I know a man who was deeply affected by his parents’ divorce. He is now in his forties but the fact that his father practically abandoned him when he was ten years old has left him emotionally scarred. It must be said that most parents and children get back to normal after a period of two years and children are able to adapt. Very often, however, mistakes are made when children get entangled in the parental conflict.
Children of divorced parents often get caught up in the battle and they really have a lot to put up with. They end up feeling resentment, frustration and anger, but all of this can be avoided.
Here are 10 common mistakes which can leave children profoundly affected.
1. They use their child as a therapist, putting him or her in the middle of the battle.
Parents should never use children as a sounding board to vent their feelings. Telling children all the faults, insults and horrible behavior of their spouse is very harmful to the child’s development. The children were not directly involved, but now they are!
All of this hurts children deeply — after all it is 50% of them. They are trying to come to terms with losing a parent and have already started grieving. Using the child as a therapist is simply crossing the line.
2. They make no effort to hide the conflict, exposing children to the worst of the worst.
Why should children have to witness the awful scenes where spouses insult, threaten, belittle, and even resort to physical violence? As a result, children suffer from a lack of security. Later on, they may have anxiety disorders, sleep issues, and even problems forming stable relationships themselves. (Watch the TED talk here on the impact of divorce on children.)
3. They do not provide a secure environment, and children feel abandoned.
Children may feel frightened and worried about their future. They want, above all, a sense of continuity and predictability which is strengthened by a regular routine. But often, because of the upheaval, children feel threatened. Many parents fail to co-parent and they do not provide the stability which can guarantee at least a semblance of a predictable routine in school, friends, sports and above all, homework.
Divorce often means that children lose support in these areas and it is upsetting.
4. They forget to reassure their children that it is not their fault, causing them to feel guilty.
Many parents fail to reassure their kids that it is not their fault at all that the marriage is breaking up. Kids need to be told this many times because they tend to blame themselves. Even though they will now be living separately, the children also need to be reassured that their parents will always have their back — even though they may not be under the same roof.
“Divorce isn’t such a tragedy. A tragedy’s staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce.” – Jennifer Weiner, Fly Away Home
5. They start to interrogate the children and the children become torn.
When the children get back from their weekend with the other parent, they should never be interrogated. If they are, it can leave them emotionally damaged as they feel that they are in the boxing ring, acting as a sort of referee. The other extreme is almost worse –when the parent never asks even one question and they force the children to store away their experiences and never mention that weekend again.
Intelligent divorcees ask fun questions and never make any further comment.
6. They want their children to be messengers and they begin to take sides.
Sometimes parents may use their children to convey messages because communication has broken down. This is totally wrong because it leads to alienation of the other parent over time. Spouses should use email because this will also be a useful record in case of failure to carry out joint custody.
Asking children to spy on the domestic arrangements in the other house is equally damaging. This kind of behavior burdens the child and they cannot enjoy time with the other parent, time which should be as carefree and as happy as possible.
7. They want to punish their ex and the children suffer most.
Just think of important occasions such as a graduation ceremony or a special celebration. Many divorcees are out to gain revenge and prevent or forget to invite their ex-spouse as a sort of punishment or a way to get their own back. Sometimes, they move so far away that it severely limits visitation.
In both these cases of sweet revenge, the child is the one who gets the worst deal of all.
8. They turn the child into a “replacement spouse”, further burdening him or her.
Making the eldest son the “man of the house” and increasing his responsibilities because of his absent father weighs heavily on a boy. A girl may be expected to be the “woman of the house”, with extra work to do. Again, this can be extremely time consuming and they later feel cheated of their childhood.
9. They spoil their children and the children pay the price later on.
Some divorcees want to lavish a lot of attention on the kids who remain at home with them. It is a way of making it up to them and also a way of diverting their own grief and pain as parents. When the children have to spend time with the parent who has moved out, it may be tempting to splurge out and spoil them with new toys and gadgets or extravagant trips.
This is a mistake because parents are forgetting their real duties and kids will later miss the real affection they wanted and needed so desperately. It should be parenting as usual, as far as possible, and both parties need to agree on boundaries and limits so that there is no one-upmanship on providing treats.
10. They discuss child support issues openly and children feel they are part of a contract.
Another mistake which divorced parents fall into is to discuss financial arrangements, parenting time and custody issues in front of their children. This may happen as they ferry their kids to the other parent and they may chat on their mobiles while their children are in the car. The children feel that they are just part of a business deal and they never really get over this. They feel that they are a burden on one or both parents. All these conversations have to take place out of earshot.
The problem is that many parents are so consumed by anger and grief that they forget that their children’s welfare, security, and limiting the damage should always come first.
“Divorce is a fire exit. When a house is burning, it doesn’t matter who set the fire. If there is no fire exit, everyone in the house will be burned!” — Mehmet Murat ildan
Featured photo credit: Kids and Winter, Hugs Are Good!/ Tony Fischer via flickr.com