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.

Loss of innocence

Childhood sexual abuse is hard to cope with, but it’s better dealt with while the child is young than when the experience has a chance to infiltrate the personality.

Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is one of the hardest experiences I have helped people resolve. It is not always as brutal and acute as physical abuse or an isolated rape incident; in some cases people can be led to believe that what’s happening to them is normal and fine. I’ve heard a lot of people say that what bothers them most is not the sex act itself, although that is often disturbing (especially if it happened to them as children). It is the inappropriateness of the touch or sexual attention that bothers them, haunts them to the core.

I have seen mothers who have been sexually abused themselves as children become hypersensitive to any adult touching their children, even if it is not with sexual intent and is objectively appropriate. I have also seen the opposite extreme. Some parents thing that because what happened seemed “normal” to them, they disbelieve their children when the children tell them about being abused. Or they think the child is doing it to seek attention. I’m sure there are some children who do lie about such a serious matter, but I think that far more often, the child is telling the truth and the abuse goes unreported because they are afraid of getting the perpetrator in trouble. It is especially difficult for some parents to believe when the perpetrator is their own husband, wife, or romantic partner. There are also people who distrust the governmental agencies to whom they would report such incidents. I can understand that, and I don’t pretend that child protective agencies or the police always handle these matters well. However, they are still there to protect children from abuse and neglect, and if the abuse continues unabated it can have lifelong, damaging consequences.

Children need to be able to trust their environments and their caretakers to take appropriate action when they tell their parents they’ve been touched inappropriately. It wouldn’t kill us as a society to take them seriously until the facts have proven that they are not telling the truth. By their very nature, children don’t have the resources and awareness to protect themselves. We need to be in tune with our children to know when something is off with their behavior. We don’t need to necessarily jump to the conclusion that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but we do need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. If you think your child has been touched inappropriately, you can get them help: proper medical attention; psychotherapy; and legal and physical protection against the perpetrators. Don’t let it become their problem later on in the forms of depression; anxiety; PTSD; dissociation; and other psychological and behavioral problems.

Pathological Parenting — Is There Hope?

Some of us were lucky and really had good mothers and fathers, or at least good enough mothers and fathers. As a trauma therapist, I see more than my fair share of people who didn’t get so lucky, and some of us got more unlucky than others still. The good news is, however, that the effects of having negative parenting can be overcome, and our senses of self can be restored through a number of means.

First blessing that we have is the power to observe the things we say to ourselves that we picked up from our environment. Through the help of the connections between the limbic system (the emotional parts of our brains), our prefrontal cortices and the language part of our brains (Broca’s area), we can reflect on our inner dialogue and identify what is helpful versus what is harmful to us. Sometimes we need another person’s perspective to do that, because we grew up thinking of ourselves a certain way so what seems normal to us is appalling to another person who wasn’t raised similarly. But if we leave room to pay attention, we can identify which thoughts make us feel sad, angry, shameful or frightened, and which ones make us feel calm and happy. We can use our own body’s responses to help us do that — when I think this, my shoulders cave and I slouch, or my eyes hurt like they want to cry. What really helps us do this reflection is regular quiet time spent going inward, observing our mental process without judgment or caring what other people think. You are your own audience, and you get to bear witness to your own experience. Some call it meditation; other people can achieve this through prayer. I don’t think it matters how you get there, as long as you can observe without judgment.

The second blessing is what is called “neural plasticity.” This means that the brain changes and adapts depending on our experiences and interactions within ourselves and with our environments. According to Louis Cozolino, PhD, “genetic expression is controlled by experiences throughout life, and …changes in the environment, both good and bad, continue to have positive and negative effects on us” (p. 324, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed.). This is great news because even if we didn’t get everything we needed psychologically from our caretakers as infants and children, we are not lost and broken forever. Our neurons (nerve cells) can fire differently when we’re in a more positive, supportive environment, and even the organization of brain structures can change in response to skill learning. Even if you had very negative relationships with other people in your family or with your peers, there is hope to have more satisfying, mutually beneficial interactions with your current peers and important people in your life.

I find both these notions to be very encouraging and try to share these ideas with clients because sometimes people have been talking to themselves negatively for so long, they are convinced they cannot change. It takes work, but that notion of being broken doesn’t have to be the case. I’m sure there are some people whose parenting was so pathological that it would take a monumental effort to change their self-talk and behavior, but for most of us, I think that we can overcome that type of history. It takes hope, and it also takes help. But at least our brains can be cooperative allies in the process.