Helping children cope with their parents' divorce

Posted2/9/2020 6:00 AM

Six-year-old Mary loved her mother and father. She wasn't supposed to, though.

According to her mother, her father had '"abandoned" Mary. He was probably a "drunk," and "couldn't really love her, considering the way he acted."


Mary's father, whom she saw only on weekends, talked about what an "awful" person her mother had turned out to be, how she was spending the money intended for Mary on herself, and how he was sure she'd try to keep him from seeing Mary if she could. He'd understand, he often said, if Mary didn't really love her mother.

Not too surprisingly, Mary's parents are in the midst of a divorce. And though they are both certainly suffering as they struggle with the end of their marriage, Mary is suffering as much, if not more.

Mary is one of millions of children who are caught in the middle of their parents' divorces. Certainly not all children of divorce are confronted with the chaos Mary faces. But too many are.

Marriages end all the time. Sometimes they need to. And it is quite possible for children to grow up reasonably healthy and happy even when their parents are divorced.

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When parents put their kids in the middle, however, when parents ask kids to take sides or reject the other parent, children must not only deal with the loss of the marriage -- the foundation of their family life -- but with the potential loss of a parent as well.

Children assume that if Mom implies they ought to dislike Dad, they'll lose some of Mom's love and approval if they don't. Or if Dad suggests Mom is to blame, children are afraid he may leave them, too, if they don't agree.

No children can deal with such a dilemma. Having first lost a family, it seems to them that they now must choose which of their parents they are willing to lose. Even if neither parent would actually love them less or leave them, children are still convinced they will.

There can be a variety of consequences for children faced with such a choice. They can act out their anxiety, fear and eventual anger in any number of ways: nightmares, bed wetting, defiance, violence, school failure, delinquency, or substance abuse. Often such children suffer from sporadic or even chronic depression.


Ironically, children caught in the middle frequently wind up rejecting both of their parents. As they enter adolescence, these children begin to understand enough to realize that they ought not to have to ever make such a choice. They rightfully blame their parents for putting them in such an impossible situation.

Husbands and wives suffer incredibly when their marriages fail. Their sons and daughters suffer as well. Children of divorce desperately need to feel safe in the love of both their parents. Almost as important, they also need to know that they can safely love both their parents.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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