Divorce affects children in many different ways. Some kids act out, some withdraw, and others put up a brave front – acting as though nothing has changed in their worlds. Marta J. Papa – a divorce lawyer and mediator based in St. Louis, Missouri – discusses the latest research on the impact of divorce on children, especially when there is conflict involved. She also explains the steps parents can take to help their children move from surviving to thriving after divorce.
In this podcast, Marta will share:
- the latest research on the effect a custody battle can have on a child
- the ways choosing sides between Mom and Dad plays out in the lives of children
- the “Sleeper Effect” and its impact on young adults
- how parents can protect their children from the negative impact of divorce
- the resources available to divorcing parents who are looking to resolve conflict without involving their children
Facilitator: Dan Couvrette, CEO and Publisher of Divorce Magazine, Family Lawyer Magazine, and www.DivorcedMoms.com
Faculty Member: Marta J. Papa, Divorce Lawyer and Mediator
Marta received her Juris Doctorate from the University of Houston and obtained a post-graduate certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy Training from the prestigious Menninger Psychiatric Institute. She has extensive training in negotiation and divorce mediation, and is a member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, the Association of Missouri Mediators, the International Association of Collaborative Professionals, and the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM). Marta Papa has taught Mediation, Dissolution of Marriage, and Civil Litigation at several universities and is currently adjunct faculty at St. Louis University in the Graduate School of Social Work. She also conducts family law mediation training seminars for lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals, as well as seminars for individuals considering divorce. consideringdivorce.com
Divorce Magazine’s Podcasts are available on iTunes. Click here to subscribe.
Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
The Impact of Divorce on Children
Dan Couvrette: Hi, I’m Dan Couvrette, the publisher of Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine and a Facilitator with TheDivorceSchool.com. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with St. Louis Family Law attorney, Marta Papa.
Marta and I are going to be talking about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who are allegedly divorcing and the challenges they will likely face regarding child custody. Truthfully the challenges they’ll face if they divorce would be very similar to the challenges most divorcing people who have children would face.
Of course their financial affairs would likely be more complicated than the average person who is divorcing, but when it comes to child custody and parenting arrangements and the consequences for the children as a result of divorce, they would likely be quite similar. You can learn more about Marta Papa and her firm at her website – www.consideringdivorce.com. Marta, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
What is the latest research on the effect of a custody battle?
Marta Papa: The latest research of the impact of divorce on children shows that it is not the divorce itself that hurts the emotional development of children. Rather, it is the conflict between the parents that does the most damage. When parents are in conflict, children feel the need to choose sides. If they choose to align with Mom, that hurts their relationship with Dad and trust of men in general. If they choose to align with Dad, it hurts their relationship with Mom
How does choosing sides between Mom and Dad play out in the lives of these children?
Actually, choosing sides has a devastating effect on children. Consider this scenario: Mom & Dad’s fighting leads their daughter (let’s call her Little Libby) to feel torn between honoring her mother’s need or father’s need to be right. When Mom disparages Dad in front of little Libby, Libby feels the need to pick who’s right or, at least, whom she is going to be loyal to. If she chooses to be loyal to Mom, she has to distance herself from Dad. If the fight between Mom and Dad continues, this makes Libby dig her heels in even further regarding whose side she is going to take. Loyalty to one parent erodes the child’s relationship with the other parent. This decision may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, it distances Libby from her Dad and she begins to distrust him and other males. If she decides men can’t be trusted, she is going to have a very difficult time developing trusting, intimate relationships with males in the future. This phenomenon may not be visible when Libby is a child. Little girls don’t like boys anyway, right. But as Libby grows older and begins to date, she will have difficulty trusting men or she may choose men who don’t deserve her trust. She will likely have lots of close girlfriends but males won’t be part of her circle of trusted people. Neither Mom nor Dad hoped to impact Libby’s love life like this but Mom and Dad’s intentions are not the deciding factor here. Mom and Dad’s actions, conflict, and distrust of each other cause it, and now Libby is experiencing these issues.
What if Libby decides to pick Dad as the good guy?
Great. Let’s reverse the scenario. Libby decides to protect Dad from Mom’s attacks and criticism. Believing she can’t have it both ways, Libby decides to protect Dad. You see, it is incongruent for children to be able to love 2 people who show contempt and hatred for each other, so they pick sides. For Libby to stand by Dad, she has to distance herself from Mom. As this goes on, finding fault in Mom extends to women in general. Libby’s experience in this scenario is that she can trust men, so she will probably be able to sustain intimate relationships with men and even marry, but she will have no female friends. Without some kind of intervention, like therapy, she’ll be unable to have long-lasting relationships with other women. Although happy in her heterosexual marriage, she is missing female connections and companionship and will feel isolated, unhappy, unfulfilled and not ever knowing why.
After assisting over 10,000 clients through their divorce, I can’t think of 1 client who wished this legacy of distrust and loneliness on their children. The problem is, unless someone tells them, parents don’t know this is the impact of their fighting on their children. That is why I am speaking out on this subject.
Have researchers always known about this long-term effect of conflict and divorce on children?
No. We used to think all parents had to do was come up with the “right” parenting plan and then the kids would be okay. In researching what the “perfect” parenting plan was, they stumbled upon this long-term effect of conflict coined the “Sleeper Effect”.
Can you explain more about the Sleeper Effect?
Yes. Initial studies of the impact of divorce on children focused on how the kids initially reacted to their parent’s divorce. On average, most children seem to adjust fairly well to their parent’s divorce after about 2 years. Later studies, however, suggested that the insecurities, fear, and distrust experienced during their parents’ conflict and divorce resurfaced in early adulthood when these same children began entering into their own intimate relationships. This is what is referred to as the “Sleeper Effect”. To explain further, the long-term impact of parental conflict lays dormant, undetectable until these children reach young adulthood; then the devastating impact of their parents’ divorce “wakes up” and they experience it all over again at an even deeper level.
What is the impact of the “Sleeper Effect” on these young adults?
They re-live the fear and anxiety of their parents’ conflict and divorce to the point that they are afraid to commit to a long-term or intimate relationship. If they do marry, the research shows they typically have a greater dissatisfaction in their marriage and a higher rate of divorce than young adults from non-divorced families. A great movie, Adult Children of Divorce (“A.C.O.D.”), which came out in 2013, illustrates the “Sleeper Effect”. Its premise was that young adults of contentious divorces look like they are doing well on the outside, but inside they struggle with the ability to form long term, trusting relationships. If you want to understand and see the “Sleeper Effect” in action, this movie would be a great watch. One of my favorite quotes from this movie comes from the adult child who is trying to tell his parents to quit fighting years after they divorce. He tells his parents “You’ve turned a 9 year marriage into a 100 year war. You need to stop fighting…NOW!”
Can parents help protect their children from such a negative impact of their divorce?
Absolutely. Divorcing parents need to find a way to resolve conflict without involving and exposing their children to it. The decision to divorce comes with a lot of responsibility if a couple has children. If parents are in conflict, their children are in danger…and only the parents can save their children from the negative impact of their divorce.
Are there any resources to help divorcing parents resolve conflict without involving their children?
Yes. I’m so glad you asked that question. One source is a free online website I strongly suggest to my clients. The URL is www.UptoParents.org. This website helps parents find any common ground in their long term goals for their children so they can decide how to co-parent in a cooperative way with the least amount of conflict possible. It also offers an extraordinary amount of education about what children need from their parents during divorce. And again, it all free!
Another great source is local parenting organizations like “Kids In The Middle” or other non-profit organizations designed to help children of divorce. They usually offer education and group and individual counseling for children and their parents.
Finally, there is always private counseling, such as co-parent counseling, couple’s counseling, or individual counseling, all of which provide an outlet for parental conflict as well as possible solutions for disagreements which are difficult for couples to see while in the middle of their own pain and grief about divorce.
Dan Couvrette: Marta thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. You can learn more about Marta Papa and her firm at her website – www.consideringdivorce.com.