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.

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.