Parental Conflict Alienates/Hurts Children of Divorce Long Term

By Rosalind Sedacca, CCT

In a newsletter from Dr. Mark Goulston I read that: “A majority of teenagers, when asked if they had the choice between their parents being nicer to them or more loving towards each other, will pick the latter. The animosity between parents is very painful to their children.”

Stop and think about that for a moment. Teenagers would sacrifice receiving more love from their parents if they could assure their parents got along better with one another. This reinforces what most mental health professionals have long known: Parental conflict is a source of continual pain for our children – whether the parents are married or divorced!

As a Divorce & Parenting Coach and Founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network for parents, my goal is to make sure both parents fully understand the impact of parental discord upon your children. That’s why I ask every client: Do you love your children more than you hate your soon-to-be-Ex? If you really do, then you need to understand the negative consequences when parents (and other relatives and friends) fight, disparage or in other ways disrespect one another around the children.

Parents are the stability in any family. Children derive security from parental love, support and protection. Even after divorce, if the children feel both parents are still there for them — participating in their lives and providing love and guidance — they can thrive. However, when one parent tries to demean the other parent or uses the kids as confidants to vent their anger or frustration about the divorce, the sanctity of security is broken. Now the children are thrown into a state of conflict and confusion. With whom do they side? Will the other parent resent them for taking sides? What if they still love their other parent who is being criticized and demeaned? Are they being disloyal to mom or dad if they want to defend or support the other parent?

Children, even older teens, are deeply troubled when trying to find solutions to these challenging questions. It robs them of their sleep, affects school performance, and changes who they are emotionally and psychologically. This is a burden no parent should inflict on their children, yet it happens all too often, with little awareness of the consequences.

Feeling guilty, shamed and confused, children start acting out to cope with the internal conflict. They may get more aggressive, start bullying at home or at school, and showing other behavior problems with parents or siblings. Others turn within, disengage from family and friends, withdrawing from school, sports or other activities they used to love. The despair and loss of trusted parental security creates despair and can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Child psychologists deal with these challenges regularly as parents bring their children in for “help.” Most haven’t a clue that the cause was their poor parenting choices during and after divorce.

Here are some typical comments to avoid when talking to your children about their other parent:

Do you hear yourself saying: “Sounds like you picked that up from your Dad/Mom.”

Do you make a negative retort about their behavior and end it with “just like your father/mother.”

Do you frequently compare your ex with other divorced parents you know, making sure the kids get the negative judgment?

Do you counter every positive comment your child makes about your ex with, “Yeah, but …” and finish it with a downer?

Do you make your children feel guilty for having had fun visiting the other parent or liking something in their home?

Do you throw around biting statements like “If Mom/Dad really loved you …”

Do you try to frighten or intimidate your kids during a disagreement by saying “If you don’t like it here, then go live with your Mom/Dad?

It’s easy to fall into these behavior patterns – and they can effectively manipulate your children’s behavior – for the short-term. But in the long run you will be slowly eroding your personal relationship with the children you love and alienating their affection. This will bite you back in the years to come, especially as your children move through their teens and grow older.

Minding your tongue around your kids can be one of the most difficult behaviors to master after a divorce. However, it is also one of the behaviors that will most benefit your children on a long-term basis. Don’t let anger, bitterness and indiscriminate remarks hurt and harm your kids. Work on maintaining the best possible relationship with your ex – for the sake of the children. Need help? Join a Co-Parent support group, find a compassionate Divorce Coach, seek out a therapist, talk to a school counselor. Master communication skills and be the role model you want to be for your children. That’s a gift that will keep on giving, enhancing their lives — thanks to you!

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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a Divorce & Parenting Coach and author of the internationally-acclaimed ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! For her free ebook on Post-Divorce Parenting, coaching services and other valuable resources on divorce and parenting issues, go to:

© Rosalind Sedacca All rights reserved.

5 Responses to “Parental Conflict Alienates/Hurts Children of Divorce Long Term”

  1. I am in complete agreement, Rosalind.

    Allow me to provide a number of quotes from Brene’ Brown, Ph.D. that fit perfectly with what you have said.

    “When it comes to our sense of love‬, ‎belonging‬, and ‪‎worthiness‬, we are most radically shaped by our families of origin – what we hear, what we are told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging with the world.”

    “‎Belonging‬ is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are….

    Throughout the country and regardless of type of school, middle and high school students talk openly about the heartache of not feeling a sense of belonging at home.”

    When a parent makes some of the comments you referenced, they are shaming their child(ren).

    “Research indicates that ‪‎parenting‬ is a primary predictor of how prone our ‎children‬ will be to ‎shame‬ or ‪‎guilt‬. In other words, we have a lot of influence over how our kids think about themselves and their struggles. Knowing as we do that shame is positively correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, violence, eating disorders, and suicide, and that guilt is inversely correlated with these outcomes, we naturally would want to raise children who use more guild self-talk than shame.

    This means we need to separate our children from their behaviors. As it turns out, there’s a significant difference between ‘you are bad’ and ‘you did something bad.’ And, no, it’s not just semantics. Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better. When we shame and label our children, we take away their opportunity to grow and try on new behaviors. If a child ‘tells a lie,’ she can change that behavior. If she ‘is a liar’ – where’s the potential for change in that? …

    I can say without hesitation that childhood experiences of shame change who we are, how we think about ourselves, and our sense of self-worth.”

    “We can ‪‎apologize‬ for ‪‎shaming‬ someone we love, but the truth is that those shaming comments leave marks. And shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.”

    Some of the types of comments you mentioned that parents make are made because a parent is involved in helicopter parenting of sorts. They think the are helping their child(ren) by letting them know about the other parent (from their perspective), rather than letting the child(ren) learn for themselves (assuming their perspective is even accurate).

    “I no longer see ‪rescuing‬ and ‎intervening‬ as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous…. Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle….

    Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.”

    • Terry says:

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for your insightful and wise comments! As you know, I quote Brene Brown often and agree with her theories about shame. I’m sure Rosalind will appreciate your thoughtful comments. I hope all is well with you and yours!

  2. L.J. Burke says:

    In my book “Divorced Dad Kids are Forever, Wives are Not” I discuss what I call “Divorce guilt” That is when you let your kids get away with way more that you ever would of before your divorce. You should just stick to your guns and both be good parents by co-parenting.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Have you even considered up to date research by Saunders showing that children are being hurt in “shared” parenting situations? That their ACE scores are impacted by bad divorces?

    • Terry says:

      I didn’t write this blog but I am aware that not all parents can practice shared parenting due to high conflict and that parallel parenting – where they use a mediator and don’t have contact is often a good solution. I will be posting an article on this topic soon. Children of divorce definitely suffer from parents who are adversarial – regardless of their parenting plan. Please send a link to this research.

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