The big overwhelming variable that causes kids of divorce anxiety



Many things affect children when parents divorce. However, there is one big, overwhelming variable that causes kids of divorce angst and anxiety—and that is when parents continue to fight and war with each other. Parental conflict affects children for many years to come.

When parents continue to fight, that does several things to the children in the family.

  • Many times, kids are drawn into the battle. The lines are drawn by the warring parents, and the kids feel like they must take sides. This is very unfair to young kids.
  • Other times, children withdraw completely. They fear they will have to take sides, so they withdraw into themselves. These kids can experience overwhelming depression.
  • Some children wonder if they will ever be able to trust adults again. I mean, after all, if the adults they love the most are acting this way, how do other adults act when upset? Remember, the kids have only known the adults as their parents. They didn’t know these two people before they were parents.
  • Does love ever last? “I thought my parents loved each other, but look at how they are acting toward each other.”
  • Some kids wonder, “Since my parents quit loving each other and are acting so ridiculous, will they quit loving me and act like that toward me?”
  • Some kids grieve the loss of the intact family. They grieve alone and deal with the pain alone.

Down through the years, I’ve heard several examples of how fighting affects various children.  Author and professor Tamara Afifi [1] tells a story about when she was doing research for a TED talk about kids and divorce.

Fifteen years ago, I was doing field research for one of my first studies on divorce (TEDxUCSB Talk: The impact of divorce on children), and I experienced a moment that had a huge impact on me. I was going into families’ homes and spending four to seven hours interviewing them. In one house, I sat down with a 12-year-old boy and asked him about his parents’ divorce. He was having difficulty concentrating at school, he told me, and his stomach often hurt. When he said his parents fought a lot, I asked him if he talked to them about it. “No,” he answered. “Because if I bring it up, it makes the fighting worse.”

That is a horrific burden to put on a twelve-year-old kid. Like a lot of young children, he would rather have suffered than talk to his parents because he realized things would only get worse. Evidently, these parents never stopped to ask the child how the fighting was making him feel.

Some parents, while not fighting verbally, invoke the silent treatment. This, too, affects children in profound ways. Children feel awkward when no one is talking, especially during the time the parents switch the kids on the weekends. What does this teach children about conflict resolution? Ignore a problem and it will go away?

Some research shows that children as young as six months can be affected by parental conflict. Babies sense something is wrong. Loud and angry voices can be scary. The emotions of the parents can be felt by the infant. The baby or toddler cries out of fear, and this upsets the parents even more. It becomes a vicious circle, where sleep and calm routines are affected by the stress of the parents fighting.

In the article How Parents Fighting Affects Children’s Mental Health, we learn that kindergarteners whose parents fight meanly and frequently are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues by the time they reach seventh grade.

Other research shows that cognitive abilities can decrease when children live in high-conflict homes. These kids also have difficulties with problem solving. Is that any wonder? They don’t see problem solving modeled for them, so they are more likely to yell, fight, scream, and bully their way through as their way of problem solving.

Children and teens have shared with me they have experienced parents exhibiting the following during conflict:

  • Screaming at top of their lungs
  • No regard or respect for each other
  • Deep, scary growling, usually from the dad
  • Slamming fists into walls and cars
  • Name calling
  • Threats of ruining the other parent’s reputation on social media
  • Never-ending arguing: every time the parents see each other, the same argument ensues.
  • One parent screaming while the other parent walks away
  • Using the silent treatment to get what they want from the other parent and then laughing about it later

What can children’s ministers and church leaders do to help these children?

It is important to remember that kids live in these situations on a daily basis for a long time. A one-shot seminar is not going to help long term. Sometimes, we must help the children. Although it might not feel right to think in terms of helping the children help the adult, that is what sometimes has to happen in divorce situations.

  • Encourage children to confront their parents. Help them explore ways to word a conversation. It might be something as simple as saying, “Mom, Dad, I hate it when you fight. It makes me sad and angry. Please don’t fight in front of my sister and me.”
  • Perhaps help children word the conversation, and write it on a card or in notes on their phone. Children should read the conversation over and over until they feel comfortable approaching their parents.
  • Help children understand they should approach their parents when everyone is calm, and things are peaceful.
  • If you have a good relationship with one parent, think about approaching that parent and sharing how you think the divorce war is affecting the children.
  • Be there for the children. Sometimes kids just need someone to listen to them.

Recently, a seventh grader told me, “You know what? I am finally getting control of my emotions. This past week, I was able to calm myself. I calmed myself down. It felt so good to be able to do that.” He went on to share about how he calmed himself down during class at school.

I asked this kid if he was going to share with his mom, and he said, “No, she is upset all the time, but I wanted to tell you.” He understands that right now, this is all on him. With the help of our church leaders, he has been equipped to deal with conflict in an emotionally healthy way. More than likely, he will end up ministering to his parent.

Kids and teens need us to help them. Sometimes, it is temporary until the parents can find solid footing in parenting alone. As the parents heal from the excruciating pain of divorce, things at home will get better. But until then, we might be the ones helping kids calm themselves and move forward in life.


[1] Tamara Afifi is a professor in the Department of Communication at UCSB. University of California, Santa Barbara


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