by Michelle Mitcham
Divorce is real. All too often, the negative effects go beyond the husband and wife. Do you know any children “caught in the middle” of a bitter divorce or separation? Maybe you know someone that is going through an intense, hostile, angry divorce that has children and you worry about how the divorce is affecting them.
When we take a closer look, divorce and separation are becoming a normative event in American society and elsewhere. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. The probability of the demise of a first marriage within five years is 20 percent, increasing to nearly 33 percent after 10 years (The National Center for Health Statistics, 2005). Additionally, the length of a first marriage is short lived, averaging approximately eight years (U.S. Census). What about the children? How does this affect them?
Children caught in the middle
The breakdown of a marriage, and ultimately the process of separation and divorce, has damaging effects on the parents as well as the children involved. Often, individuals who were once committed to stable, loving relationships find themselves in the middle of divorce engaging in highly-conflicted behaviors of fighting, hostility and blame. The impact of high conflict divorce on children can be devastating, traumatic, and extremely stressful.
Characteristics that typically define high-conflict divorce involve a lack of trust between parents, elevated anger levels, seeing things in black or white—all or none thinking, and a willingness to perpetuate a cycle of litigation. We see examples of this played out on television, in movies, best-selling books, the internet, talk shows and even on the news. Perhaps you recall a very well known actor that left a scathing message on the answering machine for his daughter in recent years-that was clearly a case of high conflict divorce. The child was “caught in the middle” of all the parental drama. We all know someone who is or has experienced a high-conflict divorce that put their children in the middle of the conflict, whether they knew it or not. What I mean by that is, the parents, while embroiled in their anger, oftentimes, inappropriately confide in their children regarding the break up, details of child support, unnecessary stories of the other parent’s character flaws, infidelities, court documents, financial information about assets, etc….
Furthermore, parents experiencing this extreme hostility toward one another, oftentimes, engage in behaviors that negatively affect the children and diminish the relationship between them. In my work as a family mediator and specifically, as a parenting coordinator, I observed numerous high-conflict cases that needed an immediate intervention to help parents with conflict resolution skills, effective communication, learning “a new dance” and transitioning into being co-parents. As a parenting coordinator, I was assigned to work with court-ordered high-conflict separation and divorce cases involving children. What amazed me was how many parents had limited awareness and minimal understanding regarding the effects of their high-conflict behavior on the children. Perhaps you’ve heard of the parent that instructed their child to “ask your daddy when he will pay the child support” or “tell your mother I don’t have any more money to give” or “you would have what you needed if your other parent didn’t spend it on that new car” or “you can’t see your other parent on that day according to the court order and the judge; if you don’t believe me, read it yourself.” Sadly, this type of behavior is all too common in high-conflict separation and divorce.
Children can survive divorce. However, they cannot survive unaffected by the extreme, chronic conflict and toxic fighting that occurs between parents in an emotionally-charged divorce. The level and intensity of conflict between parents during marriage is a very good indicator of the level and type of conflict that will ensue after the divorce, unless the parents learn how to be co-parents and NOT put the children in the middle.
Ten tips to becoming effective co-parents and taking children “out of the middle.”
1. Do not discuss the adult and court issues such as child support and the contact schedule and other issues about the divorce with the children.
2. If you need someone to lean on, call a friend, pastor, relative, or seek professional help during this difficult time from a mental health professional; not confiding in children.
3. Promote the relevance of the other parent to the child; both parents are the center of the child’s life and the child needs a relationship with each. Do not discuss the flaws or shortcomings of the other parent with the child.
4. Do not send messages to other parent through the children.
5. Do not ask your child to keep secrets about their activities at your home; children naturally want to discuss their world with both parents.
6. Allow your children to take their personal belongings with them when they visit the other parent.
7. Allow your children access to other parent (telephone, cell, e-mail) and don’t monitor their conversations with the other parent.
8. Communicate through a parent notebook or weekly e-mail to other parent with latest news, school updates, and vacations. (This reduces conflicts and misunderstandings).
9. Attend school functions, celebrations, sports events, etc…and be cordial to other parent—this teaches your children how to get along despite your differences. It shows them how important they are and lastly, shows them that even though the love between their parents has changed, the love for them is constant and unwavering.
10. BE A UNITED FRONT. Show your children that you both care enough about them to be co-parents; to discuss their welfare, school, events, holidays and through your behaviors support them, encourage them and be on the same page. Children’s best interests must come FIRST.
(Dr. Michelle Mitcham is an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of South Florida. To contact her go to: www.twitter.com/DrMitcham, www.michellemitcham.com or Dr.Mitcham@gmail.com.)