Divided Loyalties: The Unintended Plight of Children of Divorce

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

No one marries intending to get a divorce. For the most part, when parents’ split up, they feel badly about putting their children through the emotional pain of their divorce. But what many parents don’t realize is that they can model harmonious interactions with their ex. In doing this, they pave the way for their children to preserve a healthy bond with both parents. Even if they still blame their ex for the divorce, it’s a parent’s responsibility to let go of blame game and put their child’s needs first.

The truth about divorce is that it changes the dynamic of the parent and child relationship. It calls on us, as parents, to be stronger, more compassionate people. Parents who take control of their own lives, with courage and resilience, help their children do the same. Divorce is not for wimps.  It draws on every ounce of energy from parents, forcing them to create a new kind of family.

You see, when parents’ divorce, their children are forced to give up their sense of control. Let’s face it, divorce is a decision made by parents – not by children. Children who endure their parents’ breakup are faced with making choices that decrease their sense of security. These choices can range from whose house to have their birthday party at to worrying about upsetting one parent’s feelings. When children are put in a position where they feel they have to choose between their parents they may experience divided loyalties.

As a parent, it is crucial that you help your child from feeling burdened with the anguish of being stuck in the middle between two angry parents or choosing sides. Listening to your child’s perspective   and accepting their feelings and view of their situation is crucial to promoting healthy communication with them.  Karen’s story illustrates a child of divorce’s desire to stay out of the middle between her parents’ two worlds.

Karen, an articulate thirteen-year old nailed it when she spoke about the discomfort she felt when listening to her parents’ argue after their divorce: “My parents are so different, I mean my mom is high strung and my dad is easy going.”  I requested that Claudia, Karen’s mom attend our next counseling session because I wanted to empower Karen by giving her the opportunity to express her feelings and to give Claudia the chance to learn more about her daughter’s experience.

During our session, Karen requested that her mom stop putting her dad down for being late to pick her up for visits. “It hurts me when I hear you say he must not want to see me or he doesn’t care enough to be on time. Why don’t you ask me what I think? If you did, you’d realize I don’t care if he’s running late.” Several weeks later, Karen had a parallel session with her dad wherein she was able to disclose that she was tired of being compared to her mother when he was disappointed in her.

An important lesson can be learned from Karen’s comments. First and foremost, try not to involve your child in your anger at your ex. Remember they didn’t ask for the divorce and are powerless to control many aspects of their life. The first step in becoming a responsible co-parent is to put your child’s needs before your own. However, if your ex is hostile or uncooperative, work toward acceptance and focus on your own behavior.  Keep in mind, you can only do so much to influence your ex’s behavior and could make things worse if he/she sees you as demanding or antagonistic.

You see, divorce forever pits children and even adult offspring between their parents’ two disparate worlds.  The pressure of making decisions about spending time with both parents – especially around the holidays – can cause an adult child of divorce to feel guilty or anxious. If at all possible, try to reduce expectations and suggest rotating holidays.

Even though children don’t cause their parents’ divorce, they often feel responsible for their parents’ happiness. In some cases, they might side with one parent against the other parent, which can cause alienation or even estrangement. In What About the Kids? Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer divorce researcher who passed away recently, cautions us that a serious problem exists when a child and a parent of either sex joins forces in an outright alignment against the other parent.

Many adult children of divorce I’ve interviewed describe the pressure of divided loyalties.  Melissa, a lively twenty-one year old college student speaks candidly about her struggle to cope with loyalty conflicts since age eight. She recalls: “It was really hard to interact with both of my parents after their divorce. When they were saying nasty things about each other, I just never wanted to take sides.”

Loyalty conflicts can make some kids feel as if they need to keep a secret.  Melissa continues, “I felt like I had to keep my dad’s new girlfriend a secret because my mom didn’t know about her yet. You see I didn’t think she’d approve because Shelly was a lot younger than my dad.” When my mom asked me if my dad had a girlfriend I lied but she eventually found out when she saw them together.” Melissa’s story reminds us that children should never feel burdened by their parent’s decisions. Let them enjoy their childhood and think about how you want them to remember you when they grow up.

 These strategies can prevent your child or adolescent from developing problematic loyalty conflicts:

  • Be willing to let your ex have the last word and walk away when your interaction becomes adversarial. Even if you can’t be friendly allies, being cordial and respectful is a worthy goal.

  • Avoid confiding your feelings about your ex to your child. If you do this it forces them to choose sides and can worsen loyalty conflicts.

  • Always recognize that your ex is your child’s parent and deserves respect for that reason alone.

  • Be aware that if your child hears you make negative comments about your ex it can have a detrimental impact on them.  Pay attention to where your child is when you are talking about your ex.  Don’t talk about issues they shouldn’t hear when they’re in close proximity.

Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will have a positive impact on their well-being in the years to come. It’s also imperative that you remind them that your divorce isn’t their fault and that they should feel free to talk about their feelings with a trusted friend or therapist.  Judith Wallerstein reminds us that parents can hinder their children’s development by holding onto past grievances.  Conversely, you can help your child adjust to post-divorce life by providing loving encouragement and keeping their best interests in mind.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to hear your divorce stories and any experience you have with divided loyalties. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


Building Resiliency In Children After Divorce

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Building Resiliency in Children After Divorce

Part 3: Children’s Adjustment To Parental Divorce: The Role Of Conflict

How do I build resiliency in my children? I hear this question every time I lecture to parents or go on radio shows. For the most part, when parents’ split up, they feel badly about putting their children through the emotional pain of divorce. As I discussed in part one of this series, there isn’t a foolproof answer to the question “Should I stay together for the sake of my children?” It all depends on the severity and type of conflict in the home, as well as the resources and stressors inherent in a particular family.

However, if you have been following my three part series on the role of conflict in children’s divorce adjustment, you’ve probably learned that I believe divorce is a necessary outcome in some cases. If your marriage exposes or has exposed your children to high-conflict that involves them, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; or conflict in which they feel in the middle, it might be in their best interests. If there’s repeated conflict in your marriage accompanied with yelling, screaming, and any type of abuse, I’d say get a divorce and the sooner the better. I also believe that even though parental divorce puts adult children (especially females) at risk for challenges with love, trust, and intimacy in adult relationships, most conquer these issues and go on to lead successful lives.

If you have decided that divorce is the best option for you and your children, it’s important for you to approach your situation with a positive mindset. As a wise parent, you should trust that your children have the capacity to come to their own judgment about your divorce and to move on. But what you may not realize is the importance of reducing conflict in their lives during and after divorce. One of the key ways to do this is to model harmonious interactions with your former spouse so they can maintain a healthy bond with both parents.

All children, even those in intact homes, suffer emotional pain at times. Whether at home, in school, or in the neighborhood – children experience a wide range of emotions daily and they usually bounce back without permanent harm.  According to author, Ken Barish Ph.D., many day to day experiences (especially bullying or having difficulty reading) can trigger a profound sense of shame. I agree with Dr. Barish that emotional injuries, just like physical ones, must be healed or the damaging effects of the triggering event – in this case divorce – will spread or get worse.

First and foremost, there are certain conditions that set the stage for healing after divorce. If these conditions are not met, or if your children in any way feel alienated from one of their parents, this could set the stage for more serious social, emotional, or psychological problems.

This is a list of the factors that are essential to supporting your children’s healing after divorce:

  • Respect for your children’s needs (not strictly wants) such a routine, stability, love, and a sense of belongingness with both parents.
  • Low-conflict among family members: including interactions between parents, stepparents, siblings, stepsiblings, and extended family members.
  • Shared parenting or a parenting plan close to that which ensures that your children have equal access to both parents (assuming your children feels safe with both). New research shows that joint or shared parenting actually reduces conflict between divorced parents.
  • Attempt to avoid moving or getting remarried too soon after divorce because drastic changes can interfere with the healing process. If this isn’t possible, consider counseling for your children to help ease the pain associated with adjusting to new people and situations. Too much change may challenge your children’s ability to cope effectively.
  • Respect boundaries. When your children are with one parent, the other parent needs to respect their time with that parent and not plan activities or partake in excessive communication with the other parent (phone, text, etc.) that would interfere.

If the above conditions are in place, you can predict that there will still be some rough patches. This includes holidays, birthdays, and special occasions which set the stage for loyalty conflicts.  If possible, try to ease transitions between the two homes and communicate in a non-adversarial way to your former spouse about schedules, finances, or your children’s well-being.

After divorce, it’s your responsibility to stop the blame game and recognize that divorce forever pits children (even as adults) between their parents’ two disparate worlds. Even if you aren’t guilty of bad-mouthing your ex, you can help your children cope with disparaging comments from their other parent. Kate Scharff, a divorce expert and therapist writes “It takes practice, but you can learn to address misinformation about you (and address the emotional damage it causes) without resorting to counterattacks or pulling your kids into an alliance against the other parent.”

Children of all ages sense when their parents are cooperating and this will mean the world to them and help them feel calmer and to have fewer divided loyalties. Never bad-mouth your ex in front of your kids or make disparaging comments about them such as “he never pays child support on time,” or “what was she thinking marrying someone who can’t get a decent job.”

In summary, here are some strategies to help your children bounce back from divorce: 

  • Explain the separation or divorce. The overall theme of this discussion is to tell your kids about your divorce in a clear and blameless manner, and make sure they know they still have a family. Please see the blog on this site How to Tell Your Child You’re Getting a Divorce for more details.
  • Explain that your divorce is not their fault. This is a crucial message that needs to be repeated over and over again. Even if your children say they know it isn’t, most kids will succumb to these thoughts during times when they feel vulnerable or are dealing with transitions or stress.
  • Explain that it will take time to feel better and that you will be there to support them.
  • Keep the door open for further discussion. Kids have an uncanny ability to avoid serious discussions when their parents want to talk, so make sure they know you’re waiting in the wings when they feel like chatting.
  • Stay connected through their daily lives and routines: idle chats, bedtime rituals, new projects, special dates; also notes, text messages, or Skype are helpful.
  • Allow your children age appropriate decisions, responsibility, and independence. Don’t rely on them too much for babysitting, household chores, or share adult details about your divorce. Don’t confide in them about personal issues – especially negative feelings about their other parent.
  • Gain a support system for yourself and your children. It is important for you and your kids to have a built in safety net. Keep your eye on your children’s adjustment and look for red flags such as excessive fatigue, sleep problems, drop in grades, using or abusing drugs or alcohol, extreme shifts in mood, or a tendency to isolate from family or friends.

Most importantly, keep in mind that as you put the disappointments of your marriage behind you and adjust to your divorce, the dust will settle and your children will bounce back. Let’s end on the words of the late Judith Wallerstein: “With luck and good judgment, the divorce will turn out to be a turning point that leads you to greater happiness and to be a better parent.” I look forward to your comments and questions.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook.  She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.


What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

Part 2 of a series: Children’s Adjustment To Parental Divorce: The Role of Conflict

Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce. For years, researchers have identified the damage divorce inflicts on the lives of children. In recent decades, many studies have examined the impact of parental divorce on children into adulthood. However, when my daughter Tracy and I first decided to write a book about daughters of divorce in 2009, we were struck by how few articles there were on this topic – at least available to readers on the internet or at bookstores.

My own research on this topic, conducted at the college where I teach, supports the view of renowned researcher Paul Amato who examines the impact of divorce utilizing the resources and stressors model. In sum, Amato concludes that parental divorce, like other major events, can have detrimental effects to the degree that it engenders other stressors but that these negative effects can be minimized by the addition of resources and protections. Those resources include: parental closeness, open communication, competent parenting by both parents, and low conflict among family members.

My findings support Amato’s perspective that an increase in parental conflict after divorce is a stressor for children into adulthood. In Towards a Resources and Stressors Model: The Psychological Adjustment of Adult Children of Divorce, I also note that gender, financial hardship, and a parenting plan which limits access to both parents are risk factors impacting an offspring’s vulnerability to divorce. This blog will explore both risk factors and protective factors drawn from my own research and other experts.

Let’s face it, divorce is not just a single event whose impact stops once the papers are signed. Yet adult children of divorce tend to be the forgotten ones, because our focus tends to be on parents and children. Authors who specialize in studying adults raised by divorced parents conclude that such adults  have much strength – but they also have challenges to overcome. For instance, Susan Gregory Thomas, the author of In Spite Of Everything: A Memoir writes “I think the generation X has been defined as the divorce generation, and about half of us grew up as latchkey kids, so we’re well trained in making our own meals from age six and letting ourselves into our houses after school and basically being little adults.” Thomas makes many excellent points: young adults today are clear eyed realists, practical, self-sufficient and self-directed. However, she also mentions that they tend to be cynical – especially about commitment and marriage.

What are some of the challenges faced by adults raised in divorced homes? In his book, Adult Children of Divorce, psychologist Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D. writes “The dynamics faced by children of divorce do not end when you turn eighteen years old. In many families these dynamics continue well into adulthood. Some divorce family’s replay the divorce over and over again at holidays, special occasions, and even at the routine times when a child (now grown) speaks to one parent in the presence of the other. These dynamics can take their toll on you as they continually exert their influence.”

Other researchers, including myself, have written extensively about how parental divorce can cause young adults (especially females) to suffer from wounded trust and to have shaken faith in love. Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, that their partner will not have their best interests at heart.

Many of the women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce were extremely self-reliant – working hard in school, holding down multiple jobs, and managing life on their own. However, most of the over 200 women noted that while autonomy is surely positive, it can also rob a woman of the love and intimacy they deeply desire.

While daughters of divorce may be more vulnerable to wounded trust than males, many authors have noted that both men and women raised in divorced homes tend to have unrealistic expectations going into marriage. In some cases, they may be unaware of the damage done by their parents’ breakup decades before, and they may be looking for their partner to heal them.

This could be one of the reasons why Paul Amato found that adult children of divorce have approximately double the odds of divorce compared to adults raised in intact homes. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the memoir In Spite of Everything, describes how her own divorce occurred even though she was determined not to divorce because she harbored unrealistic views of marriage – not having a template of a healthy marriage to follow.

If you grew up as a child of divorce, you might find yourself asking: Why am I afraid of conflict? Why am I waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during times of success? Or, why am I afraid of commitment? The late Judith Wallerstein who studied the same sixty families over twenty-five years, concluded that while divorce doesn’t have to be universally detrimental to children it can cause them to harbor powerful ghosts from the past that impact their ability to have a positive mindset about intimacy that can lead to relationship issues later on. While her research has been criticized due to her case study methodology and conclusions, Amato states that there is validity to her findings if we look at them as having a moderate rather than severe impact.

Certainly most parents who split have reasons for hope since researchers have found that only a relatively small number of children of divorce suffer from serious effects. E. Mavis Hetherington’s results from her landmark study of 1,400 divorced families found that the short term effects of divorce – anxiety, anger, shock, and disbelief are overcome by the end of the second year. Researchers such as Amato and Hetherington have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after divorce are associated with poorer adjustment into adulthood.

In summary, Amato’s stressors and resources model makes a lot of sense and gives us a working framework for examining the long-term impact of parental divorce on children. The stressors that are engendered by parental divorce can be damaging but the protections afforded by lower conflict, and competent co-parenting can reduce the negative effects of parental divorce over the long run.

In the next and last part of this three part series, I will address: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce. I would love to read your comments and questions to this blog or series.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

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Co-Parenting Tips For The Holidays: Creating New Memories

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

One of the toughest times of year for family members following divorce is the holiday season. Let’s face it, it’s a challenge for parents to create new traditions and to let go of grudges and bad memories of past holidays. For the recently divorced parent, the holidays can be an emotional, stressful, and perhaps a lonely time of year – especially if they don’t have new traditions and support systems in place.

For children and adolescents, the holiday season can remind them that their family is now divided and can elicit loyalty conflicts because they may feel that they are pulled in every direction and will ultimately disappoint both of their parents. Children may worry that they won’t get their needs met and they can benefit from new traditions and activities to replace the memories of holidays in the past. Young children may be particularly vulnerable during the holiday season post-divorce because they crave and thrive with predictability and routine – which go out the window this time of year.

First and foremost, you need to do everything in your power not to intensify your children’s loyalty conflicts during the holiday season. It’s wise to be flexible and understanding as you negotiate schedules – your children may feel torn between their parents’ two disparate worlds. Show compassion for your kids if they seem stressed or worried.  Remind them that it’s normal to feel more stress this time of year and you will help them to navigate through rocky patches any way you can.

What can you do to create new, positive holiday memories when you are co-parenting? In my opinion, the first step is awareness that this is a stressful time of year and that your main goal needs to be let go of past grudges and bad memories so that you can create wonderful new ones. Holding onto angry feelings toward your former spouse can make you bitter. Remember that your goal is to create new, positive holiday memories for your children that will stay with them for years to come.

Next, show compassion toward your children and their other parent – clearly this time of year can be a challenge for them too. Modeling responsible behavior toward your former spouse is key to having a successful holiday. Children pick up on both verbal and non-verbal signs of anger so do your best to keep these feelings in check. Never bad mouth your ex and model respectful communication in front of your children. Studies show that children adjust better to divorce if their parents minimize conflict and are more cooperative.

Author Gary Direnfeld, MSW writes “While you may not love your former partner be careful about poisoning your child with anger or disdain towards their other parent.” He cautions us that kids form an impression of themselves as a reflection of their parents and consider themselves as being half mommy and half daddy – so showing anger toward their other parent can contribute to your child’s low self-esteem.

7 Ways to Create Positive New Holiday Memories:

  •  Adopt a positive mindset and attitude about the holidays. Remember that spending time with your kids doing enjoyable activities is the best part of this busy season.
  • Plan ahead. Have a secure schedule in place for your children. Communicate with your ex through email because phone conversations and texts can get emotional during this busy holiday season.
  • Don’t express anger towards your children’s other parent in front of them. Be businesslike and civil with your ex and/or their relatives – this will set a positive tone for the years to come.
  • Remember that your children are not possessions and that they have their own tender feelings to deal with during the holiday season. Do your best not to put them in the middle by making them a messenger between their parents or asking them too many questions about their time with their other parent.
  • Validate your children’s feelings if they express sadness or other negative emotions. Let them know that it’s okay to feel this way and you are there for them. Don’t make them feel guilty about their time away from you – they don’t need to know if you feel lonely without them.
  • Begin new holiday traditions that will create positive memories for you and your children. For instance, visiting friends, attending a play or concert, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or enjoying a special meal prepared by all of you. Hold onto traditions and activities from the past that worked for you and your kids.
  • Remember to laugh and relax with your children. Laughter is one of the best ways to change a negative mood to a positive one. Take time out of every day to de-stress by doing things that you all enjoy – listen to music, work on a puzzle, or participate in other fun activities.

Creating new holiday memories isn’t easy but it’s well worth the effort. You and your children can build new traditions and memories of the holidays that will endure the test of time and nourish everyone. The holiday season doesn’t have to be a time of stress overload. Don’t forget to hug your children and remember to keep the focus on what is most important – sustaining a positive relationship with your children.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook.  She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.

This post was previously published on HuffingtonPost.com