60 Minutes TV Show - Australia

60 Minutes - Australia

Tara Brown talks to the kids of Australia about divorce

Transcript - Listen up

May 15, 2005, Reporter: Tara Brown, Producer: Sandra Cleary



TARA BROWN: There's no escaping it — divorce changes your kids forever. Even the most amicable split will have a life-long effect. How do we know? Well, the longest continuous study of the impact on kids when mum and dad separate is revealing some tough truths. It followed the same children for 35 years, followed them from the break-up to adulthood. They're scared of relationships and less likely to marry and those who do are more likely to divorce, just like their parents. So tonight listen up, for Australia's children have something to say — in their own haunting words, how divorce changes everything.

TARA BROWN: Five years after the divorce of their parents, Keegan, Madison and Ryland say they can't forget the pain of that moment when their lives changed.

KEEGAN: I guess it's like someone ripping your throat out or something, feels really, you get a massive frog in your throat. You just feel really upset about what's happening. It's hard to explain. It's so overwhelming.

RYLAND: Sometimes you feel like ... you get lonely because you can't speak to your mum and dad at the same time. That's basically a summary.

TARA BROWN: For Rhiannon and Ronan, it's still very raw. Their parents only separated six months ago. What is it about the separation that affects you the most?

RHIANNON: Like how hard it is. Like I've been trying to act real calm, but I just can't. I think it's too hard.

RONAN: It feels like I got two strings and trying to pull them together.

TARA BROWN: Fifty thousand children are dragged through divorce in Australia every year. But before the separation, children are often witnesses to heated family arguments. Keegan remembers lying in bed and overhearing late-night feuding between his parents.

KEEGAN: I think sometimes I probably did go in and stop them.

TARA BROWN: Did you?

KEEGAN: Yeah. I used to do it at our old house. "Stop arguing!"

TARA BROWN: Did you ever go and talk to Mum and Dad about the fights?

KEEGAN: In the mornings Mum used to cry a lot and I always used to ask her what was wrong.

TARA BROWN: And what was it like, to see your mum crying like that?

KEEGAN: Devastating.

TARA BROWN: Keegan was 10, Madison eight and Ryland five when their mum and dad separated.

MADISON: I couldn't help it, like I couldn't do anything to change it.

TARA BROWN: So you felt a bit powerless?

MADISON: Yeah, sort of.

TARA BROWN: How do you learn to cope?

RYLAND: Well, you just cope really. There's no way to learn it, I don't think.

TARA BROWN: How do you stop yourself from being sad?

RYLAND: Just think if they were still together and they were angry at each other, it would be worse.

KAREN MORRIS: This is how divorce, particularly high-conflict divorce, affects children. You know, they regress in their growth. Little children will go back to wetting the bed. And being clingy and missing school. Their school grades can drop. Children who live in high-conflict situations can tend to have a propensity towards mental illness. They're very sobering facts. What I want you to do, Rhiannon, is just to paint your house. You know you sometimes live in two houses?

TARA BROWN: Karen Morris is the head of Interrelate, a counselling and mediation agency. Through child-friendly techniques such as painting, Karen helps children like Rhiannon express hidden feelings about the family break-up.

KAREN MORRIS: I don't think I've had a child in my room who hasn't said, "I wish Mum and Dad were back together," or "I wish there was no fighting."

RHIANNON: Like, if Dad comes to Mum's place, I ask Mum if Dad can come in for a coffee or anything like that, see my room.

TARA BROWN: You must get a headache thinking of ways of getting them together.

RHIANNON: Yeah, like I know in my spare time at school, I normally think of ideas to get them together.

TARA BROWN: So if you could choose between that, be friends or get back together, which one would you...

RONAN: Get back together. Get back together.

TARA BROWN: That's the one you want most?

TREVOR: Yeah, he seems pretty good, he did some reading with me last night.

TARA BROWN: Despite appearances, Ronan's parents, Carrie and Trevor, are not back together again, but they are trying to keep the conflict out of their relationship. Last October, after 13 years together and months of counselling, they decided they'd grown too far apart and chose to separate. Was there a stage where you guys hated each other or do you still hate each other?

CARRIE: I think we ... I don't hate.

TREVOR: No, I mean, I ... we have issues, you know? And I'm not going to deny that, but I certainly don't hate my wife.

CARRIE: Stop referring to me as "your wife" then.

TREVOR: Yeah. But ... ah ... yeah.

TARA BROWN: It's controversial and unconventional, but when Trevor and Carrie separated they let the children choose who they wanted to live with. Rhiannon lives with mum and Ronan insisted on staying with dad. Ronan sees his mum every second weekend. It's an arrangement not without grief or guilt for this 11-year-old and his parents.

RONAN: Sometimes I feel that I picked Dad over Mum and I feel that that's what's running through Mum's mind.

CARRIE: For me personally, yes, it's sort of like, stab me right through the heart and twist it slightly. But Ronan was just so adamant that's what he wanted at some point I had to let go and let Ronan have his experience.

TARA BROWN: How do you think your mum is coping with you not being with her?

RONAN: She knows I'm not there, so she might as well not think about me until I'm actually there on weekends.

TARA BROWN: Do you only think about her when you see her?

RONAN: I think about her all the time.

TARA BROWN: How do you work out what is in the best interest of the child?

DIANA BRYANT: That's the ultimate decision that judges have to make and I guess in some ways that's why people are so critical of family court judges all over the world.

TARA BROWN: Diana Bryant is the Chief Justice of the Family Court. Appointed less than 12 months ago, she says the effect of divorce on children is a major concern.

DIANA BRYANT: It's surprising how often you can actually talk to the parties and say to them, "Do you realise what you're doing to your children?" And often it seems as if it's the first time they've really ever thought of it. I just think that so often they're so focused on what they perceive is happening to them and the wrongs of the other party that they just don't consider what effect it's having on the children.

TARA BROWN: In a first for Australia's legal system, the Chief Justice is now overseeing a pilot program that radically changes the way the court deals with disputes over children.

'FATHER' (RE-ENACTMENT): Now, I think it would be better and easier for the children to be with me half the time.

TARA BROWN: It's called the Children's Cases Program.

'MOTHER' (REENACTMENT): Well, you never cooked dinner for us once.

'FATHER' (REENACTMENT): Well, I never had a chance. I was out there earning a living, remember?

TARA BROWN: The most dramatic change is giving judges the chance to speak directly to children, for the first time giving kids a say in divorce proceedings.

DIANA BRYANT: Well, we've been saying in the last 30 years, we shouldn't — judges shouldn't be interviewing children. In other countries, particularly Europe, they do it as a matter of course and they think it's very odd that we don't do it.

TARA BROWN: It's a child's right.

DIANA BRYANT: Yes, yes it is. It is regarded as being the child's right to actually have some participation and that's what we want to re-examine.

JONATHAN DUSAINT: So, good to see you again, Ronan. How's it been? Alright?

RONAN: Yeah, it's alright.

TARA BROWN: Even though Ronan had a say in his living arrangements, he still needs help dealing with his anger. Over a sandpit, child consultant Jonathan Dusaint gets Ronan to recreate his family using toys.


RONAN: Nowhere.

TREVOR: He's such a sensitive young guy and to see him like that is very painful. Yeah, it's heartbreaking. You feel so helpless at times, you really do.

DR JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: We are seeing problems that are moving to the second and then the third generations — less marriage, more divorce and more problems about relationships.

TARA BROWN: Dr Judith Wallerstein, child psychologist and author, has been researching the effects of divorce on the same group of children for 35 years. It's the world's longest continuous study.

DR JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: When you were five and a half, is that when they planned this? And you had nothing to do with it?

BOY: No.

TARA BROWN: And via satellite I spoke to her at her San Francisco home about the impact of divorce, particularly when the children become adults.

DR JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: They really are very concerned that their own relationships are not going to work out either. And they are worried about failing. This is the long-term effect.

TARA BROWN: And do they fail at their relationships?

DR JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: The young women tend to throw themselves into a lot of relationships and the young men tend to withdraw and be more carreful about getting involved. And stay away from relationships.

KEEGAN: I was talking to Mum the other day — I don't want to get married because I think I'll hurt someone because it was done to me. It's in my blood. So maybe I'll … I don't want to hurt another person. So, yeah.

TARA BROWN: So you think divorce is in your blood, do you?

KEEGAN: Yeah, I think it's in my blood that I don't want to get married because I think I won't be able to commit myself to another person.

TARA BROWN: What is the solution? You're not suggesting that families stay together for the sake of the child, are you?

DR JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: I'm not suggesting that families that are unhappy stay together for the sake of the child. I am suggesting that families take very seriously the decision to divorce. That it will cause the child to be very unhappy. The child will recover, children recover. They go on and they develop. They develop well. But parents need to help children a lot more than they do.

TARA BROWN: Keegan and his brothers live with their mother, Debbie, and see their dad regularly. Both parents agreed for the children to have their say in this story. At 15, Keegan has had to grow up fast.

KEEGAN: I help her out like I used to do, mow the lawns, just so it's easier for her, and so she doesn't have to do all the chores around the house.

TARA BROWN: And in terms of helping her emotionally.

KEEGAN: Hug her, love her, basically all we can do to help out, we don't really sort of understand. I think she probably bottles it up a lot of the time. But yeah, we just love her.

TARA BROWN: Does time help you or is it something you're still coming to terms with?

RYLAND: Something I think I'm coming more to terms with because I was the younger one, and so I didn't really understand. And I still don't understand.

TARA BROWN: Rhiannon and Ronan are also trying to understand what divorce is all about. But their mum and dad are doing their best to remember while they won't be partners for life, they are parents forever.

CARRIE: We're learning new ways of doing things. We can learn from past mistakes and we can make a difference. We can be a positive influence, you know, on our kids. Your marriage can end and you can sort of not kill each other. It doesn't have to be bitter. You know, shit happens. Can I say that? Because it does, doesn't it?

TARA BROWN: Did you have any idea what it really meant before you went through it?


TARA BROWN: And now that you're sort of living it, what is it like?

RHIANNON: Really, really hard.

TARA BROWN: Is it going to get better soon?

RHIANNON: Hopefully.

TARA BROWN: It did get better for Keegan. Five years on, it's no longer a conventional family, but a family nonetheless. The fighting stopped and dad even drops in for dinner.

KEEGAN: It reminds me of the old times and the good times, like we'll just order pizza and we'll all sit around and we'll watch a movie. The good old cliched family times, so, yeah. It's good to see that, because you miss it a lot.

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