- I understand you are a child of parents who stayed in a bad marriage rather than getting a divorce. What was that like?
My childhood was not a happy one. My parents were good people caught in a bad relationship. They fought continuously. I remember hearing them fighting while I was in bed. I felt helpless to fix the problem. My parents made all the mistakes that divorced parents can make and I ending up hurt in the same ways as children of divorce done wrong.
- You say there are emotional and psychological scars for children when parents stay together in a toxic marriage. Tell us about that.
Children feel the tension, the anger and often they blame themselves thinking if only I got better grades or cleaned up my room, maybe mom and dad would stop fighting. They feel insecure and walk on eggshells at home. Often they feel shame and guilt for loving a parent when mom or dad says that parent is bad. Depending on their personality, kids can act out and become aggressive, bullying, attracted to drugs and alcohol or gangs. Other children turn in and become depressed, regress in age behavior, some even become suicidal. These children don’t experience the happiness, harmony, cooperation, respect and joy in childhood when raised by parents who are emotionally divorced but still living together.
- How are children affected by conflict in the home?
Studies show that parental conflict is extremely damaging to children — whether the conflict is in an in-tact marriage or a divorce poorly handled. Being around conflict at home gives children feelings of low self-esteem and unworthiness. Children of toxic marriages see role models for unhealthy romantic relationships ahead. They might become passive, depressed or pessimistic about their ability to love and be loved in a healthy intimate relationship. The consequences can stay with them for life, and are especially reflected in their adult relationship choices.
- You talk about children parenting their parents. What’s that about?
Kids absorb the negativity in the home and easily pick up on their parent’s unhappiness and try to fix the problem. If they see that mom or dad is depressed they try to make them happy or be the little hero. But that’s a no-win outcome. When parents turn their children into confidants, sharing secrets or venting their anger or frustrations, children often end up trying to parent their parents. They are trying to fix a problem that’s impossible for them to fix. That robs them of the innocence of childhood and forces them to grow up way too early, even for teens.
- What advice do you have for parents torn about leaving a bad marriage and getting divorced?
Co-parenting with an ex may not be how you envisioned raising your kids, but when the alternative is two incredibly unhappy adults parenting under the same roof, it may be your best option. If children are being raised in a war zone or in the silence and apathy of a dead marriage, divorce may open the door to a healthier, happier future for everyone in the family. But only –- and this is the key point — if the parents consciously work on creating a harmonious, child-centered divorce that puts the kids’ well-being first.
6. What is a Child-Centered Divorce and why is that preferable?
A Child-Centered Divorce acknowledges that your children are innocent and shouldn’t pay the price as pawns in your divorce. When you’re a divorced parent it’s a life-long commitment to co-parenting your children in the best way for them. That means learning how to cooperate and make decisions truly on their behalf. Often that means using mediation for a better outcome than the acrimony of litigation in the courts. It also means asking yourself the question: Do I love my children more than I may hate my Ex? And then making respectful decisions based on their wellbeing. Another great question to ask is: What will our kids say to us when they’re grown adults about the way we handled our divorce? That should keep you on the path of a child-centered divorce.
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Rosalind Sedacca, CDC is the founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce? Her free ebook on Post Divorce Parenting, articles, coaching services and valuable resources on divorce and parenting issues are all available at www.childcentereddivorce.com.