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.