Every year in the United States, 3.2 Americans per every 1,000 seek a divorce. For marriages that involve one or more children, a volatile or hostile divorce can be disruptive to cognitive and emotional development and have far-reaching impacts on the child's ability to have meaningful relationships in the future.
Intuitively, most parents have a strong desire to protect their children against the emotional fallout that can occur during a bad divorce. Despite best attempts, many divorces become malignant, or high-conflict, with children pushed into the center of a stressful and life-disrupting experience.
What are the consequences associated with a high conflict divorce, and what do kids learn about relationships if their parents have a bad divorce?
1. Relationships Can (and Do) End
Children have blind faith and trust in their parents and enjoy the security of a happy home. It never occurs to a child that their parents can part ways or divorce unless the topic has been broached in front of them. They may not fundamentally understand why or how their family life could be dismantled because of the decline of a relationship.
This lesson to children is a traumatic one, and despite assumptions that it is easier on young children, rather than older teens, it is a potentially damaging transition at any age. Depending on the volatility of the divorce, children can lose their sense of trust and the positive, core values of having and sustaining a relationship as an adult. Some studies have revealed that children who transition through difficulty and discord in a divorce may experience significant problems building their own romantic relationships as an adult.
2. Lashing Out is Natural When You Are Hurting
It is important for children to understand that adults do not always get along, much the way they will not always agree with their own friends. Teaching children to be tolerant and respectful of others, even when they disagree, is a fundamental pillar of the soft skills they will need as an adult.
In a hostile divorce situation, children are acutely aware that feelings are hurt. Instead of coping with negative feelings, parents who argue freely in front of children are inadvertently providing a model of behavior that kids will emulate. Behavioral issues for children of divorced parents are common as an expression of their own emotional pain but based largely on the examples set forth by parents.
3. Verbal Abuse is Acceptable
Even the most docile couples are capable of resorting to verbally abusive language when speaking or arguing with each other during a divorce. One of the most harmful things that a parent can do to a child in the transition is to speak poorly of the other parent. This places the children in a tenuous emotional conflict, where they are motivated to comfort a grieving parent and maintain their relationship with the other parent equally.
Adults can be at their absolute worst during the painful experience of a divorce. In that time, children may learn that frustration, sadness, depression, and fear can be expressed through hate language about the partner. They can adopt a dialogue and behavior that makes verbal abuse a tool they use to express themselves, in similar stressful situations, which impairs the ability to remain calm and seek kinder resolutions to interpersonal conflicts.
4. Money is More Important
Even the most amicable divorce can start to go downhill quickly, in terms of discord, when financial matters start to become negotiated between parents. Between determining the division of assets, child or spousal support, and responsibility for debt and property, both parents can quickly become combative, with one parent typically using the other as a 'lightening rod' for financial problems.
It would be best, in terms of adjustment and transition, if most parents could put the family's emotional needs first, before infighting over money. That is usually not the case in volatile divorce scenarios, per Noah J. Kilroy, Esq. Whom we spoke to about the subject. Children learn through observation at a sensitive time that money may be more important than treating other people with respect.
5. School and Social Life Doesn't Matter
One of the earliest signs of emotional distress for children of divorcing families is a significant drop in the interest to socialize, play, or perform well in school. Since the focus is primarily on the parents and their discord, children can quickly feel isolated and neglected. In some cases, the neglect is more pronounced and child care, guidance, and supervision of the child can be compromised, making kids feel they are last in terms of priority.
Why does this happen? There are a number of underlying behavioral habits that are specifically geared at getting attention when children feel neglected in a divorce. Lowered grades are a fast way for children to signal they are under duress, and may even be a cry for assistance from the teacher (another trusted figure in their lives). Showing little to no interest in spending time with friends and family is another message directed at parents to signify depression, sadness, or fear.
Online resources for families can help them, help their child navigate through the difficult process of divorce. I recommend the "Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP)" as a valuable source of guidance. There are a number of reading materials that can also help guide a family through the transition while protecting children from the negative emotional and behavioral consequences of divorce.