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  • Lora Lee

How Conflict Between Separated Parents Affects Their Children

I have recently separated from my husband but my young children cry every time they have to go to see their father during his access time. They complain that their father is not fun and shouts at them, and they would rather stay at home with me.  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, even though he left us.


Thank you writing.  You clearly show an ability to reflect on what might be best for your children instead of following your emotional impulses.

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

As parents, we know that no matter how difficult it is, our job is to help our children adapt to the school environment and to separate from us, so that they can learn (not just academically but to be a fully functioning individual).  Unless there is a real concern of a mismatch of the school and the child, it is the parents' job to help the child overcome the fear of the new environment and people.

During my first master's training, I spent a year observing four children in the morning and afternoon, so I could see the separation and reunion.  I often witnessed that a nervous mother fueled the anxiety in her children.  When a mother was lingering at the door, the child would continue to protest.  However, I often saw that the child would calm down after the mother was out of the premises and she or he would then get on with the day's program. 

I also witnessed the same children, happily playing until 10 minutes before pickup time.  It is like they sensed the need to perform for the parent. They started to act nervous and couldn’t wait to go home. When they saw the parent, there would be all the drama of reunion.  If I wasn’t there to witness the transition, time and time again, with not just one child, I would have thought it was a unique case, but it does seem children react to the expectations of their parents.  If a parent believes the separation will be difficult, the child is more likely play the role that school life is too hard.

Research in the UK during the Second World War on child-parent interaction clearly suggested that how a mother reacted to 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 pertinent developmental psychology research in 1985 by James F.  Sorce and others on the effect of maternal signaling (facial expression) also patently supports the idea of even infants’ ability to observe their mother’s emotional signals.

They placed one-year-olds infant on the shallow side of the visual cliff plexiglas and had their mothers on the other side of the visual cliff showing different emotional facial expressions. When the mothers expressed joy or interest, most of the babies crawled and crossed to the deep side.  But if the mother expressed fear or anger on her face, most of the babies did not cross.

Neuroscience further confirmed the serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons, how children learn to decode (receive and interpret) facial expressions with emotions.  When a mother shows a frown of disgust toward 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 an easy task to be 100 percent honest with yourself and to separate out yours fears. But your behaviour will leave enduring impacts on your children.  I am sure you love your children, but sometimes anger and fear cloud our judgement and adversely influence our children’s long-term adjustment. 

By taking the time to write that 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 the best support.  I feel dejected when I see parents stuck at the anger stage and using their children as ammunition in the battlefield of divorce. 

Your behaviour now will have long-term effects on your children. You might not be able to see the results of your actions immediately.  But research clearly shows that the longer children have been 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.

You also needed to be conscious of your behaviours not being seen as contributing to parental alienation, as defined by Darnall (1993), “any constellation of behavior, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent.”

From what you said about the father left you, there seemed to be some unresolved emotional issues.  To protect your children, the best way maybe to move on emotionally, not let the bitterness and old anger from the failed marital relationship bleeds through to your new co-parenting relationship. 

Friends and relatives are good to talk to, as they know both you and the father. But if they tend to agree with everything you say and amplify your fears or anger, you might want to consider seeing someone professionally trained in this area to support you to grieved over the marriage,  use this as an opportunity to grow and help you shift our role as parenting partners for your children.

Edited version published:  Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 6:06am

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1833357/how-conflict-between-separated-parents-affects-their-children

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