12 Thoughts of Children Caught in Conflict

Thoughts that can hurt your children and hold them back

Introduction

In the best of circumstances children encounter overwhelming losses when their parents separate:

  • The chance to grow up in an intact family.
  • The freedom to feel like other kids.
  • The gift of having one home with one schedule.
  • The security of not worrying that love (including love for them) might end.

And many, many more.

Almost all separated and divorced parents who think about their children’s true losses will resolve not to add parent conflict to their burdens.

We hope you’ll make a firm decision that, given the known dangers to children from parent conflict, enough is enough.

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1. “I'm so ashamed. I'm humiliated. Other kids' families aren't like this.”

Children can carry the shame parents are too angry to feel—for indeed, family fights that go on and on are a pretty good occasion for humiliation.

But something more is operating here. Children feel they are responsible for these fights.

Children are egocentric. From their earliest cries—voila!—food appears, and they come to think they cause the major events in their lives.

Overwhelmingly, children can’t feel indifferent about their parents’ conflict, and they become stuck with a painful sense of responsibility for it.

2. “I'm scared to death. I don't know what will happen next. I can't trust my parents to keep me safe.”

Home is the child’s entire world, and with parents in conflict, home indeed looks to be horribly and completely unsafe. A child knows she’s dependent on her parents for nearly everything—food, shelter, comfort, protection, guidance. How unsafe the world must look if her two saviors are at war with each other.

3. “I need to fix this. It's dangerous if I don't.”

Children are so sad and fearful over parent conflict that most will feel the need to fix it.

Even children who are told they aren’t responsible for their parents’ conflict will often feel responsible to do something.

Which sets up a ghastly “I-have-to-and-I’ll-fail” trap for kids. “I have to fix this dangerous situation” is often quickly followed by, “It’s my fault because I failed.”

In all likelihood, the only way you can save your children from this pain is by ending all parent conflict.

4. “This is MY mom and dad. I must have the faults they point to in each other.”

A child knows that he comes from both parents. Parents simply cannot criticize each other—either by their open exchanges or by their icy interaction—without causing the child to feel defective.

Parents' fights, especially those in front of their children, devastate children's opinion of themselves.

If you and your co-parent are in conflict—either openly or just by the resentments your children can tell you carry around—isn't it time you turned the page for your children's sake?”

5. “I need to figure out who is right and pick sides.”

If a parent’s goal in “taking conflict to the children” is to make them feel like they need to choose, then in an odd sense the parent has succeeded. The children will likely feel panic and pressure to figure out who is right and whom to choose.

What the parent doesn’t realize is that this is just another way in which no one wins—and the children always lose.

6. “I can't talk about my real hurt and real fears.”

Perhaps one of the scariest and most devastating ways that parent conflict injures children is by sending them the message that their needs must be sacrificed. The dark needs of the parents are so loudly and frighteningly expressed that children may feel they cannot bring a single need of their own to the table.

In fact, parents in conflict will almost never hear from their children an honest account of their needs and fears.

And this forced dishonesty about their needs and fears is just another painful injury children obviously do not deserve.

7. “I need to say what others want to hear.”

Children of conflict have no permission to be themselves, and they live contrived lives as they try to steer between their warring parents.

As Dr. Ross Campbell wisely observes, “Children have no defense against their parents’ anger.”

Whatever else a child of conflict can be, he can’t be himself. He’s forced to be one person with Dad and a different person with Mom.

In working with warring parents, it’s painful to hear them argue over the different things they hear from their children. Is it really any wonder the children are forced into burying their own wishes and feelings in favor of saying whatever might calm each parent?

8. “I will make one parent angry (or hurt) if I need or love my other parent.”

In the natural order of things, parents protect children. In the upside-down world of parent conflict, children may feel forced to take care of their parents.

And parent conflict can trap children in a particularly painful bind: I have to deny needing or loving one parent to keep from angering or hurting my other parent.

Remember that your job is to give your children the best possible substitute for losing their intact family, not making their already-imperfect family life even more painful.

Find every way you can to support your children’s good relationships with their other parent.

9. “If I weren't here, this wouldn't be happening.”

Children hear. And they can figure out that all the fights are "about them." As conflict continues, children are at high risk of taking responsibility to end it.

Not only does this sense of responsibility reverse the order of things—children now caring for their parents’ needs—but it gives children an additional reason to blame and criticize themselves: when the conflict doesn’t end, the children feel even more blameworthy.

10. “I can't do anything right. I deserve whatever bad happens to me.”

Again, children tend not to blame their parents nearly as much as they blame themselves.

It’s common for parents, especially those consumed in conflict, to forget that being a child is not easy. Growing up, trying to fit in, and picturing how one’s life will go are real challenges even without the additional burdens that come with parental fighting.

When that fighting leads, as it often does, to academic and social problems, the children can fall into a cycle of progressive self-blame and self-criticism. “These grades prove how awful I am.” “I don’t fit in because of how messed up I am.”

11. “I'd do anything to feel better or to fit in.”

Children living in conflict can accurately be seen as having an emotional hole in them. And that hole doesn’t remain empty. Things fill it up, often very dangerous things.

A lot of talk is given to children's “risk factors”: divorce, conflict, lack of support systems.

The staggering number of children in communities across the country succumbing to academic failure, alcohol and drug abuse, and involvement in a wide range of dangerous activities and relationships underscores that growing up today is already a dangerous business.

This simply is not an age of innocence for children, not unless we consistently bring that innocence into our children’s lives.

When today’s children don’t receive that gift, they may fall harder than children in earlier generations.

12. “I don't care anymore.”

Parents in conflict often are surprised to see their children drop out of activities that they once loved. A star basketball player one day announces he’s not interested in going out for the team. A straight-A student stops taking an interest in school—or even drops out. A once-talkative child becomes sullen and withdrawn.

The truth is that children, like adults, become depressed over depressing circumstances. And depressed people characteristically lose interest in things that once captivated them.

Children of conflict have one additional reason to withdraw inside themselves: it often feels better to become invisible than to risk being in the line of fire. A local psychologist tells the story of a young baseball star whose parents’ fighting led him to quit his team. “Why hit a home run,” the young man asked, “when your parents are sitting on separate sidelines ready to fight? I’d rather not do anything that brings us together.

I don’t even want to be seen much.”

A final thought

Inside you lives a hero—and no doubt you’ve already taken difficult steps to protect your children. Maybe you’ve—

  • bitten your tongue because a child would have been hurt by an outburst,
  • defended your spouse/co-parent to your children, or
  • made some parenting task easier for your spouse/co-parent.

Whatever it’s been, in the middle of the inevitable mistakes that go with separation and divorce, you’ve taken steps to shield your children from conflict you knew could hurt them.

Give yourself credit for each of these heroic measures—and build on those measures.

And remember that heroic peace-making will rescue not just your children—but you as well.

Printable Summary

We wish you and your family the very best.

Charlie and Barb Asher
UpToParents