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.

What is a traumatic event?

In talking to a friend of mine recently, I realized that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event defines it as one. Some people who have had so many terrible things happen to them, think that such events are “just part of life… deal with them and get over it!” Unfortunately, it isn’t usually as easy as that sounds. Over a long period of time, traumatic events tend to accumulate and create self-defeating beliefs about ourselves and the world, as well as behavior patterns that get in the way of getting us what we want.

So just what is a traumatic event? More interestingly, what makes some people think it’s easy to “get over” an event, and what makes other people think the same event is traumatic?

A traumatic event is something that brings an overwhelming sense of terror, pain, or stress to the person experiencing or witnessing it. Some examples are having one’s wife threatened or watching someone be seriously injured or killed, as in war or gang violence. Rape can also be traumatizing, as well as sexual assault or molestation of a child. Loss can also cause trauma, especially if it is stigmatized, sudden and unexpected, or profoundly disorienting. Sometimes sudden change that isn’t life-threatening can also be experienced in a very disturbing way. For example, feeling disempowered by someone else, losing a job for friendship, nasty and ugly divorces, or being taken advantage of in a way that profoundly impacts your life.

 Some of the effects of trauma include emotional numbing, intrusive memories and flashbacks, nightmares, hypersensitivity to sound and other sensory stimuli, a heightened startled reaction, and exaggerated emotional response to things that remind the person of a trauma, and irritability that seems irrational to other people. Many people returning home from combat situations, who has been away from their families for a long time, have difficulty readjusting to civilian life because they are so used to ongoing stress of an unusual nature. Most of us are fortunate to not have to deal with such stressors, but even being in a very dysfunctional family with domestic violence, exploitation, or neglect can cause many of the symptoms. Sometimes people who have suffered from trauma hear other people say that they were traumatized by the situation, and they think “you don’t know what real problems like. You wouldn’t have survived what I went through.” What people don’t realize is that we all have different levels of sensitivity and resiliency to stress, including traumatic stress.

 I will talk about resiliency and another post, but basically you can understand it as a house metaphor. The foundation of healthy mental functioning is secure attachment, I believe. What do I mean by this? Attachments is a phenomenon that occurs between an infant and their caregiver. There are many different ways that adults and infants attach, depending on the mental health of both parties. But the most stable and secure attachments creates the ability to regulate how the infant feels. Over time, this helps the infant’s self-esteem, as well as responding to emotional stress. This is not the only thing that makes humans resilient to stress, but it does play a large part in resiliency. The interaction between the infant and the adult caregiver facilitates very complex and comprehensive brain development, and paves the way for dealing with life much more effectively. People who were unfortunate enough to have insecure attachment, or void attachment, have a harder time understanding and dealing with their emotions. It can be hard to control how they act, think and feel when under stress. Add to this and extremely stressful situation, like being assaulted, robbed, or seriously injured, and it makes it much more challenging to cope with post-traumatic stress.

 If you think that you have been through a traumatic event and need help healing from it, please call 661-233-6771. I’m happy to help you.


Letting go is hard to do

More and more we hear about how it’s healthy and good to “let go,” whether the thing we’re supposed to let go of is a relationship that didn’t work, or a past wrong by another, or a past wrong we committed. There are so many things we can let go of, but actually doing it for a sustained amount of time can be quite challenging.

I recently read an interesting article ( by Sara Eckel, about adult siblings who don’t communicate with each other after one or both has hurt the other. She used a term that struck a chord with me, “grievance collector.” This type of person holds onto perceived wrongs by others and holds resentment for long after the event occurred. I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, how this just makes the person collecting and holding the grudge sick both physically and emotionally. I’m sure you’ve already heard about how that bathes the body and brain in stress chemicals when the grievance collector gets upset about it all over again when reminded of the original wrongdoing. I don’t have to tell you that the grievance collector is robbed of living in the present as long as they dwell needlessly in the past.

But let us consider why some of us get trapped in grievance collecting, and why it’s so hard to let go. It seems to be hard-wired for survival that we remember bad things happening most often; our limbic systems help ensure that we (hopefully) don’t touch the hot stove or get involved with the cheating lover repeatedly. However, when we generalize our bad experiences to everything that reminds us of that initial bad experience, it makes it hard to enjoy and appreciate what comes across our path in the present — or even to give it a chance to delight and surprise us. Add to this tendency to remember the negative for survival purposes, the idea that people “should” act a certain way, and you have a strong need to hold onto grudges and resentments.

Anyone in AA/NA knows that holding onto those can trigger relapses into self-destructive behavior, or in the case of people who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol, a relapse into negative feeling states that can seem stubborn and persistent. Sometimes being “police officer to the world” can be attractive because we can impose our worldview of right and wrong onto other people who have harmed us; in that moment we have the illusion of vindication over the wrongdoer. However, without some kind of resolution, it is empty and just harms us, not them.

So how to stop being a grievance collector and let some of these past wrongs go? It can take a while to retrain your mind from holding onto things that bug you, about yourself or other people. As you gain greater awareness of when you’re doing this, why you are getting upset about it, and recognize that you are powerless over the past, but not your reaction to it, you will find it easier to release them. Professional help and specifically, EMDR therapy can be helpful in resolving traumatic wrongs done to you. It’s a long journey and not easy, but ultimately much more liberating and empowering than lugging around your grievances wherever you go.

Free-Floating Anxiety

Many people come to me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is characterized by worrying about a whole host of things, almost all the time. It interferes with sleep, digestion, happiness and over-all well being. The curious thing is that once they think one problem that causes anxiety is solved, they can’t leave it well enough alone. Their thinking is dominated by “what if” thinking, as in “what if the choice I made is not the right one? What if the solution I chose doesn’t work?” This can be very exasperating not only to the person who has anxiety, but also for those around him or her. The person with anxiety often seeks reassurance compulsively from the people closest to them, and often to dissatisfied by the reassurances. This can cause problems in relationships, which further adds to the list of stressors that lead to anxiety.

The interesting thing about the anxiety is that even if you have conclusive evidence that the problem you’re worried about is solved, then like a flock of birds seeking a different resting place, the anxiety flies off to a different destination and then bingo! There’s your new problem to solve and fret over. Again, it’s frustrating for the person with anxiety because he or she thought that by being diligent and fretting over that one item, their anxiety would go away, but alas, it doesn’t. I often ask people in this predicament how worrying solves their problem at hand. They often say that it makes them alert to the loose ends that could fall by the wayside. I see the logic to that, but often anxiety and stress at this level does the opposite of what people want it to do. Instead of being a progenitor of proactive problem solving, it paralyzes them (boy, are there enough p words in that sentence?). There is such a thing as eustress, which is enough stress or tension to be alert and proactive, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed, helpless and scared.

Think about times that you’ve had an issue and solved it without feeling anxiety. Now ask yourself, did the problem get solved as well as it does when you felt anxious solving a problem? Does anxiety actually do what you want it to, or is it just flooding your body and mind with stress chemicals and putting more mileage on your heart? Is it a worthwhile use of your energy, or could you perhaps be just as productive without it? Ask yourself this every time you start feeling anxious about an issue or problem. How is this energy serving me? Is it accomplishing what I want it to do? Can I solve the problem without it? Let this be your mantra and see whether it can help you declare independence from worry. Worry, like angry expressions and sadness, are not just emotional expressions — they are habits. Like any habit, you need to be mindful and dedicated to break yourself of it. Are you willing to try this today?