Why High-Conflict Divorce Damages Children

Children can become trapped in their parents’ bitter divorce battle, feeling manipulated and torn between the two people they love the most.

high-conflict divorce damages children

“Children would rather be from a broken home than live in one.”
– Dr. Phil

According to statistics, two-thirds of children who reach the age of 18 can expect to live in a divorced home. Divorce causes children to lose something that is crucial to their development, “the family framework”. The family comprises the foundation that is supposed to support their psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual journey through childhood into adulthood.

When a family has broken apart, the children’s support structure temporarily collapses. Thus, children feel alone and terrified about their future. Their sense of sadness and loss is profound and overwhelming. They are afraid of losing their family forever.

High-Conflict Divorce Damages Children

As a result, they get furious at their parents for turning their life upside down. In many cases, they unknowingly harbor their anger and angst for years. Divorce, if not handled well, can cause children long-standing pain. It all depends on how they interpret what is happening. These painful interpretations are quickly forgotten by the conscious mind. However, they settle into a child’s unconscious mind which they will act out later in ways they will be unable to make sense of.

Harm to Children Due to Emotional Chaos

Unfortunately, in many divorces, parents tend to become overwhelmed with all the new problems the divorce has created. They feel troubled, confused, exhausted, and can become emotionally volatile. As a result, they are blind to their children’s obvious pain and suffering. Children need their parents’ support to help them understand what’s happening in the family and to face the outside world.

But 80% of the time, children are not even given a reasonable explanation for their parent’s divorce and their needs often go unmet and ignored or they are given too much information that they are not able to handle emotionally.

In many cases, bitter legal battles ensue for years while parents seem unable to see the painful consequences impacting their children. Even in post-divorce, many parents have never resolved the emotional issues they have with their ex-spouse and keep acting them out even with new partners. Many children become trapped in their parents’ emotional struggle, feeling manipulated and torn between the two people they love the most.

When all is said and done, they often lose one of their parents or even both of them. As a result, these children develop emotional problems that change who they were meant to be. They develop poor self-esteem. They often make the divorce mean something bad about them and carry these negative interpretations into every area of their life and act them out especially in intimate relationships.

The Positive Impact of Amicable Divorce on Children

It is possible to get divorced in a way that does not irreparably damage your children. In fact, if you divorce in a positive way, your children could fare far better than children from intact families. Divorce removes the source of the conflict which can enable children to become better adjusted. Children do not do well with ongoing conflict in their lives. It draws them into the conflict and away from themselves preventing completion of the developmental skills they need to master for lifetime success. Therefore, how you handle your divorce and parenting is paramount to their future success.

Children of divorce are vulnerable and have unique challenges. They need to talk about and come to understand their feelings about their parent’s divorce. They need to understand that they are not alone in their feelings and experiences. They need to develop new coping tools and strategies to deal with the changes in their lives. Also, they need to develop a realistic view of divorce, so they can move towards acceptance and forgiveness of themselves and their families. They also need positive resources such as books to read, a divorce group for children, or outside counseling if needed.

Children need to know that they will get through this difficult time. They need to feel special and that they are loved and cared about and that you will help them through this. They need to know that the divorce is not their fault and that mom and dad are divorcing each other and not them. They need to know that they can’t fix things or make it right for their parents and that it is up to their parents to make it turn out right. They must not be made to feel responsible for things beyond their control.

Stages of Grief in Children

It is also important to identify what stage of grief your children are in, so you can help them through it. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Children will have different responses based on their age and the requisite developmental tasks they need to accomplish.

If your divorce is one of high conflict before, during, and after, your children will pay a high price emotionally which could negatively affect their emotional well-being for the rest of their life. This is an awesome responsibility for parents, but it can be dealt with by getting the right help and information on how to handle your children during this life-cycle crisis.

Also, when you criticize or hurt one another, you are also hurting your children. Whether you realize it or not, you are chipping away at their emotional well-being and self-esteem piece by piece. To hear something bad about either one of you makes them feel that they are hearing something bad about themselves. Most parents are not aware of just how damaging it is to talk negatively about their spouse. Don’t do it! You must set what your intention will be when dealing with your children and not be emotionally reactive. Many well-intentioned parents are not aware of how their actions are impacting their children.

Losing Your Child

After all, your children are a part of both of you. So, do not turn each other into enemies or use your children as spies or weapons. Your children will resent you for it. Due to many parent’s unreasonable and crazy-making behavior during the divorce process, some parents lose their children’s affection that could last for years or even a lifetime. Many become estranged and lose contact altogether. You do not want that to happen to you.

The good news is that, if handled well, divorce can actually bring your children closer to you in a way they never were before. That choice is up to you. The best choices to make are the ones that move you towards what you want and away from what you do not want. Remember, every choice you make matters and has a cumulative effect.

Finally, divorce is an extremely difficult process for adults as well as children. However, children do not have the coping skills that an adult has or the capacity or resources to find solutions to their problems. Children need to be able to make sense of what is happening in their lives. You must help them do this. It is crucial for you to get the right information, so you can make informed decisions and problem solve quickly and efficiently.

Once you have the right blueprint to follow, you can help your children to successfully navigate the divorce process in a way that maximizes their emotional growth by understanding the developmental tasks they must master and skills they must learn. It is essential to be aware of their needs and feelings and do something each day that facilitates their adjustment and puts a smile on their face. In order for a child to feel happy and become emotionally stable, they need to feel loved unconditionally by at least one person in their life. Make sure that person is you.

Lynne Ruth Glazer, MSW, is a Marital and Divorce Coach and Certified Family Mediator in Florida. Her expertise is in saving marriages or helping people to divorce amicably.  www.bestchoicedivorce.com

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