Children often get caught in the line of divorce cross-fire. Secretly they wish it could all go away. Instead, they develop mannerisms and symptoms to cope with parental conflict. As time progresses, children witness silent hatred, alternating with a barrage of angry words. Not only are they ill-prepared to deal with their parents' anger, but they are cut off from having a framework for successful relationships.
The issues which manifest for children stem directly from their parents' inability to resolve their inner conflict. Before long, children become pawns in their parents' complicated negotiations. The wounds of the parents create problems for the children who are caught in the middle of conflict.
As a private court-approved mediator, I am called to help families resolve conflict. I am neither a therapist nor an attorney. I focus solely on mediation.
Most clients seek me out because they want an alternative to the legal system. They want a peaceful and confidential process for their divorce, probate, estate issues, co-parenting, and elder care disputes. In most of my mediations, I rarely wish I were an attorney. Legal merit seldom motivates my clients. (If it does, I encourage them to bring their attorneys to the mediation, or at least consult with him/her.) Therapists are an equally valuable resource for people in the midst of conflict. Sometimes I wish therapists were involved in the mediation process with me. They bring real value in helping people focus on the future for the sake of resolution. Therapists can cut through the psychological gridlock and help divorcing couples become unstuck. They have a unique insight into what motivates actions and desires during conflict.
As a divorce therapist, I help couples and individuals diffuse intense emotions so they can focus on what matters most--their children. What I see is divorcing couples often get so caught up in their own emotions that they can lose sight of what is in the best interest of their children. Divorce can be an emotional rollercoaster. There are days when everything feels good; other days, trying to get out of bed may drain the last drop of energy. Volatile feelings often lead to blame-based communication and further injury. The first step toward resolution is disengaging from conflict. Mediators and therapists can work in tandem toward a resolution that can put a stop to conflict.
Approximately 25% of US children live with only one parent. This is probably due to divorce, death, or parents who never married. By nature, children are resilient. They learn to cope with most situations if they have good role models. When parents are willing to communicate and connect in a positive manner, their children benefit and learn better-coping skills themselves. However, when children become pawns, they learn negative coping skills. Dealing with the inherent stress of divorce (reduced parenting time, financial instability, living in two homes, dealing with one parent relocating) while their parents fight in front of or through them is damaging to children. Here are some negative behaviors that can result from children being treated as pawns:
Anxiety can arise when children don't know what to expect from Mom or Dad, what "sets off" Mom or Dad, or when they witness yelling matches and passive-aggressive behaviors. Children who are overly anxious may exhibit excessive anger, worry, sadness, oppositional behavior, troubled relationships, or poor school performance. Children who are caught in the cross-fire miss out on key developmental phases in which they learn kindness, understanding, and friendship. Instead, they struggle with self-confidence.
Parental estrangement or parental alienation refers to a child's rejection of a parent. When children feel abused, used, or ignored, they may refuse to have a relationship with that parent. Parental alienation occurs when a parent is maligned until the child refuses or severs contact. When this happens, not only does the marriage fail, but the family does too.
• LOYALTY ISSUES
These can arise after years of being asked to align with one parent over another. This goes against a child's natural inclination to please both parents. The child faces a quandary: no matter what the child does, it does not repair the situation. Often times, children are enlisted as the spokespeople for exchange times, school forms, or activities. They are not emotionally equipped to broker deals between their parents, and no matter what they do, they fall short of pleasing either parent. Children learn ways to move around this reality by manipulating and lying.
When asked by courts and lawyers to defend or decry a parent, the child may feel forced to choose a parent. Parents respond in turn, sometimes feeling rejected, and this further complicates the child's feeling of loyalty and how it is earned or displayed.
But parents can divorce differently, with dignity and civil discourse that models good behavior and cuts down on conflict and drama. Frankly, through mediation and counseling, parents can save money, time, stress and emotional collateral damages to themselves and their family. Here's how to divorce or co-parent through divorce mediation and therapy.
• FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
Leave the past where it belongs. The past is your history, and you need to focus on your future. Mediation focuses on the future. Therapy does too.
• BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF
Marriages end. How your marriage ends is up to you. Be honest with the role you played up to the point of divorce. Decide that you need to divorce well for yourself and your child(ren). Therapists and mediators can help you confront your situation in a manageable and honest way.
Don't respond to angry e-mails. Instead, use a free platform such as talkingparents.com to factually document all your communication instead of using real-time, back and forth communication. This platform can save your sanity when dealing with a high-conflict ex or spouse who might have mental health issues.
• SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
You may be too emotionally invested to think clearly about your future and the future needs of your child(ren). A good therapist or mediator can help you pinpoint your needs and interests. Both will guide toward progress and how to stay positive. Mediators are more short-term and can come and go as needed. Therapists often work with you for a longer period of time. Therapists who specialize in divorce can provide a structured process and supportive guidance to help you diffuse the intense emotions resulting from divorce. Through divorce counseling, you learn to let go of the pain and move beyond the hurtful past.
• BE YOUR IDEAL SELF
There are so many distractions. Try not to succumb to negative messages from people or the media. Instead, seek a higher ground. Focus on being a positive role model for your children even if it means meeting with someone to help that happen.
• STAY CONNECTED
This may be the worst time to disconnect from family, work, or social obligations. Even though your family is transitioning, it's not right to cut off ties with your ex, family, friends or school. You need to stay connected and engaged for the sake of your children. Find and exercise positive ways to communicate and stay on top of your children's behaviors and needs. Don't let children take advantage of the situation, and do not take advantage of your children during this time period.
Divorce is hard (marriage is, too), but you have a choice in how you do it. With the help of good mediators and therapists, you can divorce better. You can do this differently. You owe it to your children to try. We believe that with some guidance, you can regain your confidence and get back to the life you want.
(Sonia Brill, LCSW co-wrote this piece. She is the founder of SB Consulting, LLC. She is a high-conflict divorce therapist, parental responsibilities co-evaluator, and author. Sonia brings years of counseling experience, her goal is to ensure clients learn the skills to move beyond the gridlock of a high-conflict divorce. For more information, please visit www.soniabrill.com or call Sonia at 720-971-1254).