“Children caught in the flames of a high-conflict divorce have been referred to as ‘Children of Armageddon’ – victims of the final war on earth. They are true casualties. Parents trapped in mutual anger often become heedless of anything else.”
– Judith Wallerstein & Sandra Blakeslee (2003, pp. 213-214)
The feuds that ignite between divorcing couples are notorious for both their intensity and their resistance to reason. Each person is so wrapped up in their own sense of injury and victimization that they become impervious to anything else. Calming things down is like trying to cap an erupting volcano.
If the divorcing couple have children, however, then their fighting is hurting more than just each other. We hope that by helping you understand just how harmful this is to kids, then at least some of the parents stuck in this situation are able to listen to reason and find the motivation to pull themselves out of it.
Wounded innocents: Why fighting in front of your kids hurt them too
Research in child welfare has continually shown that simply being exposed to conflict or violence is generally as destructive to kids as abusing them directly. (Perry, 1997; Hygge & Ohman, 1978; Jenkins & Bell, 1994) No, you didn’t read that wrong. Parents who fight or argue in the presence of their children are committing an injurious act just as severe as if they were battering the kids themselves. Let us explain why.
First, as far as a child’s brain is concerned, there is little difference between witnessing a stressful or fear-inducing event and being at the center of it. Our brains react to emotions in the environment no differently than they react to personal distress. Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that whether an event is experienced or merely witnessed, it can activate the brain in exactly the same way, triggering the same stress responses and neurobiological changes. (A detailed analysis of these principles is beyond the scope of this book, but you can find more information on these topics in our publication, ‘Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison.’) Adults have well-honed areas of the brain collectively referred to as “higher brain regions” which can moderate emotional signals from the environment. It’s the only reason you don’t run away screaming when watching a horror movie (and also why such movies are more intense for children). Brain scans show that watching a movie plays the emotional parts of your brain like a puppeteer, but because your higher brain regions kick in to dampen these signals (calm down silly, it’s only a movie, it isn’t real), it alters the way you react. The best movies are those that get signals past our cognitive filter, so that our emotions are triggered by what we witness on the screen.
So it doesn’t matter where these emotional signals come from or whether or not the child is the target. As we often say: once in the brain, it’s all the same. Because children have less developed prefrontal cortexes (it’s the last part of the brain to mature, sometime around age 26), this further limits their ability to “tone down” the emotional intensity of events they witness. So being around parental conflict and aggression is physiologically no different than being the target of it. This may be why researchers have found that children often interpret parent conflict as an uncaring gesture towards them. (Fabricius & Luecken, 2007) Very young children are particularly sensitive to the relationship between their divorced parents. (Solomon & George, 1999)
Second, children care as much about their parents’ emotions and welfare as they do their own. Because a child’s caretakers are as important to a child as life itself, what happens to them has a profound impact on the child. Studies of children have found that family victimization, whether witnessed or not, was as strongly correlated with psychological distress as personal victimization. (Jenkins & Bell, 1999) Children are diagnosed with PTSD simply by being party to conflict and/or aggression in their environment as often as when they are victimized directly.
Heated conflicts are scary for children, especially when they involve their parents. They also cause a great deal of psychological distress. You are their foundation, and more than anything else in the world, they want a stable foundation that can get along and tolerate each other. When you two continue to feud with each other, this high-conflict environment is just like living in a chronically abusive home, and it damages children in all the same ways.
It also makes it more difficult for them to cope with their own struggles amidst a divorce. Wallerstein & Blakeslee argue that “Perhaps the most serious effect of parents’ quarreling over children is that the kids learn that feelings are too painful; they teach themselves not to feel pleasure or pain. In the battle between you, they learn to be polished diplomats. They’ll tell each of you what you most want to hear – not because they’re liars but because they want desperately to soothe each of you, to calm you down, to reduce their fears that you’ll become enraged. They’re afraid of your anger. They pity you, and they want you to feel better.” (2003, p. 204)
The only way to spare children this pain is to somehow find a way to put past pain and injustices behind you. Faking civility is better than nothing, but many divorce experts say that this really doesn’t work in the long term. At a bare minimum, parents should adhere to the following ground rules:
- Never fight in front of the children. If a discussion gets heated, walk away. If your ex becomes irate, keep your demeanor calm and collected.
- Never argue over parenting. This gives children the impression that they are the reason for the divorce. Settle such disputes in a place where they can’t overhear.
- Don’t bring up contentious issues during custody exchanges. This is asking for conflict.
- Intensity is important, especially for younger kids. It’s not disputes that are the problem – all parents have disputes. Couples who work this out calmly and rationally actually provide a positive model that benefits It’s when disagreements turn into conflict that is unhealthy: raised voices, name calling, shouting, angry exchanges, threats, throwing things, etc. The more intense the conflict, the more harmful it is.
- If you can’t get your partner to cooperate, take the civil approach yourself. Having one sane parent is better than having none.
“If the parents are angry or unable to cooperate or communicate well with each other, the children show disorganized attachment to both, meaning that they don’t trust either mommy or daddy as protective figures. They feel insecure everywhere.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 217)