of Dimitris Karagiannis- Child Psychiatrist Existential-Systemic Psychotherapist

From the speech of the Family Law Society Conference

Children of divorce

I would like to express my appreciation for the work of the Family Law Society and your 7th conference, as I am sure of your firm and strong stand to defend the law governing family matters.

Accordingly, all these years I have been dealing with issues concerning families, since I am the one who introduced family psychotherapy to child psychiatry in Greece, president of the Hellenic Federation of Family Psychotherapists, professor at Frederick University Cyprus with a focus on family psychotherapy, while I have dealt, either directly as a clinician, or indirectly as a scientific supervisor with thousands of families.

At the same time as the director of KPPSY (Center for Child Mental Health), a center with 5,500 thousand new cases per year, I have dozens of prosecutorial orders per month for child psychiatric evaluations in cases of complicated divorces for sexual or physical abuse involving members of the family system.

My comments are not about a narcissistic description of my abilities, but I name them to record the awe and anguish that possess me, not as a result of inadequacy, but as a result of responsibility in front of the subject we are called to negotiate and in terms of the emotional charge which I experience, even after so many thousands of incidents, as I participate in situations where everyone declares to be defenders of children's mental health and who at the same time unabashedly use them, identifying them with their own pursuits.

In the context of a personal reflection, I record that the same person I am in a completely different situation when I am called on the one hand to examine as an expert the dichotomy between parents regarding the issues of raising their children or the problems of their own relationship, where the request is the search for any solution, and on the other hand when, as a representative of the public prosecutor's office, I am involved in these issues.

In the first case, the issues I am asked to deal with are often very demanding, but to the extent that their request is functionality, then producing a solution is possible. The disagreement exists, but the goal is to reach a solution.

And the stable therapeutic direction is the assumption of personal responsibility for any event, since in order for there to be treatment there is a preliminary rejection of any complaint about the other and the realization of personal responsibility, since it is our principle that for any dysfunction whether in a personal , whether professional or social level, the responsibility also concerns the conditions - context in which the involvement exists, and the others who participate in the event, as well as the person who feels wronged.

Taking personal responsibility is the key to change and personal growth as one focuses on overcoming any injustice. It is then that responsibility is not perceived in terms of culpability, but as ability and taking power over one's personal path.

Therefore even in the most extreme situations the sensation after numerous treatment sessions is fullness. Even after sessions involving personal relationship failures, processing personal life choices after divorce, serious physical illnesses, deaths of sometimes parents, sometimes children, which can never be pleasant, but ultimately can be life oriented.

In functionality, the winner is the one who will not sink into the dispute, but will move on with his life. However, in the cases where the responsibility exists as culpability, the attribution of guilt to the other and the personal victimization look like success. The winner in legal disputes is the one who will be recorded as a victim. As a victim the accuser whose harm was confirmed, as a victim the accused who was acquitted. Therefore, contrary to life, the one who proves that he has suffered the most damage will leave the court celebrating.

In reviewing prosecutorial referrals for psychiatric expertise, I feel like I'm participating in a wear-fest that runs through all the participants. It's where people who have proven criminal behavior towards their children come in manicured and give moral sermons about how children should be brought up to be mentally healthy, and look for ways to co-opt you and always self-interested of course child's.

The mental dynamics of Divorce

Commitment was the main feature of marriages in the past. Marriage was in itself a life commitment. Divorce was a rare event, justified only in very extreme situations and accompanied by social discredit.

Commitment was a very important factor in the conditions at the time, because it allowed the existence of stable family structures, which contributed to the necessary social stability.

This compulsory commitment ensured the stability, but not necessarily the quality, of the marriage. Spouses did not divorce, but this did not necessarily mean that they loved each other. In addition to those spouses who spent their lives together with mutual respect, there were not a few cases of spouses who lived together for decades, but who at the end of their lives hurled disparaging expressions containing accumulated bitterness, anger, and rejection.

The partnership is invested with many expectations of joy and happiness. Each partner expects the other to satisfy their deepest desire to be happy. Inevitable frustration leads to anguish over lost expectation. The inability of the couple to process the frustration and seek new ways of reconciliation leads to the revival of all the childhood frustrations and thus causes even more suffering.

When love moves in insecurity, in the need for confirmation, when it seeks to meet other needs that have not been recognized, or that have not been processed, then it loses its wings and holds only its shuttle that injures.

The lover who invests in love in order to escape from the wounds of his Beloved, reacts with desperate aggression at the first sense of frustration. Wounds open and their pus waters existence and behaviors. Divorce is the announcement of the death of the previous marriage.

There are many people, men and women who have processed their divorce grief. Motivated by love for their children, they overcame conflicts and rivalries and sought joint solutions in the interest of their children. They wondered about their own involvement in their failed relationship. They processed their feelings. They set new personal goals so they could move forward with their lives in a way that was functional. Of course, this requires personal work and a mature personality.

It is then that this attitude of the separated parents allows the children to process the mourning for their lost family and the normalization of their fears for the continuation of their lives.

This attitude of divorced parents actually allows for authentic co-custody of their children, which of course is the point.

The dispute: The microclimate of the conflictual relationship in divorce. Unfortunately, there are not a few cases where the dispute between the ex-spouses remains unrelenting and creates a toxic microclimate in which the children are called to exist, with the corresponding mental side effects.

The toxic microclimate in the conflictual relationships of a divorce is unchanging and repetitive over time and tends to be addictive in its characteristics.

Every ex-partner seeks confirmation and vindication. They fight constant battles over completely trivial matters. If they are not opposed, they have no life. Underlying is a low self-esteem covered by the armor of the powerful. Unaware of how much they are hurting, they are constantly focused on how much they themselves are being hurt. Spectators of the dispute – especially their children – are necessary, since they offer the possibility of gaining allies and meaning in the silly dispute. 

A sense of betrayal floods every thought and retribution – revenge is recorded as the important meaning. The maximization of pain, of course, has its roots in the past. Hence the non-relief even with the annihilation of the other or with the separation which is not actually realized or which is never final. External humiliation serves as a stimulus for the discharge of internal tension and is therefore accompanied by a strange sense of pleasure.

When the couple's relationship falls into the search for justification, it turns into a power struggle, i.e. dominance, i.e. death. When the love game becomes a game of dominance, pleasure is associated with pain and partners are selectively identified as victims and abusers.

In the context of the dispute, each partner will deny the personality of the other and complain that the other diminishes his own. He will attack his dreams. It will offend his values. He will thwart his pursuits. He will denounce his roots and his paternal family. The other's work will become a point of friction and his interest in it a sign of lack of love; any knowledge will become poisoned interpretations aimed at the Achilles heel of the other's heart. He will seek and invoke third parties, not to get out of the hopeless misery of self-righteousness, but to find allies who will attack, disarm, and help exterminate the comrade. He will look for judges who will have his own criteria, so that they will do him justice.

Ex-spouses blame each other and fight not to achieve happiness, but to prove how much the other hurts them. This creates an addictive game of pain and pleasure, where the victim is the powerful.

The mind of the abandoned husband is in unimaginable alertness. He feels alive because he is tyrannized. Other life events come second. Work and children are handled mechanically, but the mind is always focused there. To the ex.

Children often become weapons against each other. Then he can become overly involved with them. To offer them everything. To give them priority, so that he can compare with the other and gain impressions.

In these destructive disputes, ex-spouses neglect parental care, as they do not negotiate terms for the care of the children, but terms for the submission of the other. The divorce turns into a ring, where a fierce battle takes place for who will dominate. But an idiosyncratic battle, where the one who will be recorded as the victim prevails.

Prevalence is based on the alleged victim proving the other parent's lack of love for the children. Therefore, both in this battle do not want the other's care for the children, but evidence of his disrepute and betrayal. Outwardly they will be dramatic about their concern for the children, but at the same time their main concern is to undermine the child's relationship with the other parent.

Children of divorce

"I'm afraid of all that will happen to me, without me"

The anxiety of many parents about how they should announce the divorce to their children so as not to hurt is a utopia. Is it possible for children not to hurt, regardless of any attempts to cover up the loss?

Children wish their parents were together. They are not interested in the statistics, nor the social acceptance of divorce. This attitude of theirs is not about morality or not, but about the security they demand to exist in their own lives. Throughout the relevant literature, the necessity of parents' cooperation and communication regarding issues concerning children has been highlighted. The importance of a quality relationship and children's continued communication with both parents has also been emphasized so that children are not forced to "separate one parent".

It is important for children to be encouraged and supported in their grief to express their feelings. It is necessary to recognize, understand and accept their feelings, as well as the assurance that all of the above are normal reactions of "mourning" for the separation of their parents.

Raising a child offers itself as a constant source of conflict between parents who have not found a code to resolve their differences. From the first moments of upbringing, which concern eating, sleeping or cleaning, to looking after him at daycare or with the grandparents, school, reading, free time, using the mobile phone or tablet, hanging out, sexuality and autonomy, endless occasions for conflict are given. Each parent risks monopolizing the correctness of the imposed attitude and behavior and tends to invalidate the other.

Therefore the absence of basic functionality between the parents seals the conflict in perpetuity.

Long-term reactions and adaptation of children to divorce It is a very common phenomenon for child psychiatrists to see that children of divorce develop psychopathological conditions, since then they see their parents working together.

Divorce is often associated with increased stress in children, with profound sadness, with anxious behaviors and with a drop in their school performance.

Preschool children initially react with tears, anger and stages of silence. They are often led to regress to behaviors that correspond to earlier stages of development. In addition, they are led to wrong interpretations about the causes of divorce, due to the fact that they cannot cognitively understand enough things yet, and they hold themselves responsible, resulting in the development of intense guilt and exaggerated fears. the "leaving" parent. They often feel divorce as a rejection of themselves and have low self-esteem and learning difficulties. Also, in order to get the attention of their parents and try to "reunite" the family, they expose themselves by resorting to delinquent behaviors (aggression, stealing, lying), which will attract punishments.

Adolescents often experience symptoms of depression, such as irritability, sadness, low self-esteem, and difficulty concentrating. Often, they give the impression of withdrawing from family life and resorting to friends. Sometimes they also have difficulties sleeping and eating, physical discomfort and delinquency. When they grow up with only the mother and with the complete absence of the father they show a difficulty in understanding and obeying the boundary and the possibility of developing a behavior disorder in boys and an earlier and chaotic development of sexuality in girls.

When there is an absence of a mother, then the child's emotional world is blocked, since either the father is unable to provide it, or asks for the child as a companion, or falls into the role of "father and mother together", trying to cover the emotional gaps, but in a way that Loses his personal identity.

Conclusions - Suggestions

In the context of the formation of a more functional law that will try to cover the problems of the children of conflict divorces and to delimit the relations of the child with both of his parents in the modern new social conditions, we propose the following, since we underline that any laws that can alleviate some secondary effects on the mental health of children and in no case can they provide the desired situation where both parents, despite their differences, have a harmonious relationship that allows the child to be enriched by both.

A child's relationship with both parents is desirable and beneficial and should be fostered.

The joint custody of both parents is moving in the right direction (jointly making all decisions about the child's life), but this does not necessarily imply the equal distribution of the children's time together with the parents, since they should also be investigated the multiple transformative components concerning both the personality of the parents, the adequacy to exercise the parental role, the developmental phase of the children, as well as the emotional relationship that the child had with each parent before the existence of the divorce.

The parental competence of each parent in the exercise of his role is not given and it is required to be investigated by child, adolescent and family psychiatrists, especially in cases where mental disorder or personality disorder is suspected.

The developmental maturation of children requires a differentiated attitude regarding the proportional care and presence of each parent in the different age groups.

Specifically, the constant presence of the mother or a constant person is considered important in the first years of life and especially in the age up to three years. At the age of 3-13 the child has the possibility of utilizing the different elements of each parent.

In adolescence, when the possibility of social adaptability has developed, the choice of the adolescent for his lifestyle and the management of his daily life must be taken into account.

The breakdown of the family structure must not entail the breakdown of the fraternal relationship that is judged to be very important. Therefore it is appropriate to favor the coexistence - symbiosis of the brothers.

Having a stable social structure favors the building of a stable mental structure in childhood and should therefore be favored in any form of custody. In this context, the constant movement of the child in different environments requires a demanding consultation of the two parents for the complete program of the child, which in practice is circumvented and undermined.

The establishment of a specialized family court with a judge who will have the corresponding required knowledge is judged to be a necessary condition for the exercise of elementary administration of justice in the area of caring for the sensitive mental world of children.

The establishment of joint custody requires the existence of a special child psychiatric team (Child Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Social Worker), (and not just one specialist), in the context of a specialized family child psychiatric department, which will make recommendations in an individualized way, after examining the elements of the specific case .

The establishment of the mediator who will be specific in the knowledge of the systemic view of family dynamics, may contribute to the smoothing of the conflicts between the parents which clearly operate toxically in the mental world of the children.

It is desirable or sometimes mandatory to provide counseling or psychotherapeutic help to the parents in order to overcome any mental damage that led to the divorce or that occurred as a result of it, in order not only not to drag their children into their personal entanglements, but on the contrary to allow them to live a functional life.

Co-custody without the conditions of examining the specific elements is a weapon of the parents with the greatest psychopathology, since they will be able to control and get involved in the life of the ex-husband and the children will be hostages in his Hands.

Dimitrios Karagiannis

Child Psychiatrist, Adjunct Professor, Frederick University

of Nicosia, Cyprus, Director of the Center for Child Mental Health, NSS