How Children Cope with High Conflict Divorce: How Are They Harmed and What Can Parents Do to Help Them

A high conflict divorce is where marriage ends and war begins. Children are frequently unwittingly used as pawns in this high stakes, emotionally bloody demolition. Kids find different ways to cope in a system that includes children and two parents who absolutely despise each other. This is a hatred that doesn’t ease up over the passing of time; no these bitter feelings tend to increase and escalate as the years go by.

I talked about the adults in these situations in a previous article titled “High Conflict Divorce: Understanding the Parent’s Emotional Wounds“. This article will focus on how children cope with this phenomenon. Children who live in these settings use some or all the coping mechanisms I describe below.

Children are faced with a barrage of words, events and thoughts that they are not prepared to deal with in any healthy way. They want to please each parent, but find it impossible to do so for any extended period of time, so they settle for short-term expediency. In other words, they learn to tell the adults what they think the parents want to hear. Those statements may differ entirely from what the child believes, but in order to avoid extended conflict, the child goes out of her way to avoid it.

Children are trained erroneously through this process that all conflict is a must to avoid. They don’t learn that some conflict is a normal facet of life that we must all learn to deal with. The danger in this mindset is that the kids come to believe that the only good relationship is one that is conflict free-which is impossible unless you learn to ignore or avoid the conflicts when they arise.

The children in telling parents what they think the adults want to hear develop the ability to lie quickly and convincingly. They have learned that fabricating what is going on in the other parents house or purposely not telling dad he saw an R rated movie with mom because he knows it will get mom into trouble are a couple examples of this tactic.

They learn to strategize as a way to get their needs met. For instance a child is aware that his mother does not want him to take any martial arts classes because she fears they will cause him to be violent. The child knows that the mom is worried that dad will try to enroll him in violent activities. The child then convinces dad to enroll him in a class that teaches how to be safe without using violence. The child then goes back to mom telling her of this development and then saying “dad is not so bad after all, is he mom?” Around this same time he will ask his dad to enroll him in a martial arts class because the child feels the coast is clear because mom will be less vigilant of dad because of his signing him up for the non violent class.

Parents who are in the middle of a high conflict divorce are poor communicators at best. When they do talk, their discussion tends to be nasty and filled with disdain. Often times they don’t communicate at all. This lack of connection between the parents teaches the children that adults cannot successfully talk to each other and make plans for the kids. Therefore the children feel that they have to take this planning for their activities into their own hands. For example, the girl who wants to be in the community play will inform both his parents that they need to attend a special meeting in order for her to try out for the play.

In normal situations, the parents make all these preparations for the kids, but in high conflict situations, some kids somehow find a way to get their extra-curricular needs met.

These children also tend to have impaired relationships with peers. The poor role modeling demonstrated by their parents leads these kids to have no idea what it means to have real friendships. Their expectations of friends can become quite distorted. These children tend to have no sense that true relationships are based on kindness, cooperation, sharing and compromising. While longing for the safety and love of a close connection, they don’t really believe they are loveable and lack the skills of how to obtain and maintain friendships.

You will see some of these children at recess time playing all alone or staring endlessly at a computer screen because they lack the outreach skills and confidence that their peers will like them. Others are so desperate to feel accepted that they will say or do anything to be part of the popular group. Other children may become possessive of their friends and feel jealous and threatened if their friend pays attention to other kids.

Some children from high conflict divorces want to bring attention to how horrible they feel, but like most kids lack the skills and the ability to truly stand up for themselves. So they may bring attention to their situation by getting poor grades, using drugs, becoming defiant, withdrawing from the world, acting out in class and stop doing activities that normally bring them pleasure.

Then there are the kids that strive for perfection in an effort to be loved and approved by their parents. These children also believe if they are perfect, they can somehow be above the fray of the warring adults. They tend to be very hard on themselves and are rarely compassionate towards themselves or others.

The skills of organizing, strategizing and overall planning are superb attributes for kids to have, but in this situation these skills are being used to manipulate adults like chess pieces on a board. They then learn to use these skills in other inappropriate ways with other adults and peers.

These kids often present as being mature, but in truth they are emotionally and often socially immature. They are frequently more emotionally needy then they come across and they are behind their peers developmentally. They have spent a large portion of the lives learning how to please others without really learning how to master fulfilling themselves. This mask leads adults to misread the kid’s sense of self worth; thinking they are doing fine when in actuality, they are hurting inside.

Some children align themselves with one parent and this leads to being in opposition to the other parent. These children get subtle and overt rewards from the parent they are aligning with. The parents may directly feed them information about their evil perception of the other parent or their feelings about their ex may be experienced by their severe body language or facial expressions whenever the other parent’s name comes up. These kids feel that they must take a stand for the parent they are close with and let the out of the loop parent know that they don’t like her. This occurs because the child is fearful of losing the aligned parents support if he shows any connection with the other parent. It is difficult in these cases to really know how the child actually feels about anything.

What Parents can do to help Children from High Conflict Divorce Families

  • Instead of doing the usual blaming the other parent for what is going wrong with the kids, ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE DIFFICULTIES YOUR CHILD IS EXPERIENCING.
  • Are you giving your child the message that you are all good and the other parent is all bad? Are you giving your child the message that if she doesn’t favor you over your ex, that he is in trouble with you? Do you chastise your child when she is merely following the other parent’s instructions? Do you understand that children are naturally hard wired to try to get what they want and if they can manipulate two warring parents into getting their wishes fulfilled, they will do so? This is not a character flaw on their part. This is happening due to your lack of communication with the other parent. IF YOU ARE DOING ANY OF THESE, PLEASE STOP AT ONCE.
  • When you meet with your ex, instead of trying to spend your energy trying to win all arguments with her; agree to meet in a spirit of cooperation and admit your shortcomings. Be honest what it will take to co-parent peacefully with your ex and try to keep your ego aside and think about what is best for your kids.
  • Stop litigating! Adults who are in litigation cannot possibly co-parent. There is a complete lack of trust and trust is essential in successful co-parenting.
  • Stop fighting about when children can communicate with the other parent. Let this be as open as possible because it will lower the anxiety level of your child.
  • Does your child tell you that you don’t listen to him? Please take his words to heart because if you don’t, his feelings about this will become buried deep inside him only to eventually emerge in a tirade at you or himself. He will feel that you have ignored his feelings and are not concerned about his view point on important issues. If you don’t heed his words, your relationship with him may be impaired for a long period of time.
  • Punishing your child because she doesn’t want to engage or shows other signs that she doesn’t like you will not cause her to embrace this parent/child relationship. Instead, try to talk with her calmly, stating that you feel that your relationship with her is not good and you want to repair it. Ask her to describe her feelings for you and tell her that you will not be angry at her honesty.
  • If you can afford to do so, co-parenting counseling as well as individual therapy for your children may be helpful.

Children who live with the hostile divorce model have symptoms similar to children who are abused and neglected. Some professionals would say these kids are being abused and neglected. It is my feeling that this phenomena is not getting the attention it deserves. Furthermore it is tragic that only those who can afford an army of therapists can get the help they need and deserve. Let’s hope and work for change here.

By Bob Livingstone, LCSW


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