DR MAX PEMBERTON: I’ve seen how a bad divorce damages children 

Despite all the glitz and glamour, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie always struck me as very sensible parents. They kept their brood out of the spotlight and seemed determined to allow them to have as normal an upbringing as possible.

I’m baffled, though, by what happened. They have been locked in a lengthy and bitter court battle for almost five years, with Brad Pitt finally being given joint custody of five of their six children this week (the eldest, Maddox, 19, is not subject to the custody decision).

But now Angelina is appealing against the judgment. Is all the fighting really worth it?

The unedifying custody battle reminds me of so many warring parents I have seen over the years, who, often thinking they are doing the best for their children, spend years and fortunes fighting each other in the courts.

Brad Pitt has been given joint custody of five of the six children he shares with Angelina Jolie, after years of being locked in a lengthy and bitter court battle. Pictured: Brad and Angelina 

The parents, licking the wounds of their failed relationship, convince themselves that what they are doing is right.

Yet the emotional scars, the uncertainty, conflict, rifts and split loyalties result in lasting damage to their children.

As a doctor, I am sick and tired of seeing children taking the brunt of the emotional fallout from failed marriages, messy divorces and warring parents.

On AND off over the past 15 years, I have worked in A&E covering mental health, as well as in child psychiatry. So I’ve seen the impact of affairs and bitter marriage breakdowns countless times: young children and teenagers with emotional and behavioural problems, with eating disorders, with unexplained physical illnesses that are really manifestations of emotional distress.

And those are just the very worst cases.

Speak to any teacher and they will tell you of the low-level, insidious damage done that never makes it to the doctor’s waiting room.

I should say from the outset that I completely accept that marriages fail.

In the UK, some 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce.

People change and so do relationships — and it’s just a fact of life that sometimes things don’t work out in the way couples hoped they would. There is nothing to be gained by staying in a loveless marriage.

There is no doubt that for many children’s mental health, it is preferable for their parents to separate and live amicably apart rather than remain together and subject everyone, including the children, to a horrible, fractious home life.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said it makes his blood boil that well-meaning mothers and fathers fail to understand that expensive purchases for their children don't matter if their home life isn't stable

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said it makes his blood boil that well-meaning mothers and fathers fail to understand that expensive purchases for their children don’t matter if their home life isn’t stable

Even so, the potential for damage to the children in acrimonious divorces and custody battles is considerable.

Research shows that the sense of instability children experience at home triples the risk of them developing emotional problems, compared with children from stable backgrounds.

Time and again I have seen parents — grown adults bent on revenge — ignore the effects of the chaos they create. I’m not talking about neglectful parents here. It makes my blood boil that well-meaning mothers and fathers, who apparently care so much for their children that they buy them the latest gadgets and expensive trainers, feed them only the best organic food and send them off for extra tuition classes, fail to understand that none of this matters a jot if their home life isn’t stable.

Children are much more resilient than we think. They can withstand many things.

Research has shown time and again that, in fact, the one and only thing a child really needs in order to develop normally is stability. It doesn’t matter about the make-up of the family or the material possessions they have, provided home life is stable.

Gordon Ramsay’s daughter Holly has spoken about having PTSD after she was sexually assaulted aged 18. Too often, the sentences given to perpetrators are pathetic. They don’t take account of the deep psychological damage an attack can cause. 

The most important job a parent has is providing that sense of security.

It’s that simple, yet people seem to find it so hard to grasp. I understand the rage and fury they feel towards a former partner. I understand that, to them, an ex can appear cruel, heartless, uncaring, even evil.

Any concession or compromise makes it seem as if you are handing the other person a victory. It stinks of unfairness and injustice. You feel wronged and wounded, and the desire to feel vindicated and victorious can often be overwhelming.

Custody battles often revolve around a failure to appreciate that someone can be a bad partner — even a dreadful one — and still be a good parent.

They might not care about their ex-wife or ex-husband, they might even despise them, they might have done stupid, hurtful or callous things to them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about their children.

Ask any lawyer and they’ll tell you most custody battles are really about one parent punishing the other. The children, blinking, confused and alone, are reduced to pawns in their parents’ game of emotional chess.

If only parents would understand that in so many of these acrimonious splits, there are never any real winners — and the biggest losers are almost always the children.

Reward yourself like Joan

Dr Max said he often encourages his patients to treat themselves to something to remind them that they're doing their best. Pictured: Joan Collins

Dr Max said he often encourages his patients to treat themselves to something to remind them that they’re doing their best. Pictured: Joan Collins

I love Joan Collins. Headstrong, confident but always with a self-deprecating wink. And I’m an even bigger fan now after hearing this week that she buys herself jewellery as a reward. ‘I think more women should do it — you don’t have to wait for men,’ Joan explained ahead of an auction of her jewels next month. Treating ourselves is something I often encourage my patients to do. Whatever it might be, we all deserve a treat to remind us we’re doing our best. I’ve done this myself — after each book I’ve written, I’ve bought a piece of art to reward myself for the hard work and remind me that, despite convincing myself I would never get the manuscript finished in time, I did it. It’s great motivation.

  • Michael Caine has given up alcohol in order to have more time with his grandchildren. The actor, 88, said that being a grandfather has given him ‘a new lease of life’ and so he’s given up booze in a bid to ‘live a bit longer’. What a smart way to look at things. Rather than telling yourself you are denying yourself something, it’s far better to reframe this thinking as giving yourself something else. Most of us have an inner saboteur that kicks in when we try to abstain from something we enjoy. So at the first sign of difficulty or in response to stress, our good intentions go out of the window. The simplest way to challenge this is to flip it on its head: stop thinking of denying yourself and focus on how it’s going to make your life better.

Dr Max prescribes…

Wild Swimming

Dr Max said swimming in a lake or pond is great exercise and makes you feel closer to nature (file image)

Dr Max said swimming in a lake or pond is great exercise and makes you feel closer to nature (file image)

There’s something exhilarating about swimming in a lake or pond. If you have any underlying health issues, do check with your GP first, but it’s great exercise and does make you feel closer to nature. If you’re looking for somewhere to try it, Fritton Lake is a family-run retreat set in 1,000 acres of woods on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Frittonlake.co.uk

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