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.