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Navigating the Emotional Journey: How Divorce Affects Children

8 November 2023 by Pascalinah Kabi

Between 2016 and 2020, the High Court of Lesotho recorded at least 873 divorce cases. However, the true number may be higher due to underreported divorces from customary marriages.

Lehakoe Senong*, now 17, vividly recalls the moment her world shattered. She was just twelve-years-old when she overheard her parents engaged in a full-blown argument.

Until then, she had believed her parents were the epitome of a happy couple and that their four-member family was rock-solid.

“My younger sister and I were watching cartoons when I heard my parents arguing in the bedroom,” Lehakoe shared as her eyes welled up with tears.

Her immediate instinct was to protect her younger sister by covering her ears. From that day, the fights between her parents intensified, with little to no effort to conceal their conflicts from the young Lehakoe and her baby sister.

“I cried almost every night, and it got worse when my father moved out of our home,” Lehakoe revealed, adding, “I didn’t know what to say to my friends when they asked why my father was no longer coming home.”

‘My parents were selfish’

In 2020 alone, 177 divorce cases were recorded by the High Court of Lesotho.

Bureau of Statistics Lesotho published its Vital Statistics (Divorces) 2020 report, which highlights that the highest number of divorces was approved in 2017 (197 cases), and the lowest in 2019 (149 cases).

“The results show that 873 cases of divorces were registered during this five-year period. Maseru recorded the highest number of divorces estimated at 49.2 percent followed by Leribe with 14.7 percent and then Berea at 10.7 percent,” read the report.

Notably, the report highlighted that females were often the ones filing for divorce, with Maseru having the highest number of female plaintiffs, followed by Leribe, Mafeteng, and Berea.

Adultery and desertion were identified as the most common reasons for divorce, accounting for almost 47 percent of divorce cases in Lesotho.

While the report by Bureau of Statistics did not delve into the impact of divorce on children, a 2021 study on the effects of divorce on children found that children often lack the information and skills to cope with the challenges that come with divorce.

“Conflicting relationships between parents create significant obstacles for children to successfully adapt to family changes,” the study noted, emphasising the importance of family in child development.

“Children are dependent on parents and are disadvantaged during divorce because it is out of their control.”

Lehakoe knows all too well how frustrating it can be to helplessly witness parents’ fights, separation, and eventual divorce.

“I wanted the fights to stop, but I didn’t know how to make my parents stop,” Lehakoe said.

Matsikoane Mabaleha, a professional with degrees in Theology, Sociology from the National University of Lesotho, and a Masters in Social Work from University of Botswana, has been running the after-school program Manners4Minors since 2014.

The program introduces young children to universally accepted behaviors and manners. Through Manners4Minors, Mabaleha has encountered cases of emotional distress displayed by children, often stemming from parental fights.

This year, Mabaleha discussed divorce with the children, using the concept of “living in two houses” to help children understand why their parents now reside in separate homes.

“Children came forward; they raised their hands and said, ‘I also live in two houses.’ Some admitted that they had known about their parents’ fights for a long time, and the frustration had led to bedwetting,” Mabaleha explained.


Mabaleha found that doctors had told some children that their bedwetting was a result of emotional distress due to their parents’ divorce.

She says some parents attempted to resolve their issues without involving their children, while others eventually explained the impending divorce.

Lehakoe believes her parents delayed the process of explaining the divorce to them.

“I think my parents were selfish. They were too engrossed in their own feelings and forgot about the pain my sister and I were going through. It still hurts,” Lehakoe said, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Although Lehakoe and her sister are now seeing a therapist, she believes her parents should have realised earlier that they needed help.

“I started dating, changing boyfriends frequently. My therapist says I was looking for my father in those boys,” she said.

Researchers encourage parents to prioritise their children’s interests over their own pain during divorce.

“Conflicting relationships between parents create significant obstacles for children to successfully adapt to family changes. Even though parents deal with heavy emotions, it is desirable to prioritise the child and their interests,” reads a study titled The Effects of Parental Divorce on Children.

Lessons learnt from SA 

Mabaleha’s Manners4Minors program teaches children about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships to help them understand why some people end up divorcing.

“We make children aware that their responsibility is to respect their parents, regardless of who they live with. Although it can be challenging for children to live in two or three houses, they need to understand why,” Mabaleha explained.

She added: “When we inquire about the emotional well-being of each parent following a divorce or separation, children often claim that their parents are happy. Therefore, we help them understand that even though they now live in two or three different homes, the ultimate goal is for everyone to be happy.”

The program is against the practice of parents involving children in their fights. “We emphasise to children that they are not responsible for fixing their parents’ marriage or relationship if it did not get to marriage.

“We teach children not to take sides when their parents argue. Both parents are equally important, and children should respect them both, regardless of who buys or doesn’t buy treats for them.

“We also instil in children the importance of not allowing their parents to speak negatively about the other parent. For instance, if a child primarily lives with their mother, it’s harmful for the mother to badmouth the father. When the child visits the father, they carry that negativity, which can be detrimental. Parents should let children be children,” Mabaleha emphasised.

Unfortunately, not every child of divorcing parents gets to attend Manners4Minors or undergo counselling. In contrast, South Africa has introduced the Children of Divorce Intervention Programme (CODIP) to foster resilience among children.

Authors of the Evaluation of a School-Based Intervention Programme for South African Children of Divorce found that this program helps children cope with potential academic, behavioural, and emotional problems resulting from their parents’ divorce.

Each year, at least 30,000 South African children are affected by divorce. The program was evaluated with 25 primary school boys aged 10-14, who were randomly assigned to two experimental groups and one delayed intervention control group.

“The results suggested that South African children who experience parental divorce may benefit from participation in CODIP,” read the study.

NOTE: We did not use Lehakoe’s real name to protect her and her family. She was interviewed with the consent of her guardian.

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