Learning Points: The conflict, not the separation, hurts children

Learning Points: The conflict, not the separation, hurts children

WHEN we begin a relationship, we rarely think about what will happen if we separate. We are too busy building towards the future to allow such negative thoughts. When we say ‘I do’, we can’t know how it will end up.

And when we bring children into that relationship, the pressures it can place on us, as a couple, are many.

Relationships often do not survive and all those early hopes and dreams can be so easily dashed. So, what happens then? Where do all those early romantic feelings go?

The build-up to separation and the conflict in the immediate aftermath cause much of the damage for children, not the separation itself. Separation conflict is devastating to the development of a young mind. So, why can’t loving parents see the damage they are bringing into their children’s lives?

I have been working with teenagers now for nearly 20 years, including many teenagers who are going through the separation of their parents. I, myself, am a child of separated parents, so I have some insights into what separation does to the mind of a teenager and how it can impact nearly every aspect of his/her life. Children do best in situations of security, affection, and continuity.

Separation can rupture these and can make a child uncertain about the future. But parents need to hear that separation itself isn’t the single-biggest cause of disruption to a child’s well-being, but, rather, how the parents conduct themselves before and after the separation. Of course, all parents will argue, but arguing in a healthy way teaches children how to resolve conflict respectfully. However, when children are subjected to prolonged screaming and shouting, and are brought into the content of the argument, it can disrupt early brain development and disturb how teenagers view intimacy and relationships.

So, the impact can be devastating.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that, “people know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”

And if parents knew the impact of what they were doing in their post-separation game of war, they would cease immediately. Or, at least you would think they would. I see it in my clinic: children brought to me because they seem to be suffering from depression. But they are actually suffering from the weight of all the conflict they have to endure on a daily basis. It can be very difficult to sit in a room while parents talk about antidepressants for a child whose only issue is that they have been brought so completely into adult themes.

Research is very clear on this: children who experience parental conflict are much more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and poor academic performance than children in healthy families. When a child presents with mental health issues because of parental conflict, parents are often, in my experience, very slow to look inwards. So, much of the work I do is shifting this perception of the child’s problem. The locus of the issue isn’t intrapsychic (within), but rather without: it is their external environment pressing down on them.

They are not sick; the ecology they are navigating is sick. And parents are reticent to come to this penetrating insight, for to do so might actually mean they have to look at how they have conducted themselves in the separation. This is not about blame, but about understanding what our behaviour does to our children and to avoid falling into a trap that is to the detriment of their children’s mental health.

Of course, when a relationship breaks down there are so many difficult feelings for the parents to manage.

Often, one member of the relationship has been betrayed or treated incredibly poorly by another. So, the emotions and feelings are deep and complicated. The hurt felt in a separation can be all-consuming and can bring the family unit close to total annihilation. However, if parents manage separation in a healthy way, it can prevent the child from changing how they view the world around them.

Parents are the colossus that hold the child during their formative years.

When that relationship breaks down, it can erode a child’s sense of security. When you add conflict and hostility to the mix, that can change how the child views themselves and the impact can last a lifetime. Separation doesn’t have to mean destruction. If it is managed properly, each member of the family can thrive and everyone can learn how to live in this new way.

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