Family

When Kids Parent Their Parents

Divorcing couples too often forget the children in their midst

Support, comfort, even a sympathetic ear — kids of divorced parents often take on the role of “mini-parent” when tempers flare between two people who once were lovingly committed to each other.

“Children ought not to be victims of the choices adults make for them,” Wade Horn, the U.S. assistant secretary for Children and Families under President George W. Bush, once said.

“Kids worry, ‘Maybe if Mom and Dad stopped loving each other, they’ll stop loving me,'” said one expert.

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And one of the choices parents who are in the midst of divorcing often make is sharing too much of their own hurt and anger with their kids.

“I know I leaned too much on my teenage daughter when my husband left all of us very suddenly,” said one Massachusetts mom of three adult kids about the years following her divorce. “I was so blindsided — and truth be told, my husband had been my best friend. So I turned to my daughter — who I knew loved me — instead of immediately going into counseling and talking to another adult about my anger and bitterness.”

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The lifetime risk of divorce today is 42 to 45 percent, according to sociologist Paul Amato.

“And if you throw in permanent separations that don’t end in divorce,” he told Family Studies in 2014, “then the overall likelihood of marital disruption is pushing 50 percent.”

Related: Why Daughters Suffer More from Divorce

Statistically, then — many children in the U.S. are at risk of parenting their parents through their divorce.

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Rosalind Sedacca, a certified divorce coach from West Palm Beach, Florida, and author of the website ChildcenteredDivorce.com, feels passionately about parents not leaning on their own children for emotional support during divorce.

“It’s one of the most dangerous consequence of a divorce done the wrong way,” she told LifeZette. “Children are innocent and they want to fix things, and they also innocently blame themselves because they are developmentally egocentric — the world revolves around them. So it’s natural for them to think, ‘If I hadn’t been so bad last week, Mom and Dad wouldn’t be getting a divorce.'”

If kids hear their parents fighting over them, they feel they can do something to fix the problem, said Sedacca. “Of course there’s no way on earth a child can fix adult problems. Parents are then [robbing] their children of their childhood.”

“Put yourself in the kids’ shoes, and try to see the world through their eyes. Listen to them, and give them permission to feel what they’re feeling.”

One Washington State father is still haunted by memories of sad little faces after his kids overheard him arguing with his ex-wife.

“I really regret this loss of control, and honestly I think about it still,” he said. “I thought my boys, who were 10 and 8 [at the time], were asleep, and I was yelling at my ex, and she was yelling back. The ironic part was, we were normally very controlled with each other, so this was not normal for us. I walked into the hallway, and there the boys were, tears in their eyes,” he said. “No amount of ice cream or video games or plans for Disney can take away that kind of hurt.”

Making the child a confidant is just a terrible mistake. “The child immediately becomes a little adult — taking sides or trying to get everyone together,” explained Sedacca. “Parents have set up a no-win situation for their kids.”

Parents must realize that they are role models for kids no matter what — and they need to be mature and responsible in the decisions they make and the things they say, as much as they may be emotionally hurting.

“The adults are caught up in the drama of the divorce, so children often fall by the wayside,” Sedacca warned. “Grades may go down, or kids may start bullying or becoming aggressive, or going the other way — being withdrawn. Parents need to consistently reassure their children that they’re loved and always will be loved, or the child will worry, ‘If Mom and Dad stopped loving each other, maybe they’ll stop loving me.'”

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As kids get older, if their emotional and mental needs are not prioritized, they may gravitate toward the wrong crowd, as well as drugs, alcohol, and violent behavior, noted Sedacca. Younger kids may regress — start bed-wetting and perhaps acting very immature or frightened. Grades and social skills can deteriorate, and children even develop nervous tics, reflective of deep insecurities.

Sedacca holds Skype sessions with parents around the world who are making their way through divorce. “Remember that every decision affects the kids,” she said. “Put yourself in their shoes, and try to see the world through their eyes. Listen to them, and give them permission to feel what they’re feeling — even if you don’t like it. Then, address those issues as parents with compassion and empathy.”

Parents must ask two questions of themselves during a divorce, according to Sedacca. The first: Do I love my children more than I dislike my ex?

“Ask yourself this question before each decision is made,” she said.

The second question: Would I decide the same thing for my child if I was still married? “The child should not be penalized because the parents don’t get along,” Sedacca emphasized.

“Divorce happens to good people,” added Sedacca, who offers a free ebook on her site for effective parenting going throughout a divorce.

“Sometimes people stay together who should never be together. With some thought and care put into every decision in a divorce, and with the children at the center, both parents are setting themselves up for good relationships as kids grow into adulthood — and beyond.”

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