Sometimes in a divorce, one or both parents will engage in hostile or angry behavior that doesn’t quite meet the definition of domestic abuse, but nonetheless has the potential to inflict pain and suffering on everyone else who is involved, especially a couple’s children.
That suffering can manifest itself in a number of ways causing cognitive and emotional distress that can be dangerous and long-lasting to a child’s well-being.
There are several ways feuding parents in the midst of a divorce can impact a child. Some examples include:
- Using your child to communicate important messages with the other parent
- Conveniently forgetting or neglecting to take your child to their activities as a way to upset the other parent
- Interrogating your child for information about the other parent and forcing them to choose loyalties
- Making negative remarks about the other parent in front of your child
- Spoiling your child in order to become the “preferred” parent
- Reporting incidents to the police that are false or have no real basis that is beyond petty retribution
- Telling your child your version of “the truth” as a way to align them with your cause
- Withholding your child’s possessions to control or punish the other parent
- Purposely and unnecessarily interrupting or blocking your child’s time with the other parent
- Withholding parenting information so that your child misses opportunities to share activities with both parents, such as attending a school play or a soccer game
- Using your child to manipulate the other parent
How hostility and anger impact children
Children will react differently to a hostile parent in a divorce depending on their age.
Very young children, such as preschoolers or toddlers may start clinging to one parent, refusing to separate from them or express other forms of separation anxiety. They may have trouble sleeping through the night, revert back to wetting the bed or become sullen or withdrawn. Others may lash out by throwing toys or biting or hitting other children or adults.
Young school age children may start to do poorly in school or find ways to avoid school all together. They may also lash out in a way that forces parental involvement, perhaps by getting in a fight at school. Physical complaints may also manifest themselves in the form of headaches, stomach aches or other similar complaints.
Preteens may escalate conflict by actively choosing one parent over another, refusing the company of the parent they don’t prefer. They also may get into fights at school, resort to lying or cheating or completely refuse to attend school at all. Because preteens are at a difficult age, they may internalize a lot of feelings withdrawing and hiding feelings of loneliness or being afraid. This feelings can often be difficult to recognize.
Adolescents may resort to using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. They may become sullen and withdrawn (even more so than many already do) and they may become sexually active as a form of lashing out.
Recognize when hostility turns into abuse
Hostility is unpleasant but there are certain limits that when crossed, cease to become hostile and turn into domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse takes place when any kind of physical abuse, emotional abuse, stalking, or any other kind of harassment including those made through phone calls, mail, or social media is inflicted on one spouse or any other family member by the other spouse/parent.
When low level hostility escalates, and it often does in an emotional and messy separation and divorce process, there is an immediate need to protect yourself and any family members who are at risk.
If you are in immediate danger, call the police. In all cases where the threat is real, you must take your children and leave the residence where the abuser is living. You should immediately seek to have a temporary restraining order put in place that will prevent the abuser from taking any violent actions against you, including stalking or making threats.
In all states, domestic violence, if it can be proven, will have a direct impact on child custody and visitation rights. Since courts always put the best interests of a child first in custody and visitation proceedings, when domestic violence is present, those rights can be completely rescinded or severely curtailed. An abusive parent may be entitled to supervised visits only, if at all.
Steps you can take to protect your children
There are several things you can do to protect your child from hostile or angry spouses and situations:
Examine your own role. Admitting that you may be part of the problem is tough, but you’ve got to do the hard work if you want to be honest about the current state of affairs as it relates to your child. Awareness is the key. Think about what you’re going to say and do and then consider the impacts to your child before you do them. You may be so wrapped up in your own issues that you might not even be aware of the emotional distress you’re placing on the person you love the most.
Set long-term boundaries. Divorce is not an overnight thing. It can take months and years to resolve and the rules that were applicable during a marriage will no longer apply in many instances.
If you can, talk to your spouse about setting rules that help shield a child from conflict. That’s not always possible but at the very least, you can set boundaries for your own behavior. With a mental set of rules in place, it will make it easier to govern your dialog and your actions going forward.
Consistency matters. If a child tries to play one parent against the other, this can create major issues. Never under estimate a child’s ability to be manipulative, especially during stressful periods in a separation and divorce. You need to set your differences aside and try to maintain a certain level of consistency between the two households that a child must now occupy.
Keep in mind that each parent will have different parenting styles, but a discussion about boundaries and consistency that involves major issues (bedtimes, doing homework, eating the right foods, etc.) will actually set limits that can be understood by a child. They may not always like it, but the consistency will benefit them in the end.
Provide reassurance. While you can’t control the words and deeds of an angry spouse, you can provide reassurance and perspective for your child. Assure them that any divorce issues are not their fault. Try to help explain things on a higher level. Let them know that even if a spouse is angry, they are angry at a situation and not at them. Most of all, tell your children you love them. Do it often. They need to hear it more than ever.
Avoid loyalty conflicts. When you put pressure on your child to choose one side or the other, you are setting them up for one of the most damaging aspects of a poor parental relationship. As an adult, you may have trouble managing your complex emotions in a divorce but keep in mind that a child is even less equipped to deal with tough situations than you are.
Some parents act hurt when a child wants to spend time with the other parent or they may get angry if the child does not heap blame or criticize the other parent. Don’t do this! Simply acknowledge time spent with the other parent and focus on building your own strong relationship with your child.
If you need it, get help. You are working through uncharted waters in a divorce, just like your children. You don’t have all the answers as much as you want to believe that’s the case. If you’re having trouble with an angry or hostile spouse, try bringing in a third party who may be able to mediate differences and teach both spouses how to better communicate with their children and with each other.
There are countless books available on the subject of parenting and most communities will also have resources or classes that one or both parents can take as a means of providing a healthier environment for their children.
Take it to the next level. If you take classes, read books or work with a parenting professional without seeing positive results, you can take it to the next level and discuss options with your attorney. You run the risk of making an angry spouse even more angry, but you may also be sending a message that will snap them into more appropriate behavior when an attorney gets involved.
Your divorce attorney will be able to direct you to resources that are available inside and outside of the legal system, acting as a reassuring sounding board who can take more drastic steps if needed.
Keep divorce talk to yourself. You may be tempted to use your children as a sounding board, especially if they are a bit older, but having discussions about alimony, child support and so forth is likely to put children in a stressful place.
Keep personal and adult conversations about your divorce private with your spouse, your attorney and a few close and trusted friends and relatives. If you get a sense that your spouse is doing this, let them know that you know and that’s not acceptable. If they continue and you don’t, children will see the difference and draw conclusions that will probably favor your conduct.
No spying or secrets. The time your child spends with the other parent is private time and asking for a report violates that need for separate intimacy. Don’t ask your child to spy and report back to you on what your spouse is doing. Don’t ask them to keep secrets you may have as well. When children are relaxed, there’s a good chance they’ll let enough details slip about their visit to satisfy any curiosity you might have.
Therapy works. If you see that your children are wilting under the pressure applied by a hostile or angry spouse, they may need therapy to give them coping strategies. Many therapists specialize in working with children and can provide a perspective that you may not be able to do.
Likewise, if you need help to protect your children as well as yourself, don’t hesitate to seek out a therapist to help you deal with your own issues as well. When you are better equipped to deal with your own issues, you are also better equipped to deal with your children’s issues as well.