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The greatest irony of the divorce gone mad is that the very people who would run into a burning building to save a child are now engaged in a conflict that is doing more than anything else to tear apart that child’s heart and spirit.”

– Charlie Asher (2005, p. 1)

Divorce typically brings out the worst in people. The action itself is harmful enough for children as it is. Yet when you add in the different ways that many parents respond to divorce or drag their children into the middle of it, an already painful situation can become almost too excruciating to bear.

Divorce is rife with opportunities for parents to say or do something they shouldn’t that ends up hurting their kids. Some of these mistakes are accidental – the result of a flustered parent saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment, or simply not understanding how a child would interpret their actions or remarks. Other mistakes are emotional – the result of a parent letting their bitter feelings or insecurity about the divorce get in the way of what’s best for their kids. “I don’t think any parent wants their child to suffer,” says Aubrey Connaster, a family law attorney in Texas. “But they often let their own anger and emotions outweigh what they know is best for the child.” (D Magazine, Oct. 2011, p.134)

How divorce mistakes impact children

Parents may not intend the suffering they cause, but when they are careless with their remarks or lose sight of what’s important, suffer the children do. Psychologist Archibald D. Hart writes that “the damage to a child’s self-esteem during a divorce is usually caused not so much from the loss of united parents and a single home as from the indignities caused by other people’s reactions, the legal process, and the way the child is battered emotionally. When children are treated like pieces of property to be bartered, when their feelings and wishes are ignored, when they are used as hostages in a parent’s effort to gain material advantages in a settlement, or when they are used as weapons to satisfy an urge for revenge against the other spouse, you have a situation that has the potential to do a great deal of harm to the way a child values himself or herself.” (Hart, 1989, p. 108) Divorce by itself will cause substantial disruption to a child’s life, but this can be recovered from. Parents who engage in these divorce mistakes, however, are almost certain to do lasting, irreparable harm.

Advice for all parents

The information in this chapter is not just for “bad parents.” IT’S FOR EVERY PARENT. Nearly every single divorcing parent is prone to making at least one (and quite possibly several) of these mistakes, and as emotionally driven creatures, there isn’t a parent on the planet who is above letting their anger get the best of them. Understanding what these different mistakes are and how profoundly they can affect children, however, will help parents muster the additional self-control needed to limit these indiscretions. Just as importantly, this information can serve as a tool of reference for those dealing with a difficult ex. One of the biggest enablers of bad behavior is that many parents are simply delusional about how their actions can impact the children. They pretend that their nastiness with each other won’t trickle down to the kids, or they downplay the disruption it causes, believing that though it may not be healthy, it can’t really be that bad. It’s important that both parties know otherwise. You or your former spouse may continue such antics anyway, but at least you’ll have been warned, and will be making that choice with a full understanding of what it’s doing to the kids.

We can understand and empathize with the spouse who feels wronged and wants revenge, or the spouse who is overwhelmed with anxiety at the thought of losing the children, or the spouse who prefers to forget that the marriage ever was. But using the children to get revenge, to cope with anxiety, to erase the past is unacceptable. Parents must hold themselves to a higher standard. They must have the courage to face what they are doing to their children. They must honor their mission to safeguard their children’s welfare, even when the darkest feelings beckon them to dim their awareness of their betrayal of their children. Divorce poison must be left in the bottle. Children deserve no less.”

– Richard A. Warshak (2001, pp. 22-23)

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