The impressionable child: Divorce battles and their influence on children
By Carla Iacovetti 01/21/2010
Bobby was an adorable little boy in fourth grade who left his page blank when his class was given an assignment to write something about being grateful just before Thanksgiving. When Bobby was asked why he did not complete the assignment, his answer was gut wrenching. Tearfully, the boy shared that his father had left the family with four kids, one of whom was handicapped, and the family would not be able to have Thanksgiving or Christmas because they had no money.
Divorce in any circumstance is never easy, and often parents worry about the effects of divorce on their children. This includes sometimes staying together when perhaps it is not optimum. However, in today’s divorce-ridden culture, this important process of child development is sometimes compromised by the divorce itself or by tough custody battles — battles that can send quite another message to a child’s moldable mind.
Ventura County licensed marriage and family therapist Sandra Moe advises that it is important for parents to have a clear understanding of what the psychological effects of divorce may be before they begin the process, but too often children are hit with a myriad of insecurities that are the result of abrupt change.
One girl in sixth grade began complaining in class. She said she was “bored,” and she had a lot of trouble paying attention. When confronted about her performance, she said, “I’m so sick of my parents fighting,” and then burst into tears.
Donna, a sixth grade teacher in Ventura County, shared her experiences of working with children. “During the span of my teaching career I have taught grades one through six, and every year I have witnessed a child in the middle of some kind of custody battle, and noticed drastic differences in their behavior as a result. The inability to focus, daydreaming, and a child wetting his or her pants in the middle of class are only some of the behavior issues that I have observed.”
Donna says, “You want examples? Where do I begin? The list is endless. Once, when I taught first grade, I had a very happy-go-lucky little girl randomly begin to wet her pants in class; and every time she did this, the school would contact her mother. Eventually, her mother shared that she and her husband had recently split up, and the little girl was experiencing horrible fear and separation anxiety. She did not want to be away from her mother.”
Another co-worker told Donna that one of the little girls in her fifth grade classroom asked her if she would be her Mommy, after relaying that her mother had just left her.
Moe maintains that the weight of responsibility rests on the parents. The effect of divorce on children has to do with the adults around them. Adults can either make it horrible, or make the transition less painful and less psychologically traumatizing.
According to Moe, “There is always a sense of unavoidable loss that a child experiences with divorce, and things once considered normal are suddenly altered. Things like parent bonding, family meals, outings, holidays, financial stress (incomes are often compromised) and loyalty issues invariably play a part in uprooting a child’s sense of well-being.”
These are normal losses, but the list dramatically broadens with a wide range of emotional distress when there is a battle between the parents, and the children are dragged into the middle of parental conflict, undermining their sense of security.
Christina Shaffer, a family law attorney in Thousand Oaks admits that custody battles occur more often than not. Shaffer says, “Frequently I’ve observed parties vie for control as one or both parties treat their child like a piece of property, using the child as a middleman for communication, which can be psychologically damaging.”
Shaffer also admitted to observing some adverse effects on children when parents continue to live together before and after filing for divorce, and when mediations take place while they are still under the same roof. She recommends that parties separate before any legal action occurs, or before child mediation is set up. One of the first questions Shaffer asks when meeting with two people seeking a divorce is, “Are you still living together?”
While separating first is Shaffer’s counsel, she admits that if there is a lot of arguing present in front of a child, then she will recommend filing for an order to show cause (OSC), which will move the divorce immediately into court.
According to Shaffer, many times a parent will not move out until there is a court order, and in the instance where there is verbal abuse, fighting, badgering, etc., it is better for a child not to be around those kinds of hostilities.
The stress on the children affected by divorce is further exacerbated by juggling two residences, going back and forth between parents, having two sets of rules, and according to Moe, this “creates a sense of confusion and emotional instability.” She adds, “Some of this could be minimized by the parents attending co-parenting classes, seeking out family therapy, and looking for positive things in their living situation.”
Every situation is different, but when children are involved, Shaffer says that she almost always suggests marriage and family counseling, joining a church group, and having good friends to talk to during the complicated process.
This process includes child mediation. Mediation can consist of many things, but in Ventura County, a court-appointed mediator is called upon when a child is 6 years of age or older, with the hope of focusing on what is best for the child.
In a perfect scenario, the mediation process helps to establish a plan where both parents can actively remain involved in their child’s life. However, the perfect scenario is not common, and suing for custody can oftentimes open up a big bag of dirty worms, leaving the child with an emotional aftermath.
Shaffer says, “Sometimes mediation can last only a few weeks, and the average cases last between eight months to two years, but usually when it lasts that long we are dealing with a parent living away (out of state), or we are dealing with very acrimonious cases.”
It is the acrimonious cases that are troublesome. When a child is brought into the middle of parental conflict, there is so much insecurity, and a child should not ever be brought into the middle of a parental war zone. Once a child is compromised like this, Moe confides, “It can spiral a child into depression, and trigger so many negative responses and stressful reactions.”
Triangulating is a term known to marriage and family therapists. Moe says, “Triangulating occurs when a child is brought into the parents’ battle by one parent talking badly about the other parent, and/or confiding in (the child) about the other parent. Instead of this being solely between the parents, the child is brought in as a third party and expected to take on an adult role to appease both parents, or be exposed to negative things about the other parent that they love. This is way too much for a child to be brought into the anger and depression of the other parent.”
Not only do children experience emotional trauma and embarrassment at school in front of their peers and teachers, but quite often schools are brought into custody issues. For example: What happens when a mother has sole custody of her child and suddenly the father shows up at school to pick up the child? Legally, the school cannot release the child, so the school has to go to all sorts of lengths to protect a child who is caught in a situation like this. Donna admitted, “Oftentimes we have to hide a child in a special room just to make sure he or she is safe.” In addition, “When the parents are fighting, teachers are often asked to give duplicate report cards, assignment sheets, etc., which creates more work for us teachers. Some of these so-called adult parents act more childish than their own kids!
Unfortunately, there is a potpourri of adverse issues that can be considered the norm in a classroom today.”
But is this normal? Should these children be the subjects of so much emotional and sociological distress? Are children equipped to handle the uncertainties that accompany a divorce, much less deal with emotional pain they experience when they are brought into the middle of a battle between their parents? What happens to their behavior, their ability to function, focus, relate to peers and experience normal growth?
Moe says, “Their growth and self-esteem gets hit. The linear of life in growing up is assaulted with complex issues that no longer fits into a progression that is normal.” Is it any wonder a child’s ability to focus goes out the window?
Edward Teyber, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist who is the director of the Community Counseling Center at California State University, San Bernardino, and a professor of psychology. Teyber has written numerous books and articles on the effects of marital family relations on child adjustments, which includes his popular book Helping Children Cope With Divorce. Teyber says, “Whenever I am talking with children of embattled parents, I ask them, ‘If I had a magic wand and could grant you any three wishes you wanted, what would you most like to have?’ Without exception, their first wish is always, ‘I wish my parents would stop fighting.’ Many children go on to ask the same things with their second and third wishes as well. In other words, children cannot imagine wanting anything other than to have their parents stop fighting. Children are frightened when their parents fight and, poignantly, often secretly pray that they will stop.”
According to Moe, “Baby boomers have the highest divorce rate ever of any American group, and this has had a tremendous effect on their now-grown children. Some of the long-term effects can be seen in this generation’s inability to define love, understand what commitment is, and have fear issues with relationships.”
In the article There’s no ‘good’ divorce, written by journalist Elizabeth Marquardt and posted on Boston.com, Marquardt reveals that, “Any kind of divorce, whether amicable or not, sows lasting inner conflict in children’s lives.” This opinion is based on a first-ever national telephone survey in which 1,500 young adults were interviewed, more than half coming from divorced families and the other half from unbroken families, as well as over 70 in-person interviews carried out across the nation.
The reasons that people seek divorces are as numerous as constellations, but financial stress has been known to be one prominent cause of marital anxiety. With the current economic recession, one cannot help but wonder how this will affect some marriages. New reports show that couples are staying together not because of the kids, but because of finances.
W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia, says, “Today, spouses are rediscovering the value of a husband with a good health-care plan, a wife with a good job or in-laws who are willing to provide free child care or a temporary rent-free place to live. In other words, Americans are rediscovering the power that family ties have to carry them — financially, socially and emotionally — through tough times.”
Last month the Institute for American Values and the NMP released a report showing a possible downward spiral of marital allegations, tension and disagreement as couples struggle to meet household budgets, face the loss of jobs, or find themselves forced out of their homes. This has been much more noticeable with the current recession.
The report shows that for some, the current recession seems to be “solidifying and not eroding the marital bond. The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3 percent drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7 percent increase).
The statistics from a recent survey conducted by Citibank on divorce in the United States suggested that more than 50 percent of divorced couples cited money problems as the cause of their divorce.
Anyway you look at it, divorce is uprooting and difficult. Financial tension is only one element that can affect a relationship, and while it is vital, there is nothing more important than protecting the psyche of a child. This is why Moe recommends that a couple “take the necessary steps to help eliminate tension from the home and consider the well-being of a child first.”
It is clear that a child’s emotional and psychological well-being should be guarded at all times, especially during something so devastating as a divorce. Shaffer says, “The thought that any adult would use a child as a means to control, to hurt their partner is alarming, and the selfish and abusive implications surrounding this kind of control are nothing short of haunting.”
Donna relays, “I can always tell the kids who have a strong support system, whether it is with grandparents, church involvement or family counseling. Divorce is not pleasant, but if both parents are positive, and they work together, taking all of the necessary steps to assist their children during this very difficult time, the children will survive.”
We do not have to look too far to realize that divorce is a widespread occurrence in today’s society. What was once taboo and considered unthinkable is now considered acceptable, and with the rise of emotional and behavioral issues seen in so many children, it is certain that society needs to develop a better way to deal with a growing social issue.
Children are the innocent victims of divorce, and there should be every attempt to minimize or eradicate the trauma they suffer as a result of family breakups. Their innocence should be protected even in the midst of harsh realities.