When the relationship between partners inteferes with the relationship between parents

A divorce is usually preceeded by unsatisfactory partners’ relationship. It is not unusual that ex partners continue with their poor communication and have difficulties in separating their partner’s from their parental role.

Feeling that their ex partner is an inadequate partner for them, they have difficulties in accepting that s/he may be an adequate parent. They hardly maintain a friendly relationship and cooperate as parents of their children. Instead of encouraging their children to develop their relationship with the other parent, they transfer their negative emotions towards their ex partner onto their children. If such behaviour is intense, or if it persists without any improvement, there is a high risk of involving children into their parents relationship and of exposure to age inappropriate contents. In such situations parents often compete ‘who is the better parent’. Trying to present themselves as best they can, parents often highlight other parent’s shortcomings and encourage and/or support the child discarding the other parent. This behaviour confuses their children and undermines their relationship with both parents. Children waste their energy in pleasing each parent in turn, which impedes their emotional development. Parents in divorce often put their children in the middle of their conflict by giving them the task of conveying their messages, asking them to keep secrets or to spy on other parent’s home. Children are thus in a conflict of loyalty towards their parents and are uncertain about one parent’s assessment of the other. If one parent denigrates the other in front of the child, the child feels half-denigrated. It all affects the child’s self-confidence, wellfare and emotional development.

Children and parental conflict

Parental divorce is one of the most intense stressful situations for the child. In the majority of cases, aften the initial agitation, fear, anger, guilt and hope, the child eventually gets adjusted to the new situation and new life, especially if s/he also has a good relationship with the non-custodial parent and if the divorce has facilitated a more peaceful child development. Children whose parents divorced without hostilities and brawling generally cope with their parents’ divorce more easily. However, in cases of high conflict, children will not thrive. Possible negative effects of parental conflict during the divorce: the child’s pronounced aggression , impulsivity, distress, self-accusations, a need for situation control, low self-esteem, poor social skills, psychosomatic disorders, regressive behaviour, behaviour difficulties, emotional difficulties – emotional insecurity, disturbances in emotion regulation… Long-term consequences of a high conflict divorce are most expressed in children who were pre-schoolers at the time of divorce. It is most difficult for the children of this age to cope with extended parental conflict. It interferes with emotional organisation experience in early childhood and is related to the development of insecure or disorganised attachment, which may affect all later relationships, lead to increased sensitivity to stress, disturbances in emotion regulation, lower optimism and development of ineffective mechanisms or coping strategies.

It is important that parents observe their children’s reactions during the divorce, and that they, if necessary, ask professional advice for their children and themselves; that they do not blame the other parent in front of their children; that they tell the child they know and approve of the child’s love for the other parent and that they encourage contacts with the non-resident parent. Children need parental permission to love both parents. They need to know that the divorce is an adult issue, that they are not guilty  or responsible for that. They need stability and predictability and they need to see their parents communicating without brawl and conflict. They need parents who co-operate in their upbringing, regardless of what they feel towards each other. It is important to avoid putting the child in the middle of divorce.

How to tell children that parents are in divorce

Divorce is stresfull for everybody in the family, especially for children. When parents decide to tell children that they are going to divorce, it is important to tell them the truth in an age-appropriate way. Both parents should be present, calm and self-confident, so that children know that in crisis they can rely on their parents. If parents have more children, they should talk to all of them at the same time. They have to be honest and give appropriate information. They can tell their children that they have worked hard to improve their relationship, that they cannot stay together, that they will live separated lives, but together they will take care of their children and provide everything their children need. It is important to present everything as mutual decisions, to abstain from blaming each other (e.g. if one parent does not want to divorce, it is not something that should be shared with children). Children very often think that they have done something wrong which is the cause of parental divorce. They may be told that almost always children blame themselves for their parents’ diorce, but that by no means children can be guilty. It is important to repeat this often, several times throught a longer period of time.
Children are often worried that parents will stop loving them because they have stopped loving each other. Parents should emphasise that, although adults sometimes stop loving each other and get divorced, they never stop loving their children. It is also important to talk about their future life and to offer them an opportunity to ask all the questions they want to ask.

It is of utmost importance not to ask children with whom they want to live, because it pressures them to choose between parents they equally love and need. Such a decision is too difficult for a child.

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