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Pre-Separation Conflict Harms Children













Most people talk about the harmful impacts of conflict during separation and divorce on the children BUT it actually starts long before separation!


The arguments that led up to the separation could have occurred for months or even years before one parent calls it quits. Damage can be done even if the parents are in a ‘cold war’ not speaking to each other with any warmth or courtesy as a way to just survive living under the same roof until the time is ‘right’ to make their exit. This creates a lot of tension in the household causing stress and anxiety for the children as they grapple with the uncertainty of what will happen in the future.


There could have been explosive arguments with a parent exclaiming “that’s it, I don’t want to be with you anymore’ which is very traumatic for the children to hear……. But days later the tension subsides until the next time. This emotional tsunami crashes down upon the children who are left devastated that the stability and security of the family is fractured. The tension may continue for a few days whilst the parents stay guarded until one cannot endure the silent treatment any longer and apologises until the next declaration of war is made.


There may be parents where every day little arguments erupt over small things as the hurt and resentment of bigger underlying issues fester. They could be in constant survival mode of fight or flight, like walking through a mine field anticipating the next ambush.


The children can be confused, scared or angry as their fears trigger their survival instinct to fight to gain some power and control over their lives as they try to live in a home full of chaos and toxicity. Reactions from children can be aggressive, angry, sad, clingy, teary or withdraw into silence. Older children, such as teenagers may even wish their parents would separate to gain a peaceful life as they often retreat to their rooms for solace or escape to a friend’s house where it is calm and welcoming.


So often as parents we are consumed in an argument without noticing our children are in earshot, or standing there trembling whilst the two most important people in their lives rip each other apart. It is important to become mindful of where the children are when you feel the warning signs of anger bubble away such as a pounding heart, shaking, jaw clenching, sweating or becoming flushed in the face. In that moment, it is important to switch to the needs of the children and the affect that a pending argument could have on them. There may have been an irritated tone or derogatory comment that can make a child look at you with disdain as they think you are being mean. Conversely, they could become protective of the parent enduring the tirade of insults.


If years of a parent’s relationship is fraught with conflict it can become the norm, creating a belief that this is what a parental relationship is like. It may create tolerances or learned bad behaviour for the children in their future romantic relationships. Who wants their son to become disrespectful and aggressive or their daughter to tolerate derogatory comments and abuse or vice versa.


As role models, your children watch and learn from you. It is important to teach them problem solving skills that seeks a solution rather than blaming. To listen to each other’s needs and concerns, having empathy and providing support. If you don’t have the skills to do that, seek some help from a neutral party such as a family counsellor at the Positive Thinking Clinic. For those who don’t know if they want to stay in the relationship or decided they want to leave but don’t know what to do or who to turn to, reach out to a Divorce Coach at The Divorce Centre to help you prepare your exit and empower you for the challenges ahead.


Author – Cheryl Duffy, Divorce Coach, Mediator, & Parenting Coordinator


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