Five Ways Parents Negatively Impact Children During a Divorce

colt and mare
How parents do not help their children in divorces and what to do instead
I realize not everyone who reads this blog has children or is getting a divorce. However, I see quite a few children 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 worsen existing mental health issues or give rise to new symptoms. Such symptoms can include acting younger than their chronological age (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 children’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 broken. Sometimes divorce is a mutual decision that is handled with dignity and grace. Yet often it’s a rough, scary, painful, maddening experience. Infidelity, substance abuse, failed promises and dashed expectations often further complicate the situation. The focus can easily become the parents’ pain; when this happens children get short shrift.

It’s very hard for adults to cope with this. If a parent is having a hard time with the pain, it’s a good idea to get some professional help so that it doesn’t impact their children. That seems the responsible thing to do. Some people also find it helpful to lean on religious leaders in their place of worship or trusted friends and family members. Relying on family and friends can be tricky, however, as such sources of support may not be able to stay objective and be completely honest the way a professional can.

That being said, it is important to remember that in most cases, children do not want their parents to divorce. They want security, predictability, consistency, and support. Many children and adolescents complain to me about having 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, it is not a relief for them to be in the middle of a divorce. For children and adolescents, divorce can be the end of their security and a big upheaval.

Depending on their developmental stage, children usually do not understand what is going on a lot of the time. They are confused, sometimes blaming themselves, and at other times blaming one or the other parents. Children and parents alike often feel angry, sad, scared, lonely, hurt. It is important to not add the parents’ turmoil and hurt feelings to what the children feel. Adults generally have better coping skills and resources than children do, and so it is important for parents to be a resource and not a burden to their children during these trying times.

It stands to reason that this is a good time to think about children too and how parents’ actions affect the children. Here is a list of don’ts that will hopefully prevent harming children during divorce.

1. It may seem obvious to some, but one parent 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 hurtful. When parents use children as their friends or tell children too much information about the divorce, it forces them into an adult role and makes them take care of the adult, which is sometimes called “parentification.” Parents need a calm, objective, wise adult to talk to, not a child. The child needs to be allowed to be concerned with his or own well being. Children don’t need to know about how much money mom or dad is paying to the other parent, whether parents cheated on each other, how much their activities and needs cost, or what the parents think about each other. Their job is to go to school, do their activities, have friends, do their chores, and grow up to be healthy and happy. That’s it. Too often I see parents pulling their children into the middle in various ways, including disclosing unnecessary details of the divorce to the child or adolescent. If the parent is bitter, angry or hurt, get professional help to sort through the pain of the divorce without foisting it onto the child.

3. Spoiling the kids with gifts and trips is another way that parents can manipulate children into choosing one side or another. This is almost a cliche by now, so many parents try to buy their children’s affection and manipulate the child into taking his or her side against the other in the divorce. This behavior coerces the child’s allegiance when there is no need for such false loyalty. Additionally, spoiling makes it very difficult for the parent who can’t afford it and creates unrealistic expectations for the children. Another way parents can spoil their children is a lack of boundaries and rules. If a child can do whatever s/he wants at Dad’s house but has to do homework and chores at Mom’s, whose house do you think will the child want to visit more often? This is even more hurtful because it can create confusion and behavioral problems that “only happen at your house, not mine.” No one is a winner in this situation.

4. Along the same lines, children often respond negatively to the parent who enforces rules and expectations. S/he may tell the parent, “I don’t have to do this at Mom’s/Dad’s house!” This may seem on the surface an attempt to get his/her way. But it is also a way to test boundaries and see if there is consistency in his/her environment. What can a parent do if a person’s ex-spouse’s parenting style is completely different? A responsible parent can explain to the child that the reason for his/her chosen form of discipline is so that the child can grow up to be healthy, responsible and ultimately have a good life. Sometimes that means that children do not get to do what they want right now. However, there’s no need to be too strict with children, so do give them their own free time when they have earned it. All humans, regardless of age, need to be able to play and work throughout their lives.

5. Parents are sometimes more concerned about what lawyers and judges think of them than doing what is right for their children. Their desire to “win” in court (whether it means more custody/visitation or paying less child support) comes at the expense of your child’s development and well-being. In this situation, parents can easily lose sight of what children need, such as children spending time with an attentive, stable, consistent parent instead of being with a babysitter or by themselves. Such parents often are very conscious of how things appear to judges and lawyers in Family Court. They act superficially and bend the truth, or worse yet get their children to lie. These parents lose sight of the fact that the human beings involved — their children — don’t care who wins. Such parents are usually competitive, less than mature, and not open to compromise for the best interests of the children. As a result, the children once again suffer because their parents are caught up in their own insecurity and pain. I have also seen parents stoop as low as to coach their children what say in therapy and make up false allegations of child abuse. The child abuse social workers have plenty of work with real cases to investigate without using Department of Child and Family Services to smear the other parent.

In closing, here are some things to remember. The primary goal is to make divorce and separation less stressful on children and adolescents and to help children avoid blaming themselves or the other parent for the divorce. Blaming rarely solves anything in life, and least of all in matters of the heart. The divorce is between the two adults, and the children are just unfortunately along for the ride. Adults who are hurt from the divorce should get their own psychotherapy so that they can cope effectively and not let this negatively impact their sons or daughters. It is important to think about the bigger picture – what will help the child, above everything else.

When parents claim they are perfect and never have any problems with discipline, they do not fool anyone. Every parent, no matter how good, has times when they are frustrated with their children. Sometimes the frustration gets the better of them. If they can take a step back and keep their tempers in check, that is what is important. Children do best when their parents can communicate civilly and effectively with ex-spouses when necessary. This helps the child have consistency and security. Children like to know that someone is in charge and that their parents are going to keep them safe. Sparing them drama is crucial to reducing stress for the child.

Medically Unexplained Illnesses: It is 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.

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. Some of the hypotheses about their origin include viruses, childhood trauma, injury, psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD, and chemical reactions gone awry. The fact that the disorders are not well-understood does not mean that the disorders are any less distressing to sufferers. It also does not mean that they are simply “psychosomatic” (i.e., psychiatric symptoms masquerading or perceived as physical disorders). There has been a great deal of struggle 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 even 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 can result in tender lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, and “post-exertion malaise” which means that if a person does too much during the day, s/he feels even worse for the next day to a 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 is 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 classes 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 everyday 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, and cognitive problems. People with FMS and CFS sometimes have a sensitivity to smells, but it is not a defining feature of either of those conditions. Because there have 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 a number of factors that might contribute to some people’s extra sensitive reactions.

This is been an overview of medically unexplained illnesses, which are often chronic and with uncertain prognoses. 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. If you need help in coping with your chronic illness, please do not hesitate to call me at 661-233-6771.