Divorce takes its toll on children, but in some cases the conflict at home can be even worse. What to know.
When Kelly Jones*, 34, married her high school sweetheart Dan, 35, in her early twenties, she thought it would last forever. Close with each other’s families, they were the best of friends. They had a son, David, and supported each other as they continued their education. But when their son was almost 7, they decided to get a divorce.
“We actually really loved each other, but we were too young,” she says. “As time went on, he grew in a different way than I grew. We just got to a point in our relationship where we were just friends. It was time to call it while David was a little bit old enough to understand and we could talk to him. For us, that is what made sense.”
The Jones’ are certainly not alone. According to statistics provided by the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 5,065 marriages in Davidson County in 2013 — and 2,085 divorces. In Williamson County, 1,105 marriages and 714 divorces. And in Rutherford, 1,784 marriages and 1,328 divorces.
Of course, many people decide not to divorce and instead stay in a contentious marriage because they feel it’s what’s best for the kids. Divorce will take its toll on children, but in some cases the conflict at home can be even worse.
“Years ago I used to hear, ‘Oh, children are resilient,’” says Nashville attorney and divorce mediator Jan Walden. “Divorce is going to have a negative impact on your children. That is just a given. But you have the ability to control the amount of how adversely it is going to affect them. Even if parents aren’t dogging each other and fighting, if they’re under stress, the children feel that.”
Effects of Conflict at Home
A recent Adverse Childhood Experiences study between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood trauma and later-life health. In it, more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members provided detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.
The results are that some of the leading health and social problems in this country can be a consequence of traumatic experiences growing up. Those include sexual abuse, physical abuse (grabbed, pushed, slapped, hit), emotional abuse (yelling, swearing, insults), emotional neglect, physical neglect (dirty clothes, insufficient food), violence among parents, household substance abuse, parental mental illness, separation or divorce or having a family member incarcerated.
“The level of conflict in the house seems to be the biggest predictor of how a child is going to do later on, the effects on them and their mental health,” says psychiatrist Dr. Susanna Quasem with the Nashville Child and Family Wellness Center. “Sometimes if parents separate, it really dials down and decreases the amount of conflict the child is exposed to, and that can be helpful to their mental health.”
When children live in a home with chronic levels of high conflict, tension, stress, arguing or aggression, the effects on them are long lasting says psychologist Dr. Aimee Lyst with the Counseling and Learning Center in Nashville. Children can grow up feeling insecure in their own relationships and that they can’t always count on love to be there. They can become avoidant of conflict because they have never had it modeled appropriately.
“It is really about how parents deal with their anger and feelings in general,” Lyst says. “It is important for parents to model appropriate and healthy behavior and appropriate responses to the conflicts that are natural in marriages. We as humans have disagreements. But at what point parents decide it is best for the kids to not stay together is when that conflict bleeds over to the children and they’re not able to keep that safety net.”
Feuding parents who stay together can also pass on their dysfunctional arguing patterns to their children, so when they get into conflicts of their own they respond in the same way they were raised — badly.
“That toxicity flows downstream so to speak, so you can perpetuate that pattern,” Lyst says. “Sometimes children are relieved that parents separate and divorce. In fact, I don’t think we give kids credit for what they’re aware of.”
If parents do stay together, kids most definitely need to be kept from ugly arguments filled with screaming and vitriol. But watching some parental disagreements all the way through to the apology stage can be important too, as long as there isn’t constant conflict.
“Kids learn a lot by how their parents deal with things,” Quasem says. “It is OK for kids to see parents disagree, for people to be angry, for there to be conflict, because that is going to happen in life. But it has to be balanced out with seeing the resolution of it. Then it is a lot easier for kids to understand that these people love each other, but it’s OK to disagree and have fights sometimes. To see how healthy people resolve conflict in a loving relationship, that is ideal.”
Divorce is Not a Fix-all
Even when divorce truly is what is best for the kids, the reality is that people who fought while living in the same house are most likely going to continue to fight over co-parenting duties for years to come unless they get help. Children inevitably get caught up in the ongoing tension and drama, and add in Mom or Dad’s new significant other too soon and kids can really suffer.
“A lot of people think divorce is an end to a family, but it is really about a change to the family,” says Lyst. “It is ideal if both parents are mature and mentally healthy and they agree to co-parent the best they can and support each other, but the truth is that doesn’t happen that often.”
Quasem says the kids who are better off with their parents separated can still really struggle if they‘re exposed to high levels of conflict and stress between their parents about custody issues even after divorce.
“Arguing and fighting in front of the kids about whose turn it is to pick them up takes a toll,” she says. “But if the parents can be grown ups and work together and be civil that really helps the kid to be able to come through a difficult situation. It‘s always going to be hard but they can bounce back more easily and quickly if parents can keep those things in mind.”
When Walden mediates parents who have decided that divorce is truly what is best for their family, she impresses upon them how detrimental a contentious divorce and continued conflict will be on the kids in hopes they can put their children’s feelings first.
“I don’t meet parents who don’t love their children — they all love their children,” she says. “It is just some of them don’t understand that some of the things they are doing are negatively impacting their children. It can be very contentious, and I try to emphasize how very detrimental continued conflict can be on their children and their children’s future outcomes.”
Both Parents are Important
Because Jones and her husband were so close and had both watched their parents go through fairly nasty divorces when they were younger, they tried to keep co-parenting as civil as possible. They did not get lawyers involved and discussed introducing new people to their son before actually doing it.
“We wanted to split time equally, money equally,” she says. “We have had our moments even just dropping David off over whose turn it is, but when it comes to the big stuff I think we totally respect each other.”
Walden says both parents remaining in a child’s life is incredibly important, whether they are together or not.
“Recent studies show it is more important than we ever thought for fathers to be involved in their children’s lives, and one thing that has stuck with me is that even if a child doesn’t see his dad but once or twice a year, that is better than nothing,” she says. “Children’s outcomes in life when the father is meaningfully involved is much better, and that is what the research shows.” ϑ
* Names changed to protect the family’s privacy.