Parenting in High-Conflict Households and Divorce
You didn’t expect to raise your children through family conflicts, chaos, or divorce. These situations, while never part of the plan, are unfortunately common in our current culture. And they sting everyone involved.
When we find ourselves involved in situations that are creating a hostile or chaotic environment in our household, we can become overwhelmed with a cascade of negative thoughts about our parenting and its impact on our children. How much is the fighting affecting the kids? How long can I pretend to be strong before I am lost in denial, hiding my authentic feelings? How much of the situation should I hide, or how much should I reveal? Is the guilt and shame I feel helping or making things worse?
No doubt these are some of the most difficult questions we can find ourselves festering over, making tough situations worse.
If this feels like you, first, take a breath. Many, many other parents have gone through gut-wrenching conflicts and come out the other side with families that have survived and thrived. But, we should take these matters on directly, and we need to be realistic about how a high conflict environment will impact our kids. We need to be the adult when kids are involved.
How High-Conflict Environments Impact Kids
Fighting or dysfunction in the home will most definitely impact children, sometimes to a large extent. Even in the best circumstances with functioning and connected families, children don’t escape childhood unscathed. That’s the nature of human existence, and there’s not much we can do about it.
This isn’t an excuse to throw our hands up in the air and stop trying to provide a secure environment for our children. Instead, it should serve as a call to show up better, to be proactive, to ensure we are teaching our kids how to repair, heal, grieve, process, move on, and grow.
There’s a tendency to let ourselves and those we love off the hook by repeating the cliché that kids are resilient. That cliché can be harmful if we use it to dismiss the long-term impact that scary events have on children. It’s our responsibility to help children through those scary things, not to rely on their resiliency. Falling back on our children’s resiliency can parentify our children, relying – consciously or not – on our kids to act like adults in situations where we have failed to do so.
Our kids are children, and they need their caretakers to provide a safe and secure home. When that doesn’t happen, then we need to work on repairing the situation with our kids.
Pre-Verbal Kids Are Especially Vulnerable
Knowing how to help our kids cope with high-conflict environments is especially difficult when our children are pre-verbal. It’s easy to believe that pre-verbal children won’t remember an abusive event, an accident, or a high-conflict marriage. But, those situations do impact baby and toddler mental health. Pre-verbal years are especially important to mental and emotional development, and often we don’t even consider that kids this young need as much attention to their mental health as they do their physical health.
Yes, kids are resilient, but to help them grow up with healthy ways of coping with stress, instead of maladaptive and problematic behaviors, we need to help kids process what has happened in their lives and then help them through repair and healing. Perhaps you’ve already noticed problematic behaviors. It’s likely these are ways your kids are coping, trying to survive the volatility around them.
What Should We Do As Parents?
Luckily, we are all capable of healing, no matter our age. Some may need more help than others, and the support of a therapist is often required for parents and children to facilitate the repair and healing. By addressing the damage of high conflict environments and divorce head-on, we can be the adults and let the kids be the kids. We can move from thinking we are broken, from a place of shame – which has no positive attributes – to a place of guilt, an emotional state with redeeming qualities that allows for behavioral change, accountability, forgiveness, and healing. We can model for our children what it means to be assertive in taking care of our needs and the importance of setting boundaries about the safety of our environment.
First and foremost, we must realize our children cannot be sheltered from everything bad, but they can learn to rely on us again. For this to happen, we must learn to rely on ourselves. We need to make hard decisions, sometimes contrary to what we’d like to do, so that our kids are able to heal and grow into the well-adjusted, thriving adults that we imagined when we first learned that these little miracles would be part of our lives.