When I sit across from a couple who is embarking on the divorce process I ask them about their greatest concerns. The vast majority of divorcing couples fortunately say, our children.
Tamara D. Afifi, currently a professor at the University of Iowa, presented a TED talk on the impact of parental conflict on children. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKcNyfXbQzQ)
Dr. Afifi explained that the nature and intensity of their parents’ conflict has more impact on children long term than a divorce. In fact, the most significant difficulties occurring later in life (finding a satisfying or lasting relationship, etc.) were more prevalent in children whose parents had significant conflict who remain married rather than those who had gotten divorced. In other words, the extent of parental conflict has more impact on your children long term than does the divorce itself.
Some of Dr. Afifi’s students responded that they wished that their parents had gotten divorced. They felt that their parents had placed more importance on their love/hate relationship with each other than providing a nurturing environment for their children.
More recently parents and children have closer relationships than they did over the past few decades, partly because of the electronic age. Parents and children are in more frequent contact. The result of this closeness can be worse for children of divorced parents. An adolescent or young adult should not be a parent’s confidant. When a parent confides in a child, undue stress is put upon the child.
A child should not be an intermediary for anything. Even using a child for a simple intermediary task can trigger an irreversible negative effect. Dr. Afifi uses the example of a parent asking their child to remind the other parent of an upcoming dentist appointment. The alternate parent expresses frustration that the communication wasn’t presented by one parent directly to the other. The child is caught in the middle of their adult issues. The child who loves both parents. The child is torn. This circumstance creates dissonance. How does the child cope? Often by siding with one parent and thereby losing connection with the other. Children of divorce have said this loss of connection can happen as the result of just one occurrence.
The way parents fight effects their children. How do you know? Children avoid…they become aggressive…or when they are older may confront you but only with age and maturity. “Don’t put me in the middle.”
The way parents fight effects their children’s bodies. For example, a young child might have stomach aches.
Agree to not engage in front of your children. Some people may be frustrated because you can’t control the behavior of the other parent. What can you do? Don’t engage. Let it go. The antagonistic party will eventually grow bored when there is no fight. Eventually you will discover that your children notice, respect and appreciate your restraint.
Most importantly Dr. Afifi claims is to, “listen to your child’s inner voice.” They may not be able to articulate their struggle, but recognize that your actions, your conflict, has long term impact on your children.