinion that visiting rights can only be enforced with the help of the police, which should be avoided with regard to children. Nowadays hardly anyone will seriously consider such an approach. Such black and white painting fails to recognize the possibilities and effectiveness of professionally carried out compulsory mediation. It also deprives the divided parents of divorce from the chance to learn to resolve conflicts amicably and ultimately to be able to take responsibility for their own actions again.

Incidentally, the compulsion to mediate is limited to the requirement of divorced parents who have fallen out to focus on the needs and rights of children and to put aside self-interests.

Written rules make compulsory mediation transparent for all parties involved and make it more binding. They convey security and promote the confidence-building framework for such a measure. The indispensable prerequisites for compulsory mediation also include the establishment of binding, enforceable sanctions in the event that someone evades or contravenes the orders.

After parents know the conditions for compulsory mediation, they should be able to decide whether to accept the proposed measure and the rules or whether they prefer the decision of the authority to restore the best interests of the child.

In the event of persistent, obviously contrary behavior by the parent entitled to visit, in addition to penal measures, restrictions on the right to visit would also have to be checked and implemented.

A massive violation of the right to visit and thus a child's welfare endangerment is also committed by the parent who does not exercise his or her right and does not seek an official clarification of the situation.

Highly contentious divorced parents learn that compulsory mediation is not about them and their conflict. Rather, they are obliged to reflect on the effects of their behavior and ultimately, despite the disrupted agreement, negotiate and implement child-friendly rules for the personal contact of their children with the parent entitled to visit with professional support. The binding nature and effectiveness of such measures is increased when sanctions are imposed and their implementation. Compulsory mediation requires close accompaniment of the families, at least in the initial phase, and is advantageously carried out by an opposite-sex mediation couple. One of the mediators is the contact person for the parents between the meetings and must be available at short notice for interventions and clarifications. The necessity of these requirements should be illustrated by an example:

Mr and Mrs A. are among the highly conflicted divorced parents who continue their quarrel unabated years after the divorce. Contacts with the father have long been broken. Lukas (8) and Mirjam (10) refuse to visit him, but clearly express their wish for a resumption in one-on-one conversations. The parents are not ready to agree to mediation, which is why the guardianship authority orders compulsory mediation. The parents refuse to participate at the same time, but agree to a shuttle mediation. After the detailed modalities have been determined, the children's visits are resumed, the following situation arises:

After the weekend visit, Ms. A. reports that the father drove up to the post office car park at the agreed time and took over the children; but after two minutes he returned, wordlessly unloaded the children and drove away. As agreed, the mediator sends this message to the father for comment without comment. This is not long in coming: Contrary to the agreements, the mother helped hand over the children, but waited in the car and hid behind a newspaper. When driving away, he discovered her in the rearview mirror, whereupon he returned. Ms. A. confirms her presence to the mediator, Mr. A. is informed of this, and the effects of his behavior on the children are explained to him and discussed with him.

After the written modalities have been supplemented, another weekend visit will be agreed. Subsequently, Ms. A reports: she does not allow the father to prefer the son. Mr. A. slipped Lukas CHF 20.-, whereas Mirjam received nothing. The father's statement to the mediator: Both children could have bought something for CHF 20 if they went shopping. Mirjam chose something, while Lukas couldn't decide why he gave him the amount for a later purchase.

The situations described are typical “stumbling blocks” in the company of highly conflicted divorced families. Without binding, detailed agreements on communication and cooperation between parents and the professionals involved, they threaten to escalate and lead to a momentum of their own that can hardly be influenced from the outside.

Compulsory mediation also has its limits. According to previous experience, they are mostly not based on themselves, but rather lie in the not yet established new structures that are not always able to withstand the extraordinary stress tests of highly conflicted divorced parents.

Mandatory mediation adds an important element to the range of tools for authorities and courts. The mere "expansion of the range" is not enough, however. It can only prove its effectiveness and sustainability if the framework conditions specific to this measure are met.

[1] Ms. Monique Forrer, lic. phil. I, specialist psychologist for psychotherapy SPV and FSP, Marktgasse 15, 8570 Weinfelden.

[2] Figdor, Children of Divorce - Ways of Help, Giessen 1998, 21.

[3] Jaffé, memories, dreams, thoughts by C. G. Jung, Olten 1971, 14.

[4] Kindler et al., Handbook of child welfare risk according to § 1666 BGB and General Social Service (ASD), http://db.dji.de/asd/4.htm (04/04/2011).

[5] Jacobvitz, Observations of Early Triadic Family Interactions: Boundary Disturbances in the Family Predict Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, and Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder in Middle Childhood, Development and Psychopathology 2004, 16, 577.

[6] Fullinwider-Bush, The Transition to Young Adulthood: Generational Boundary Dissolution and Female Identity Development, Family Process, 1993, 32, 87.

[7] Münder et al., Child welfare between youth welfare and justice: Professional action in child welfare proceedings, Munich 2000, 99.

[8] Annual report of the child protection group and victim counseling center of the Zurich Children's Hospital 2008, 13.

[9] Figdor (footnote 2), 21.

[10] Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, melancholy and grace, memories of a son, Berlin 2004, 37.

[11] Office for Youth and Vocational Counseling Canton Zurich, Project Report Dealing with Highly Controversial, Escalating and Chronic Visiting Rights Problems, Zurich 2006, 3.

[12] Peter, report and application to the Office for Youth and Vocational Advice (AJB) Canton of Zurich on the inclusion of group intervention programs for children in separation and divorce situations in the AJB's catalog of services, 2006, 23.

Max Peter
Freelance family mediator, co-leader of groups for children of divorce, psychodrama leader based on Jungian psychology, former head of a youth and family counseling center
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Suggested citation
Max Peter: Divorce is like an earthquake - when children talk about their parents' divorce. Published on November 30, 2011 in socialnet materials at https://www.socialnet.de/stoffen/132.php, date of access May 23, 2021.

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