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Is Conflict With Your Ex Hurting The Kids?

Parental Conflict Hurts Kids
CC Photo Courtesy of Clemens v. Vogelsang via Flickr

I have a friend who is divorced. In this day and age, we all do.

By the time you get to my age (mid 40’s), you’ve seen way too many crumbling marriages, destroyed relationships and personal ugliness. Although it is sad to watch and makes me angry at the enemy for destroying a covenant that God loves, I’m more grieved by the effect it has on the kids.

Why more grieved? Because adults get to choose what they listen to. Kids don’t get that option. And if they choose not to listen, it’s often perceived as rebellion, but it’s really self-preservation.

What do I mean by self-preservation?

Our minds are capable of great things. We tune out what we don’t want to hear, like instruction, or forget what we don’t want to remember, like trauma.

Because their brains are way more advanced than their cognitive thinking, kids unknowingly do this. Their brains are already storing memories and making judgments.

When they grow up, they may not remember the memory, but their brains have solidified the judgment. They make decisions based on those judgments which are now firm beliefs.

As grownups, we can work through our emotions and express our feelings to friends. But kids may need more coaxing and time to know it’s safe to share their ideas, feelings, perceptions and opinions. If you’re not providing a safe place to share, then they will make judgments on their own that may not be right. And you’d never know it.

How kids are feeling becomes true, and their perception of truth becomes a judgment. How they act out of those feelings and judgments becomes a behavior, and behavior affects their destiny.

Kids usually love both parents, and when they feel they have to take sides, they may end up feeling alone because that is the only safe place without fighting or bad-mouthing. But when we are isolated, we create a place of vulnerability. That is exactly what the enemy is looking for (not only in kids, but in adults, too). He looks for that place we’ve created—isolation. Even in strategic warfare, we see that the one alone is vulnerable. Jesus talks about how the sheep are at risk of being devoured by an enemy when they are by themselves.

And often the parents are so consumed in their own “stuff” that they don’t see it. You see bad behavior and try to correct that. You see isolation and try to get them more involved. But you need to get at the root of the issue, which is in the heart.

My friend’s ex-wife was the one who had an affair, but she’s the one making accusations against him to the kids. She’s the one putting lies in their minds and saying their dad is lazy, etc. I’ll skip the details, because chances are you’ve heard stories like this.

The point is that harsh opinions, words and attitudes do hurt the children, not just in the present but in the long run. Sometimes permanently.

I’ve been impressed with my friend’s response to his trial. He stays positive when he’s alone or with his kids. He loves them as much as they will let him. I say “let him” because his ex has created such contempt in the minds of the kids. I don’t think she knows how it will affect their destiny. (Remember judgments made now become beliefs, and beliefs become the behaviors to/away from destiny.)

Kevin Karlson J.D., Ph.D.  has been serving as an expert in family law cases as a litigation consultant, custody evaluator and divorce recovery expert for more than 30 years. “When All Else Fails: Minimizing the Damage Before, During, and After Divorce” (Paradox Press, 2013) is his latest book, and is intended to provide tips and tools to people confronting the challenges of divorce.

He explains in his book why we should strive for peace between the parents for the sake of the kids. Here is an excerpt (used with permission).

Research suggests that problematic parent-child relations associated with divorce persist throughout the life course (Amato and Booth, 1996).

More than 40 years of divorce research is very clear: The greatest risk to the emotional health of children of divorce is the ongoing conflict between their divorced parents. That means that parents who are unable to forgive their spouses and learn to cooperate with them to become true co-parents living in different houses are causing emotional harm to their children. That also means it doesn’t matter which parent is bitter, angry or unforgiving; if there is conflict, your child is going to be hurt by that conflict.

The good news is that this also means that BOTH parents are responsible for (and capable of) preventing and repairing that damage. Blaming the other parent is the heart of the problem, NOT the solution, even if they are wrong! I know of no parent who was not wounded by divorce.

Each parent must take responsibility for their own wounds and for their own recovery. That means doing whatever is required to get past the pain, disappointment and anger, and developing the ability to have, at the very least, a neutral, civil and polite working relationship with the other parent. For most parents, that means participating in a good divorce recovery program, at least, and usually it also means getting counseling by a skilled mental health professional or pastoral counselor.

A positive, warm and genuinely pleasant relationship with the other parent would be the best thing you could do for your children, but not everyone can get there. I can tell you that the kids of those parents who can get to that “happy place” are the least damaged by divorce.

Notice what I said: “least damaged.” No child escapes unharmed. None. The challenge for divorcing parents is to minimize the damage to their children, to avoid making it worse by continuing to blame each other for the rest of their lives. The best way to minimize the damage is to forgive your spouse and move on to a better relationship with them.”

We don’t claim to have all the answers at Single Matters, but from time to time we hope to bring you some sort of guidance in this season of your life. Look for more articles by Kevin in the near future.

If you’ve been divorced and have had to deal with conflict, what did you to do protect the kids? Share your wisdom with the readers by leaving a comment below.

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