Stop: Take Your Kid Out of the Conflict Four issues to consider when your child feels caught in the middle. BY ERIK FISHER, PHD
Don't let your child take responsibility for issues that are between you and your spouse.
Conflict is a part of life, and in many marriages it can be part of a daily occurrence. In my decade and a half of working with couples and families, when arguments and conflicts happen between parents, it almost always impacts much more than the two parties involved. Kids can often be affected and the impact can last a lifetime. Regardless of the genesis of the belief that the child has caused their parents’ problems, the guilt can be overwhelming and can lead to depression, anxiety, drug/alcohol abuse, relationship issues, future divorce, self-harm and even suicide.
Kids often feel like they are in the middle of their parents’ conflicts whether parents intend them to feel that way or not. Sometimes more significant to the child is when the parents’ conflicts lead to divorce. What happens when kids feel responsible for this? With a more than a 40 percent divorce rate for first marriages and increasing rates for second and third marriages, the reality is that one out of every two marriages is impacted by a divorce and 40 percent of those marriages have children. Translation: millions of children are impacted by their parents’ split, which begs the question, how many more children are impacted by parents who remain married, but are in conflict?
One of the more recent stories to surface regarding divorce has to do with Miley Cyrus’ parents. In this circumstance, Miley has indicated that she feels responsible for her parents’ divorce. The details that have led to her parents split are not clear, but it seems they may have grown apart as they put their efforts into helping build their child’s career. In a situation such as this, there may not have been much outward conflict at all; the relationship may just have died.
This is another situation that occurs where kids can feel responsible, because now they feel that they have to keep their parents together, often to their own detriment.
What Are the Signs?
To say that there is a recipe for creating kids who feel responsible for their parents’ conflicts would be careless. There are innumerable situations that can result in this belief. The more important issue is for you and your spouse to sit down and communicate with your kid’s and let them know conflicts or problems between the two of you aren’t because of them.
Many kids fail to realize that their parents were alive long before they were born, and many parents bring their own issues into the relationship. Furthermore, sometimes marital issues may not surface until a child is brought into the picture. Here are some issues to consider should you and your spouse find one another going down this road:
1. Issues between spouses often begin long before kids enter the equation. In countless situations one or both people may feel that having kids will solve all of the problems. This does not work. I, personally, believe that most marriages are workable. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to heal. Both people have to be willing to work on a marriage as there are many issues to understand about love and relationships and too many to address here, but thinking a child will solve these problems is a completely misguided approach. Instead, it’s important that you handle each dispute one at a time and seek professional help if it cannot be settled amicably.
2. Blaming your kid(s) for your relationship problems shows a lack of maturity and can cut deeper than you may know. Even if this was done to you, don’t perpetuate the problem. If there are issues that you need to address with your kids either talk to them or, again, seek the help of a professional to resolve the issues.
3. Sometimes married couples do have issues in agreeing on how to parent a child. This is still not the child’s issue. It is an issue for the parents to address. Special needs kids, and I would argue that Miley—due to her unique situation could qualify as a special needs child—often require talking with professionals who can give guidance. Furthermore, children with special needs can take the focus off of the marriage, when every marriage needs attention.
4. In some instances, there are children who are seeking to negatively influence and/or destroy their parent’s relationship. Often this happens when attachment issues are present. These situations should always involve therapy for your child and for the parents, often separately.
I have a great deal of compassion for parents. I understand that it is a difficult and thankless job, but I also let them know they are the parents, and they have to take responsibility for taking the high road and behaving like the adults they are. It is not fair for kids to be put in adult situations. You and your spouse have to realize the power you have in your kids’ mind, heart and soul. Your kids may not let you know when they are feeling responsible for your difficulties. I always say to assume that they may, and let them know that they are not. I also advocate getting your kids some professional help. Just as they cannot fix your problems, you often cannot fix theirs. Life is a journey, do what you can to make it as smooth as possible for everyone.