Is it divorce or parental discord that most damages children? Answers are finally coming in!
A recent article by marriage and family therapist Ruth Bettelheim has much to say on this topic that is both relevant and, quite surprising for many. That’s because she refutes common misconceptions about divorce and addresses the real issues of concern.
According to Bettelheim, “Studies conducted in the past 20 years have shown that on all meaningful measures of success — social, economic, intellectual and psychological — most adult children from divorced families are no worse off than their peers whose parents remained married.”
Researchers have found two explanations for this, notes Bettelheim. “Children who have to cope with their parents’ separation and post-divorce lives often grow resilient, self-reliant, adaptable and independent. And children benefit from escaping the high-conflict environment of a rocky marriage. After their parents’ separation, as conflicts fade, children recover.”
There is much to consider in those last two sentences. Children actually benefit from being out of high-conflict homes! In fact, studies show that it is “sustained family conflict that actually causes children to experience the kinds of problems that are usually attributed to divorce: low self-esteem, depression, high anxiety, difficulty forming relationships, delinquency and withdrawal from the world.”
Bettelheim goes on to say, “Given that reducing family conflict is good for children, the best way to protect them during divorce would be to minimize the acrimony of the proceedings.”
That is the foundation of a child-centered divorce. My supporters and I have long contended that it is not divorce per se but the way parents handle divorce that harms their children. From time to time I am contacted by emotionally charged parents who are vehemently “anti-divorce.” While they acknowledge I am well-meaning in my efforts, they point their finger at divorced parents and blame them unequivocally for destroying their children’s lives.
In reality, life is not black and white, nor are the consequences of divorce. While I certainly do not advocate divorce as a solution to marital discord, in many cases it’s a saner solution than living together in a toxic marriage.
I speak from experience when I say this because I am a child of parents who should have divorced – and didn’t. The emotional scarring I experienced is basically the same as felt by children of parents who make damaging divorce mistakes. The insecurity, lack of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sadness, guilt and shame I carried through my childhood were the consequences of parents so caught up in their emotional drama they had little awareness of what their turmoil was creating for their children.
Divorced or not, when we make decisions that that don’t take children’s fragile psyches into account, the outcome is painful for those children!
Bettelheim makes a strong case for divorce mediation as a resource to keep parents from making destructive, vindictive decisions about custody and child support. She’s totally right. She ends her piece saying, “In an adversarial custody battle, no one wins, but children are the biggest losers of all. Intelligent legislation could promote the one thing that children of divorce need most: peace between their parents.”
The truth is, all children need and deserve peace between their parents. Let’s focus less on judgmental, self-righteous finger-pointing and more on educating all parents about harmonious, effective parenting – and we’ll all be better off!
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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is the author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook™ Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! Acclaimed by divorce professionals, the book provides fill-in-the-blank templates that guide parents in creating a family storybook with personal photographs as an ideal way to break the news. For more details, a free ezine, articles, coaching and other resources visit //www.childcentereddivorce.com.
It’s difficult for me to comment on this post, Rosalind. I agree with many points. Yes, of course children don’t do well in high conflict environments (whether it’s in a high conflict marriage or divorce). And yes, if you want to have a contest about what hurts a child more, a high conflict marriage most probably scars a child more than a low conflict divorce.
But here are my problems. High conflict marriage very rarely turn into low conflict divorces. And many low conflict marriages turn into high conflict divorces. Divorce offered as the solution to conflict is fallacious. The other thing I often dislike reading is research findings claiming that children of divorce are doing ‘fine’ as measured against children of intact families. Because I am a child of divorce who is married, a mother, educated, a professional,a home owner, etc. But none of that means that my parent’s divorce didn’t damage me or that it doesn’t affect me still, thirty years later, every single day. The markers that researchers are using to show the long term effects of divorce are laughable.
But here’s what I most dislike about articles such as this one. It sounds so positive. The title is even ended with an exclamation mark. It could almost read, ‘Hooray! Don’t let your kid’s pain hold you back from divorcing because divorce doesn’t hurt them, conflict does!’
It’s ridiculous. Divorce is painful for kids. Even when it ends high conflict marriages. And a divorcing parent needs to focus not solely on co-parenting amicably but also on helping their child through the pain they will endure.
I’m not an advocate for staying in an unwanted marriage. But I am an advocate for children of divorce. Conflict after divorce is merely adding insult to injury. But ignoring the injury in the hopes that cooperative co-parenting will heal all is hardly any better.
Thanks for your heartfelt comments, Carolyn. I appreciate your sincerity and value your perspective. I agree with all you say but want to emphasize that divorce and parenting is not a black and white issue and no one perspective will ever encompass all facets of this complex topic.
We are both strong advocates for children of divorce. We both know the consequences of divorce done wrong. That’s why I believe it’s so important to educate parents about the role that high conflict plays in the life of children – divorce or not. I didn’t mean for the article to sound positive about divorce. I wanted to emphasize that for too long divorce has been the blame factor for family dysfunction.
The real truth is that dysfunctional families that stay together without divorce create the same damage, emotional scars and life-long pain as those coping with divorce. I say this because my parents should have divorced and didn’t. My pain never ended and life would have been better for us all if my two angry, constantly battling parents had moved apart.
They didn’t realize the enormous psychological effect their horrific relationship had on me. But I now see it’s little different than what children of divorce have experienced: pain, insecurity, fear, anxiety, guilt, blame – the list goes on and on.
While it’s true that many high conflict marriages result in high conflict divorces, I believe it’s essential for us all to help bring attention to the affect of conflict on children. By blaming divorce per se, we minimize the true demons – and that was the point of my article.
I know we can find a middle ground of support for one another in our efforts on behalf of children of divorce so we can continue to fight the good fight. Again, I thank you for your sincere commentary and encourage you to continue this dialogue with me and our followers.
By the way, July is National Child-Centered Divorce Month and I hope you’ll join me in reaching out to media everywhere to help educate parents and legal professionals about the real effects of divorce on children.
Wow. More self indulgent justification for selfish decisions. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt because this post is two years old but you might want to read the latest research that indicates ALL divorce is harmful to children, even amicable ones. Have you read that women from low conflict divorces report more relationship problems than high conflict divorces? My parents were very friendly after they divorced but it didn’t help the pain and trauma of me having to live a bifurcated existence, always missing one parent, navigating all the different step relationships and custody schedules, having to understand complex emotions that a young child should not have had to deal with. I had nothing resembling a normal, nurtured childhood in spite of the fact my parents were remarkably civilized. And just as important, I learned that marriage is expendable. You can run away from relationships when the going gets tough and that its okay to make others pay for your mistake. Divorce is bad. period. If one spouse is being emotionally or physically abused, we can talk about “all the facets of this complex topic” but if not, parents may make damn sure they worked HARD to save the marriage before they condemn their children to this pain. Can you tell I am sick and tired of this line of argument? More selfish baby boomer nonsense…
I am SO sorry to hear about your troubled childhood as a result of your parents’ divorce. I agree, no child should have to experience the complex emotions you had to deal with. No one advocates or promotes divorce. Divorces take place and my goal is to minimize the negative impact on the children.
ALL research does not indicate that divorce is harmful to children. Research indicates that parental conflict of all kinds is harmful to children.
Divorce is not the only culprit creating that pain in children. I was a child of two parents who should have been divorced — but stayed together “for the sake of the kids.” I grew up with them fighting constantly. My childhood was painful, hurtful and filled with insecurities. I developed nervous ticks, anxieties and grew up before my time trying to “parent” my parents and keep them at peace. It doesn’t work! My scars are as deep and painful as yours. That’s why I understand how you feel.
We can’t stop parents from creating conflict, tension and sadness at home for children. Staying together in that environment does no more good than a divorce — and sometimes it’s far worse. Your pain and your feelings are genuine, your intentions to help other children is sincere, but your solution is unrealistic and naive. We are both on the same side — trying to help parents improve their relationships. Saving a marriage when the relationship is toxic is not the solution. Sometimes divorce is the best outcome for everyone in the family.
Let’s work together on behalf of innocent children. I invite you to stop throwing stones at me and start focusing on the real demons, selfish parents — married or not. And with them, selfish attorneys who milk couples dry in litigation when there are other more supportive ways to resolve family discord!
The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce
hi the selfish parents disturbs me. unfortunately, humans do not always get along, and when humans in marriages become chronically dysfunctional and children are involved, I believe the children need to learn quickly not to allow abusive or bullying ie. dysfunctional behavior at all costs, even if that means seeing /hearing parents battle it out, sometimes, it is difficult to avoid the dynamics of it. I have been unjustly judged by CAS, schools, that were proactively contacted to help me the mother struggling through the crap of getting away from the abuser. even the kinark services undermined me many time and got between the war of the parents, adding to the confusion, anxiety, insecurities etc. I tried my best to resolved my childrens pyschs, and the litigations of law, separation, and divorce are totally children unfriendly to say the least, to the point of causing both parents to the brink of poverty as you say milking the system and parents life savings for the children. I lost it all to the family law/court system… cheers to lawyers unethical practices and adversely adding to the damage to our precious children having to watch this because one parent wants to destroy the other or get something for nothing, this parent has rights and my lawyers took me for the ride.
please look into the family law system, that is the root, antagonist to our precious children, and for all the family supports in Ontario, they are not productive, and mental health supports are only good at a crises level, why wait till then, and CAS is to busy to help the families due to their covering their own crisis’ within the organization. they have the tools but like to bully their way out of providing a village to bring up a child theory. I honestly believe the stones I am throwing back to be constructive critisizm. please give me feedback for I have been truly tramatized for what I have and am still going through. thank you for your time. michelle
I hear you and feel your pain, Michelle. The family law system is poorly designed and run in too many places and innocent mothers and fathers are getting screwed in too many ways. However, this is not our children’s faults and we are the adults. We need to protect them in every way possible so that means watching what we say and do around the children, and not bringing them into our battles to support us or take our side. That’s where the “selfish” accusation comes in. We have choices in every decision we make and too often we justify our decisions to ourselves for behavior that is questionable from a child’s perspective. We as parents must take responsibility for every decision we make and can’t use “the system” as an excuse for hurting our children or behaving irresponsibly. So fight your battles where you must, but protect your children’s childhood in every possible way you can. Don’t let your battles scar or hurt them unnecessarily because it feels good to get back at your Ex! That’s the message I’m trying to convey.