Last spring, Jeff and I conducted a series of workshops and seminars for professionals in Wuhan, China. In one of the workshops, we asked the participants to write letters as if they were children caught in the middle of divorcing parents.
There were approximately 36 people in the room—we assigned six people to write as a:
- seven- to nine-year-old, and
To create the letters, the attendees drew on their personal experiences (as children and parents) and their professional experiences (as people who work with families facing divorce).
What was amazing to us was that in all of the letters—no matter what the age—the child felt they were to blame for their parents divorce. The letters are truly heartbreaking.
Below is a sampling of some of the letters:
Four- to six-year-old:
“Dear Mom and Dad, why do you quarrel every day? Is it because I’m not a good kid? Is it because I got poor scores? Your quarrel terrifies me. Can you please stop? I beg you to stop.“
“I will be a good boy. The words of your fighting last night were so loud that I was totally terrified. Dad, I promise to study hard. Could you please not blame Mom anymore? She tires herself managing the family and also, I wish, Dad, you can draw some time for me. Other children have their parents to be with them and I wish I could be one of them. Daddy and Mommy, can you avoid fighting again? I will be a good boy.“
Seven- to nine-year-old:
“It was three o’clock in the mid night. I awakened by your fight. Hearing you fight, I was totally terrified. Are you going to divorce? All of my classmates whose parents got divorced are not living well. I’m nine years old. I’m a grown-up man. I know I did not do well at math, but it was not Mom’s fault. I will study hard, prudently bother Dad less, respect teacher’s advice. I know it is all my fault. I promise I will be mature. Can you please do not fight for me again? I’m so afraid to be abandoned if you get divorced.“
“It’s three o’clock. I’m awakened once again by your fighting. The first thought pops up in my mind was, “Oh, come on. Not again.” I just feel like put on my earphones, hide myself in bed, go on sleeping, pretending nothing happened, but I can’t. Your shouting and yelling just keeps flooding into my ears and I can’t help it. I cannot sleep even if there’s an examination. I have to get up early. How great it would be if I run into a shelter for a little peace, but I know even if I got there, your fighting sound would just linger around my ears.”
Also, if I just run away, regardless of you, you’ll probably be angry at me and fight for it. I’m going to be stuck in this torture chamber, repressing myself.
You two always fight for all kinds of stuff. Sometimes you quarrel because of me. I always wonder if you’re really concerned about me or you two are just finding something to argue about.
How can I concentrate on studying if you keep fighting like this? Dad always blaming Mom for my poor academic performance. You probably don’t see that she’s also feeling guilty for being incapable of giving me academic advice, and Mom complains a lot, you complain, “Dad. Just leaves the family behind and never shows his concern.”
You complain I did not meet your expectation. You complain and accuse and seem so pushy that I easily get angry and lose my temper. I just want to run away from this family. Out of sight, out of mind.“
In a total of 36 letters, the children blamed themselves in almost every single one. Despite differences in culture, the feelings expressed across the world are consistent with what we see and hear each day as professionals who work with children of divorce and their families.
Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP