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Crossfire of Divorce: Children Caught in the Middle

Updated: Jun 13


Lisa* had just turned 17. Her mother was concerned that Lisa was not acting like herself for the past few months. Being an outgoing and popular teenager, she was generally very self-confident, and excelled both in academic and extracurricular activities. Everything started changing about a year ago when her parents went through a divorce. Her father, to whom she was very close, moved out of the home. Apparently, her parents were growing apart for the last several years of their marriage. Lisa’s father, John*, worked two jobs to meet his family’s, with three children, financial needs. Her mother, Mary*, who also worked part-time, was feeling neglected because of John’s long hours. Mary deeply disliked John’s mother with whom he was very close. Mary filed for divorce. Lisa and her siblings were very upset with their mother and wanted their parents to reconcile. However, that was not possible because Mary had already ”announced” she no longer loved their father. Seeing no recourse, John moved out of the house into an apartment.

Lisa felt rejected when her father moved out. She believed the divorce was her fault. She thought that maybe if she had behaved differently and paid more attention to her parents’ feelings, they might still be together. Lisa became increasingly withdrawn socially, paying less attention to her appearance. She missed sports practice. She had severe bouts of inconsolable crying. She lost weight and sleep. She often argued with her mother about the divorce. Mary’s explanation was, “Your father is not a loving man. I couldn’t live like that anymore.” Lisa saw her father in a very different light. To her, he was loving, caring, and charming. Lisa didn’t know where to turn or what to do. She spiraled down into a deep hole of sad-ness and hopelessness. She began inflicting cuts on her forearms.

That’s when she was brought to me for a psychiatric evaluation.


Divorce as a Cultural Phenomenon

I don’t know anybody whose life has not been touched by a divorce. In contemporary society, divorce is increasingly common. Unfortunately, this is usually at the expense of the children’s welfare. My observation is that many children prefer their parents coexist in a “good enough” marriage rather than live separately. However, I have met very few couples in my personal or professional life who are willing to make that sacrifice.


Divorce and Children: Adjustment Issues

Divorces are extremely traumatic and have long term consequences for children. A divorce symbolizes complete loss of control and sense of safety for them. Lisa’s story illustrates this aspect of divorce.

Most common adjustment problems in children of divorced couples are:

  • Anger, sadness, depression

  • Oppositional behavior and physical aggression

  • Interpersonal conflicts

  • Poor academic performance

  • Low self-esteem

  • Poor social development

  • Feelings of guilt

  • Loneliness and fear, especially being away from a parent

  • Acting younger than their actual age

Guiding Principles for Parents

Looking from the children’s perspective is the best way to reduce potential damage to them. It is critical to realize that children must deal more with internal than external issues. Additionally, children deal with divorce uniquely. Since divorce is never a choice made by children, parents must do everything they can to give them a sense of control and security. Finally, parents must realize that their mutual behavior during this process provides an example of how to act.


Do’s and Don’ts for Parents

What to do:

  • Tell children about the divorce together

  • Tell children they are not to blame for the divorce

  • Tell children that both parents love them very much

  • Involve both parents in child’s activities including school, sports, etc.

Don’ts for parents:

  • Speak negatively about each other

  • Use children as pawns to anger/hurt each other

  • Bargain children to get something from each other

  • Pressure children for information about each other

  • Make children take sides

  • Argue with each other in front of children

  • Discuss child support in front of children

  • Exclude each other from important events as ”revenge”

  • Having a new partner stay overnight while children are home

*Names have been changed. This article is for educational purposes only, and not intended to diagnose/treat any medical/psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He received several research awards, authored several peer-reviewed journal articles, and book chapter on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for NAMI for Greater Cleveland. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms that would lead you to believe that there could be a mental imbalance, please email your questions to Dr. Ranjan at ask thedoctor@charakresearch.com. Each Wednesday, Dr. Ranjan will address some of these questions in this column. All contact info will be kept confidential.

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