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The Effects of Anger on Children in Divorce

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The most significant disruptions children have to face during a divorce stem from pervasive changes in their parents’ moods, attitudes, and behavior.  As the family crisis grows up the the point of separation, most children witness a removal of all the old restraints that once held their families together.  Bitter and explosive confrontations beteen Mom and Dad are common.

In divorce, anger is expressed over many issues; almost invariably one of these is money.  For example, when a child needs medical attention, money quickly becomes an avenue for venting anger.  Donna had a kidney infection.  Donna’s mother told the doctor to send the bill to Donna’s father because, as she read their temporary agreement, he had agreed to pay for such things.  But he refused to pay the bill.  News of this didn’t reach Donna’s mother until a few months later when she had to take Donna back to the doctor because the infection had recurred.  In order to get treatment for her daughter, she had to start paying off the previous bill in regular installments.  After that, she was not at liberty to take Donna to the doctor as often as she would have liked.  This is the sort of scenario I see replayed again and again in the divorces I handle.

The bell seems to clang for the fighters to enter the ring almost as often when it comes to visiting arrangments.  One mother hastily took her children to the movies one summer afternoon when Daddy didn’t arrive on time to pick them up.  He got there twenty minutes late to find the house empty.  He protested, but Mother replied icily that she was not going to permit him to disappoint the children by arriving late.  Traffic jams and the like were his tough luck.  She was so intent on punishing the father that she overlooked the children’s anxiety about their father not finding them at home.  It astonishes me, when I get the phone call Monday morning after the regular weekend confrontation, that no one seems concerned about how the children are feeling.

The most common expression of anger comes in the form of badmouthing the absent parent to the children.  When asked, children complain about this more than anything else.  Children find it particularly distressing to hear their parents labeled with the most alarming obscenities imaginable.  Often children are invited to join in this name-calling.  Some will do so eagerly, others will feel anxious, and some will be disgusted.  It’s not uncommon for a judge in a custody suit to place restraining orders on both parties, which forbid them from making any derogatory remarks about the other parent in the presence or hearing of the children.  Often, when parents are helped to recognize that verbally assaulting the children’s other parent is also an assault on the child’s own self-esteem, they stop doing it.

However, some parents are so implacable that nothing can dampen their rage.  When this is the case, the children really feel it.  Custody battles are commonplace, and childnapping is even attempted from time to time.  Battles around visitation are almost incessant.  Often, children are exposed to the unspoken threat that they will seriously jeopardize their relationship with one parent if they exhibit any loyalty toward the other.

I represented Lucy against Frank in a recent custody dispute involving their eleven- and thirteen-year-old daughters.  Each parent testified that the girls had expressed a preference for them over the other parent.  The judge ordered the courtroom cleared of all witnesses, including Frank and Lucy.  He ordered the record sealed and admonished counsel not to disclose the testimony of the girls to their parents.  I was astonished to hear both girls testify that they liked spending equal amounts of time with their mother and father.  They simply couldn’t bring themselve to tell the truth to either parent. They told them what they wanted to hear, and only added fuel to the fire that was consuming the resources that could have meant college for them later on.

When anger seems pointless to a person, it degenerates into depression  A depressed parent is usually tired.  The daily tasks of parenting — meal preparation, bathing, diaper changing, tying shoelaces, and the like — are unusaually depleting.  Consequently, they don’t get done as often or as well as was once the case.  This will leave a young child feeling abandoned and lonely.  Older children will feel that nobody cares for their needs.  If the parent’s depression gets to the point that the child hears threats of suicide, then we can add terror the list of emotions he or she is feeling.

What can you do to help your children through divorce?  For starters, tell your children what is going to happen: where everyone will live, where they will go to school, how they will be cared for.  Assure them that they will have access to and time with each parent.  Tell them that the purpose of the divorce is to try to make things better.  Tell them, in general but clear terms, why the divorce is happening, without hurling accusations at anyone.  Assure your children that it is not their fault.  You can let your child know that you are sad and that you regret the breakup of the family, and be sure to tell them that it is all right to love their other parent.  The best thing you can do for your children is to stop fighting.  If you can do nothing else for your children in the midst of your divorce, at least do this.  A fight requires at least two people; you can stop a fight all by yourself.

Just as you may need to seek help for yourself, seeking help for your children is also appropriate.  It is usually important to let their teachers know they are going through a stressful time; teachers can be of great help to your children and to you.  If you would like a list of referrals for therapists who work with children, email

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