Everyone knows that kids should be protected from their parents’ conflicts. It’s tough to do this when emotions run high, and you are hurting and angry. When you are in so much pain, you may turn to your children for comfort or support, or you may want to tell them the “truth” about the other parent. So why is this such a bad idea?
Kids who are caught in the middle of their parents’ conflict and divorce have worse outcomes than those whose parents prioritize a “child-centered divorce.” A search on Google brings up many references to the term, a “child-centered divorce.” There are helpful websites and blogs that advocate for a peaceful (out of court) resolution of the divorce, and a parenting plan that prioritizes the needs of the children.
This means that kids whose parents stay angry and hostile have more emotional and behavior problems that last into adulthood. The good news is that kids whose parents are able to move beyond the conflict have a good chance at success in life, in school, their relationships, future positive mental health.
Many parents going through divorce have told me that their children are “fine”; that they are “resilient,” but my experience as a child therapist has taught me something different. In the privacy of the therapy office, children talk about their parents’ arguments, their worries about money, the accusations of betrayal or their fears about the future. Because kids worry about their parents, they often cope by trying to look better than they really feel. Inside they may be deeply pained but unable to talk to their parents when they see how much their parents are suffering. They intuitively sense that their parents have enough to worry about, or that their parents need to see the children as fine.
So why keep your kids out of the middle? For their own mental health, they need to love both of you, and if they feel caught in the middle, they may feel they have to choose between you. This is damaging to children. Your children know that they have a part of each of you in them, and if they turn against a parent, it is as if they are turning against a part of themselves.
What happens when kids are caught in the middle? They feel like they are caught in a terrible tug-of-war. They may feel they need to determine who is at fault, or what is “fair.” They may feel burdened by their parents’ emotions and not able to express their own. They may begin to regress, shut down, or act out. Teens and young adult children of divorcing parents may try to get involved in the divorce process itself, in unhealthy ways, by trying to mediate, or judge, or advocate for particular outcomes. And this distracts them from focusing on their own lives in healthy ways.
Here are some ways to protect your kids:
- Don’t speak badly of the other parent. Don’t blame them, criticize or complain about them. If you’re a kid, this hurts! Seek out your friends or a therapist if you need to vent or complain.
- Don’t ask your kids to take sides. Ask yourself if you are doing so, even in subtle ways, and remind yourself that it is healthier for your kids to love both parents.
- Don’t send messages or paperwork with the kids when they go to their other parent. Keep the divorce business well away from them.
- Don’t talk about the divorce business, about the meetings, the financial settlement details or division of property. Legal talk is painful for kids to hear and distracts them from being able to focus on their job—to be kids.
- Don’t have difficult conversations with your spouse when the kids are being transferred from one of you to the other parent. Keep these out of earshot and private. You would be surprised about how much your kids actually already hear and know.
- Don’t ask your kids to keep secrets from their other parent.
- Don’t use your kids as your confidantes. You need adults to turn to for support. Connect with friends, family, a divorce support group or a therapist.
- Don’t ask your kids about your spouse’s personal life, like if s/he is dating.
- Don’t restrict your kids’ time with their other parent because you are mad at your spouse.
Here some things you can do to help your kids stay out of the middle of the conflict:
- Minimize the disruptions to the kids’ routines as much as possible.
- Make sure both parents stay involved with your kids. Make sure they have frequent and ongoing contact with both of you.
- Provide frequent reassurance. The divorce isn’t their fault—they didn’t cause it, and they can’t change it.
- Focus on their growth and healthy change as they adapt and adjust to the new family structure. It can help some kids to say “We are still one family, under two roofs.”
- Model respect for their other parent.
- Let the children continue to be kids. Maintain their play dates and other activities as much as possible.
- Imagine the story you want your children to tell about their parents’ divorce, and know that every day you are helping them to construct that story.
- Create a parenting plan that minimizes the potential for conflict. By creating and committing to a set of default decisions, together with your spouse, the potential conflict will be minimized.
- Seek professional help if necessary, with or without your ex.
Remember that the divorce is a problem to be solved by you and your spouse, the adults, and your kids will benefit from knowing that their parents will continue to parent them together, even if they are living under two roofs. Take the time to work with a professional, if necessary, to resolve your grievances with your spouse so that your children don’t carry the burden of bitterness and grief into their future. Thousands of kids go through divorce with their families, but you can help them to overcome the challenges, become more stress-resistant, resilient, and flexible, by keeping them out of the middle of the divorce. One to two years after a “child-centered” divorce, most kids are on track and healthy.
–Ann Buscho, Ph.D. is a Collaborative Divorce Coach and psychologist in Marin County.
photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.