DR MAX PEMBERTON: Why every parent should think twice about an affair 

There’s another one for you Max’, said the charge nurse and he gestured over to a young girl sitting in a chair. She’d self-harmed on her left wrist and after she’d been seen by the casualty doctor and patched up, it was now my turn to talk to her as, at the time, I was working in the mental health team covering A&E.

Children self-harm for lots of reasons, but this young woman, as I started talking to her, told an all-too familiar tale.

She wasn’t the victim of abuse, she wasn’t being bullied, she hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd. In many ways, she was from a perfectly normal family. In fact, it’s precisely that what she was experiencing was so normal and run-of-the-mill that worries me: her parents were getting divorced.

Dr Max Pemberton who has spent 16 years covering mental health in A&E, urges parents to think of their children before they leap into bed with someone else (file image)

She explained how her parents were bitterly pitted against each other and she felt torn. Her younger brother had sided with her mother, but she looked at her Dad and felt sorry for him. He’d moved out and was now living in a small flat. She hated visiting him, but then felt guilty.

As I spoke to her, I could completely understand how she must have been struggling with these complex feelings and as a result, cut herself not only as a release, but also as a communication to the warring adults in her life that she was distressed. And while parents might not want to hear it, I’m afraid that this is far from uncommon. As a doctor I am sick and tired of seeing children who are taking the brunt of the emotional fall-out of failed marriages, messy divorces, infidelities and warring parents.

On and off, over 16 years, I have worked in A&E covering mental health, as well as working in child psychiatry and have seen the results of affairs and bitter marriage breakdown countless times: young children and teenagers with emotional and behavioural problems, with unexplained physical illnesses that reflect emotional distress; self-harm, and eating disorders. And this is just the very worst cases. Speak to any teacher and they will tell you of the low level, insidious damage that is being done that never makes it to the doctor’s waiting room. What’s more, the damage it can cause can spread into the vista of adulthood.

I should say from the outset that I completely accept that marriages fail. People change and so do relationships and it’s just a fact of life that sometimes things don’t work out in quite the way we had hoped they would. There is nothing to be gained in 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 apart than it is for them to remain together and sub-ject everyone to a fractious home life.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said research shows the one and only thing that a child really needs in order to develop normally is stability

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said research shows the one and only thing that a child really needs in order to develop normally is stability

Even so, the potential for damage to the children in acrimonious divorces is considerable and yet people risk this by being unfaithful or by dragging children into the centre of a divorce.

Research shows the sense of instability children experience with an unsettled home life triples the risk of them developing emotional problems.

It is not just the lead-up and actual process of divorce that impacts negatively on children. It’s also later, when the ink has long dried on the decree absolute and the parents attempt to assemble a new life for themselves.

I do not doubt that divorce can make individuals feel fragile and alone and that setting up another stable, loving home with someone else can be good for children — indeed, the evidence supports this.

For the sake of the mental health of the nation, we must all resist a second lockdown. I’ve been warning about this since spring, but it’s not too late to change tack — to think, not just about the virus, but how our strategies to reduce infections could be doing more harm than good. 

But time and again I have seen parents ignore the effects of the instability they bring to their children’s lives in the desperate, unsuccessful bid to find a new partner which results in a string of transient relationships.

I’m not talking about neglectful parents here. It makes my blood boil that parents who apparently care so much for their children that they buy them the latest gadgets, feed them organic vegetables and send them off for private tuition, fail to understand that none of this matters a jot if their home life is not stable.

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

Children have an amazing capacity to cope with all sorts of things if the adults in their lives remain consistent. It’s that easy, yet people seem to find it so hard to grasp and struggle to provide this one thing.

So enshrined into our society is the belief that everyone has the right to do whatever they want in the pursuit of their own happiness, that nobody dares to stand up for the children and tell the parents to stop being so selfish; to think before they leap into bed with someone else.

Instead, well-meaning social workers, teachers and doctors try to emphasise the difficulties the children are experiencing, while parents, so caught up in their own drama, fail to see the damage they are inflicting.

Dig deep to find happiness

My favourite piece of research this week has to be from the Royal Horticultural Society, which found planting a few ornamental plants can help people feel happier and less stressed.

When worked for people with long-standing mental health problems we used to do a lot of ‘gardening therapy’ for precisely this reason. Just last weekend I went to a garden centre with my mum and bought an array of pots and planted them to cheer her up. It not only gave her a boost, but it was so relaxing spending a few hours getting my hands dirty — I barely even noticed when it started to rain!

Research from the Royal Horticultural Society, suggests planting a few ornamental plants can help people feel happier and less stressed

Research from the Royal Horticultural Society, suggests planting a few ornamental plants can help people feel happier and less stressed 

Convicted killer Steven Gallant, who tackled the London Bridge terrorist with a narwhal tusk, could be released early according to reports. He was attending a rehabilitation event when a terrorist murdered two people on November 29, 2019. Gallant is serving a minimum of 17 years for killing a firefighter 15 years ago. There’s no doubt this is a difficult situation.

I can imagine the family of the person he murdered are angry at this prospect. But he did also demonstrate extraordinary bravery. Years ago, when I worked in the forensic service, I remember having discussions with prison psychiatrists who were quite bleak about the prospect of prison rehabilitation — up to half reoffend. But not everyone does. Gallant has vowed never to turn to violence again. I think, given the circumstances, he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Dr Max said this tea containing lavender, can be helpful for relaxing

Dr Max said this tea containing lavender, can be helpful for relaxing

Dr Max prescribes…

Tea with lavender

This tea has traditional bergamot (the flavour in Earl Grey) but also contains lavender, which has long been used to relax people. Several double blind, placebo-controlled trials have shown lavender oil works on the nerves in the brain to make them less excitable and reduce anxiety. This tea also tastes good, too. Fortnum and Mason Victoria Grey tea, £6.95, fortnumandmason.com

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