Written by Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D.
There’s been a great deal of publicity lately about the negative impact of divorce on children. This research, by Dr. Judith Wallerstein, has highlighted a small group of children who have shown ongoing problems many years after the divorce of their parents. She indicates that children of divorce are at higher risk than children who grow up in non-divorced homes.While there is a statistical difference between the continued functioning of these children, other research suggests that the majority of all children adjust reasonably well and have few problems in life.
However, it’s the children exposed to conflict, both in marriage and after divorce, that experience some of the most significant problems. If parents continue fighting after divorce, children may become disillusioned. When parents divorce, most children at least hope the fighting will go away. Many times I have heard children say that they wouldn’t mind the divorce so much if their parents would finally learn to get along. After the divorce, children often simply want their parents to act grown up, leave them in peace, and let them love the other parent. Instead, when conflicts worsen,children are left with many wounds.
These wounds and prolonged frustration can include feelings of disillusionment, fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and other such emotions. Children develop loyalty conflicts and become afraid to love both of their parents or to express their love for one parent in front of the other parent. Many of these children become aligned with only one parent so they become less anxious and insecure. This is a factor in alienated children, those children who feel that they can’t have a relationship with both parents because they can’t handle the stress. Divorced children frequently feel that they have failed or blame themselves when their parents stay in conflict, and they feel even more insecure when they can’t prevent the arguments.
At its worst, children experiencing intense conflict have to take sides because they can’t manage the internal tension and anxiety they feel. For these children, there is a risk of serious psychological regression where they will see one parent as mostly bad and the other parent as mostly good. This psychological “splitting,” as it is called, is damaging to children because it reinforces a style in which they view the world in a “black and white” or “all or nothing” way rather than a more balanced view of good and bad in most people.
My experience is that psychological splitting is the most destructive emotional symptom which children might experience as a result of their parents’ conflict. This is because it creates more confusion and anxiety in the children. Behaviorally, children are likely to express their wounds with regression, aggression, withdrawal, or depression. They show signs of increased insecurity at times of transition between homes, worry, and a reluctance to express affection. They may feel embarrassed, daydream a lot, and have trouble in school. They are likely to feel responsible for conflicts, and be more emotionally edgy. They might become clingy with one or both parents. In young children, signs of regression can include bed-wetting and temper tantrums. School-age children often have difficulty with their school work or they might have fights with peers and become behavior problems in the classroom. By the time a child reaches adolescence, these children are at risk of expressing their wounds with rebelliousness, substance abuse, sexual acting out, and other serious or self-destructive behaviors.
While it is common for parents to blame each other when these symptoms erupt, it is important to recognize that they both are likely to play a role in these difficulties. They need to recognize that both their obvious and not-so-obvious behaviors are likely to be pressuring their children and causing them to feel this way. Blaming and being critical of the other parent make children feel and act worse. It is critical that parents look inward and improve communication with the other parent and the child, reduce their role in the conflict,and to ease the child’s transition between homes so that they can be free of the tension which this conflict causes. If they can work toward these goals, the child is likely to experience fewer problems and will hopefully make a healthier adjustment to divorce.
Emery, R. (1999). Marriage, Divorce, and Children’s Adjustment, 2nd Edition.Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Johnston, J. (1994). High-Conflict Divorce. The Future of Children, 4, (1),165-182.
Kelly, J. (1993). Current research on children’s post-divorce adjustment: No simple answers! Family & Conciliation Courts Review. 31, (1), 29-49.