Five Ways to Negatively Impact a Child During a Divorce


art by Glen Larsen
I realize not everyone who reads this blog has kids or is married or getting a divorce. However, I see quite a few kids who are in the midst of ugly custody battles and I want to let readers know about the negative impact it has on children. Even if children and adolescents don’t exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the stress from a disrupted family can exacerbate existing mental health issues or give rise to new symptoms, like regression (bed wetting, soiling, temper tantrums) and aggression. I have seen a few things that parents do in the midst of a divorce, or even during ongoing custody battles, that can really damage a kid’s sense of security and wellbeing.

Divorce is usually painful for everyone involved. The partners who are divorcing are in pain because their vision of happily ever after is being ruptured. Sometimes that is a mutual decision that is handled with dignity and grace, but often it’s a rough, scary, painful, maddening experience. Infidelity, substance abuse, failed promises and dashed expectations are often thrown into the mix.

It’s very hard for adults to cope with this, and if they’re having a hard time with the pain, it’s a good idea to get some professional help so that it doesn’t leak onto their children. That seems the responsible thing to do, in my opinion, rather than act without thinking of the children to alleviate their immediate suffering. Some people also find it helpful to lean on religious leaders in their place of worship or trusted friends and family members (although that can be tricky, as friends and family may not be able to be objective with their hurting friend and be objective and honest).

That being said, it’s important to remember that in most cases, kids don’t want their parents to divorce. They want security, predictability, consistency, and support. They don’t want two separate homes with two separate standards of living, rules, chores, etc. Unless their parents are constantly arguing viciously in front of them, or ignoring each other at the other end of the spectrum, it’s not a relief for them to be in the middle of a divorce. It’s the end of their security, and it’s a big upheaval.

On top of that, children usually don’t understand what is going on a lot of the time. They are confused, sometimes blaming themselves, sometimes blaming one or the other parents. It can make them angry, sad, scared, lonely, hurt – a lot of the things their parents are feeling too.

So, it stands to reason that this is a good time to think about them too and the way the parents’ actions affect the children. Here is a list of no-no’s that will hopefully make readers aware of the potential pitfalls in a divorce.

1. It may seem obvious to some, but speaking negatively about the other parent is a really bad idea. This may not necessarily take the form of outright insults, but also look like encouraging the children to not listen to their other parent, disobeying them, disrespecting them, and gossiping about the other parent as if the children were peers or friends that the parent could vent to. That is not the case. When you insult or disrespect the other parent, you are a) insulting half of the child, because he or she was raised, until now, by both parents; b) encouraging the child to rupture and/or degrade their relationship with their other parent; and c) dumping your negative opinion of the parent onto the child. They don’t need to know what happened between you, or what complaints you have about the other parent.

2. In the same vein, treating the child as a personal confidante is also harmful. This places a lot of burden and pressure on the child and doesn’t serve either one of you. You need a calm, objective, wise adult to talk to, not a child. And the child needs to be allowed to be a child, not taking the place of your lack of friendship. Again, getting professional help can be very crucial and a huge gift for your child, because it allows you to sort through the pain of your divorce without foisting it onto the young and not-very-capable shoulders of your child.

3. Spoiling the kids with gifts and trips is another way that parents can manipulate children into choosing one side or another. It makes it very difficult for the parent who can’t afford it and creates unrealistic expectations for the children.

4. Having two completely different and conflicting sets of rules at each house is confusing and very upsetting for children. Many kids start to resent the parent who is stricter and applies more structure, and again, the child develops unrealistic expectations about what they should be able to do. Children like consistency, across settings and across people. Why make a child confused when they don’t have to be? If your partner’s parenting style is completely different from yours, you can explain to the child that the reason for your chosen form of discipline is so that they can grow up to be healthy, responsible and ultimately have a good life. Sometimes that means that they don’t get to do what they want right now, but do give them their own free time when they have earned it so that the extremes of discipline and lack thereof are not so distinct. All humans need to be able to play and work, regardless of their age.

5. Don’t play to the court at the expense of your child’s development and well-being. What I mean by this is that some parents are more concerned about gaining custody for financial reasons or ego reasons then what would be best for the child. Such parents often are very conscious of how things appear to judges and lawyers in Family Court, and they act superficially in order to win in court. They lose sight of the fact that there are human beings involved, namely the children, and that what’s best for them is not always winning. Such parents are usually competitive and not open to compromise and in the best interests of the children. As a result, the kids once again lose out because their parents are caught up in their own issues. Also, don’t coach your kids on what to say in therapy and make up false allegations of child abuse. The child abuse social workers have plenty of real cases to investigate without your using them to smear the other parent.

In closing, here are some things to remember. The primary goal is to make divorce and separation as least stressful on the child and to help them avoid blaming themselves or the other parent. Blaming rarely solves anything in life, and least of all here. Please, if you are hurting from the divorce, get your own psychotherapy so that you can cope effectively and not let this negatively impact your child. It’s important to think about the bigger picture – what will help your child, above everything else.

Claiming that you are a perfect parent and never have any problems with disciplining your children doesn’t fool anyone. Every parent, no matter how good, has times when they’re frustrated with the children and when the frustration gets the better of them. If they can take a step back and keep their tempers and check, that is what is important. Children do best when the parents can communicate civilly and effectively with your ex-spouse when necessary, to help the child have consistency and security. Children like to know that someone is in charge and that they are going to be kept safe by their parents. Ensuring that can reduce the stress on the child.

Medically Unexplained Illnesses: It’s not just all in your head!


Having a stigmatized chronic illness can make it more challenging to cope with illness. This is an introduction to CFS, FMS, and MCS, all medically unexplained illnesses. Having compassion and greater understanding for people with these conditions, may help sufferers reduce their stress.


A Brief Introduction to Medically Unexplained Illnesses

Some chronic illnesses have specific titles, treatments and are much more easily understood by medical professionals. They have a consistent set of diagnostic criteria and so they are easy to diagnose, treat, and maintain. More research is done to find drugs and treatments that help with their treatment, and so while they are not curable, they are treatable and people can have a fairly decent quality of life with those illnesses. Some examples are diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoarthritis, and some psychiatric disorders like depression and Bipolar illness.

However, there are some illnesses, like Fibromyalgia (FMS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), whose symptoms are not well-understood by medical professionals, and since those symptoms overlap with other disorders and don’t lend themselves well to specific diagnosis, they don’t get as much research funding and effort. Their causes are also not well understood either; hypnotheses include viruses, childhood trauma, injury, psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD, chemical reactions gone awry, etc. The fact that the disorders are not well-understood does not mean that the disorders are any less distressing to sufferers. It also doesn’t mean that they are simply “psychosomatic” (i.e., psychiatric symptoms masquerading or perceived as physical disorders). There has been a great deal ofstruggle to gain legitimacy in the medical field for people who suffer Medically Unexplained Syndromes (MUPS), as people with these conditions have an added stress of not being believed by family, friends and medical professionals. If they could point to a well-defined diagnostic label like cancer or arthritis, they might have a chance to be believed by others. Some prominent medical researchers have suggested that these disorders are purely psychological, and that if they just got Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, they would be fine. However, as anyone who has coped with fatigue, joint pain, cognitive dysfunction (like poor memory and concentration), or extreme discomfort after chemical exposure can attest, it is not just “all in your head.” Other people demean MUPS symptoms as “just being lazy” or “the yuppy flu.”

Fibromyalgia is perhaps one of the relatively better-researched MUPS and is characterized by joint pain in 11 of 18 tender points on the body, fatigue, insomnia, and at times cognitive dysfunction, like mental “fogginess” that makes it hard to concentrate, focus, or remember things. Many people with Fibromyalgia are limited in what they can do, how they can move, and sometimes their employment opportunities and capacities are severely hampered by their symptoms. Similarly, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can negatively impact fulfilling social and occupational roles, and sometimes they have to apply for disability as they struggle to even achieve minimal activities of daily living. CFS has many similar symptoms to FMS (fatigue, cognitive problems, joint discomfort) but also have tender lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, and “post-exertion malaise” which means that if they do too much during the day, they feel even worse for the next day to week. You may be able to see how this could interfere with holding down a job, raising children, having a social life, or running a household. While these disorders usually affect women, men can also be affected. Children and adolescents can become ill with CFS and FMS too, although it’s much rarer.  Most of the studies on CFS and FMS that have been done involve adults from 40-60 years old. It affects all socioeconomic statuses as well as ethnicities.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is perhaps the most controversial of the MUPS and while it shares a few symptoms with FMS and CFS, it is more focused on negative reactions to exposure to chemicals in every day products. Some of those products include cigarette smoke, gasoline, solvents, perfume, clothing dyes, dryer sheets, cleaning agents, pesticides, and hairspray. People have a range of symptoms when exposed to these types of chemicals, including respiratory problems, skin rashes, headaches, cognitive problems, etc. people with FMS and CFS sometimes have sensitivity to smells, but it is not a defining feature of either of those conditions. Because there’ve been some studies where people failed to show increased sensitivity to certain agents in a laboratory, some medical professionals regard MCS as merely a psychosomatic illness. However, the reactions are real, cause physical and mental distress, and sufferers are not merely imagining what they experience. Instead of invalidating people’s experience, it seems more beneficial when doctors, friends, and workplaces can work with people who are sensitive to smells to make them comfortable, happy and productive. Other people might not perceive the same smells as threatening, because they get no physical reaction. However, there are number of factors that might contribute to some people’s extra sensitive reaction. I will address these factors in the next blog post.

This is been an overview of medically unexplained illnesses, which are often chronic and whose prognosis is often uncertain. Many of these illnesses overlap in symptoms, but the sufferers have very real struggles in meeting their life roles and functioning well. Hopefully, with more understanding, research, and compassion, we can make their experience a little better and a little less stressful. I will be writing about them more in future blog posts, in specific the link between psychological factors and physical symptoms of these illnesses.