How conflict between separated parents affects their children
The longer children are put in the middle of parental conflict, the more emotional and psychological trauma they will experience
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 6:06am
Lora Lee

parental conflict
How conflict between separated parents affects their children
I recently separated from my husband, but my young children cry every time they have to see their father during his access time. They complain that he is not fun and shouts at them. I feel bad about forcing them to go as they often seem so unhappy, but their father told me they are happy once they settle down. I am worried but I know it is important for them to see their father.

Experienced teachers will tell you that when young children first start school, how they settle into the new environment depends on how confident they are and how the parent handles the separation.

As parents, it is our job to help the child overcome the fear of the new environment and people. During postgraduate training, I spent a year observing four children as they arrived and were picked up from school, and found that nervous mothers often fuelled anxiety in their children.

If a parent believes the separation will be difficult, the child is more likely to think school life is too hard (projection)

Research in Britain during the second world war on child-parent interaction clearly suggested that how a mother reacted to a traumatic experience such as going into a shelter or constant bombing had a direct effect on how the children coped with the stress of danger. The mother’s reactions not only affected how the children dealt with stress but also their life trajectory.

Another study published in Developmental Psychology in 1985 by James Sorce and others also supported the idea of infants’ ability to observe their mother’s emotional signals.

Neuroscience further confirmed the serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons, how children learn to decode (receive and interpret) facial expressions with emotions. When a mother frowns or shows disgust towards someone or something, the same regions of the child’s brain become activated. So, if a mother shows anxiety during separation, her amygdala lights up and thus the child’s amygdala lights up, and that triggers the emotional response of fight or flight.

The way we see others is shaped by our early experience (not just childhood, but previous relationships) and sometimes we project what we fear onto others or their behaviour. If you feel the father of your children might not be as capable as you or that your children don’t like to spend time with him, you are more likely to focus on what you believe instead of seeing the reality as objectively as possible.

It is not easy to be 100 per cent honest with yourself and to separate your fears. But your behaviour will leave an enduring impact on your children. I am sure you love your children, but sometimes anger and fear cloud our judgment and adversely influence their long-term adjustment.

Taking the time to write positively indicates you have the capacity to reflect on whether you are doing the best for your children and considering whether your behaviour is providing them with the best support.

Your behaviour now will have long-term effects on your children. You might not be able to see the results immediately, but research clearly shows that the longer children are put in the middle of parental conflict or under the influence of a parent’s alienating behaviour, the more emotional and psychological trauma they will experience and the more damage will be done to their development. If the father is not able to attune to your children’s needs as you like, the more you have to help prevent estrangement and to build a healthy attachment between them.

Your description of the separation suggests there are still some unresolved emotional issues. To protect your children, the best way may be to move on, and not let the bitterness and anger over your failed marriage bleed through to your new relationship as co-parents. It may be good to talk to friends and relatives as they know you and the father. But if they tend to agree with everything you say and amplify your fears, you might want to consider consulting a trained professional.

Some people see divorce as a failure, some seen it as a journey of self-discovery. It can be a bit scary and lonely at times, but with the right support and attitude, you and your children can reach the end safely. Remember, you are your children’s first and most important teacher for life.

Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor in private practice

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