When parents who separate feel extremely bitter, hostile, or, even, vengeful towards one another, it is a sad fact that some use their own children as pawns, or weapons, in an attempt to hurt and punish one another (or, of course, just one parent may act in this way). When this occurs, the distress the child feels as a result of his/her parents’ divorce is likely to be compounded and potentially induce in him/her a state of profound mental conflict and confusion as a result of split loyalties that are impossible to resolve.
It is important to ask, then, what are the signs that a child is being used as a pawn/weapon in such a manner? I list some of these below:
Signs The Child Is Being Used As A Pawn / Weapon:
- preventing the child from seeing/speaking to / contacting the other parent
- deceiving the child into believing that the other parent is to blame for the collapse of the marriage
- exploiting the child by making him/her a ‘go-between’ / messenger to relay messages, particularly hostile, critical and disparaging messages, to the other parent
- pressurising the child into taking sides
- asking the child whom (i.e. which parent) they love more
- questioning the child about the other parent’s behaviour/ using the child as a kind of ‘spy’ to gain ‘ incriminating’ information about the other parent
- cancelling visitation at short notice to punish the other parent
- causing, on purpose, the child to be late for visitation to punish the other parent
- undermining the other parent’s reasonable rules, decisions and discipline merely to antagonize and frustrate him/her (i.e. the other parent)
- openly displaying aggression and hostility towards the other parent in front of the child
Using The Child As An Emotional Crutch:
When my parents got divorced, my mother started to use me as a sort of personal counsellor; she even, shamelessly, referred to me as her ‘own Little Psychiatrist’; it was always her life we discussed, never, or extremely rarely and briefly, mine. For this reason, and many others which I have written about elsewhere on this site, I feel I was largely robbed of my childhood; this has had terrible repercussions on my adult life (which I have also written about elsewhere on this site).
Indeed, it is not uncommon for parents, in the wake of a stressful divorce, to treat their child as a confidante, a friend, a spouse or even a parent (click here to read my article about the phenomenon of parentification and its potentially extremely psychologically damaging effects) and use him/her for emotional support that s/he is not developmentally mature enough to cope with and at a time when s/he (the child) is him/herself in particular need of emotional support. This is particularly the case if such confiding in the child involves spitefully turning the child against the other parent.
Acrimonious Divorces May Damage Children’s Immune Systems
A study conducted by Murphy et al (2017) suggests that childhood trauma (and, specifically, in this case, the experience, as a child, of having had parents who divorced acrimoniously) can adversely affect the immune system.
The study involved 201 ‘normal’ adult participants whose parents had separated during their childhoods. The participants were divided into two categories :
CATEGORY ONE: Those whose parents had separated amicably and civilly
CATEGORY TWO: Those whose parents had separated acrimoniously (e.g. frequently shouted and yelled at one another or refused to talk to one another)
RESULTS OF THE STUDY :
It was found that those adults in category two (i.e. those whose parents had separated acrimoniously when they were children) had weaker immune systems than those adults in category one (i.e. those who had parents who had separated amicably when they were children).
This was inferred from the fact that it was found that those from group one were less prone to common colds and similar conditions.
(It should be noted, however, that a sample of 201 for such a study is low which could affect the validity of the findings and that, because of this, further, similar studies need to be conducted using larger samples of participants).
THE THEORY THAT UNDERLIES THESE FINDINGS :
The theory that underlies these findings is that NEGATIVE EMOTIONS IN GENERAL (such as depression, anxiety, chronic stress, etc) harm individuals’ physiology and inflammatory processes and this harm may still be apparent decades later. However, precise details of the mechanism that underpins this harmful process are not, as yet, entirely understood (so, clearly, more research will also be necessary to resolve this matter). Assuming this theory is correct (and there is much evidence it is), then it follows that it is not just the experience of having parents who divorce acrimoniously that may lead to damage to the immune system, but any significant childhood trauma that results in chronic stress and negative emotions.
Children whose parents divorce acrimoniously are more likely to incur damage to their immune systems (that endures well into adulthood) than those whose parents divorce amicably / civilly (all else being equal) according to the findings of this study. However, future similar studies are necessary in order to add weight of evidence to these results.
N.B This is NOT to say children whose parents divorce relatively civilly are not psychologically damaged and it is also NOT to say that such children suffer no harm to their immune systems as a result of their parents’ divorce; it can only be inferred, in the light of this study, that if one’s parents divorce amicably this may operate as a protective psychological factor, protecting the child from the worst of the detrimental emotional effects of divorce. For more information about the effects, see POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF DIVORCE ON CHILDREN, below:
Possible Effects of Divorce on Children:
My own parents divorced in the scorching summer of 1976 when I was 8 years old. At prep school, I was the only boy in the class with divorced parents. I was deeply ashamed of this fact, and I did my best to keep it a secret.
I was so disturbed by my home life that, during this period of my life, the teachers at my school thought I was developing deafness as I would never respond when my name was called – instead, I would be sitting in a kind of oblivious trance (this is what psychologists term a’ dissociative state’, or’ psychologically detaching’ from the pain of reality as a defense mechanism).
Indeed, when I was taken to see a doctor it was confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my ears. Unfortunately, however, my parents did not regard it as necessary to arrange counseling for me, even though I was displaying other worrying signs of emotional problems during this time.
Today, divorce is far more common than it was in the 1970s and much less stigmatized. However, the potential adverse effects of divorce upon children can still be just as devastating as they have always been. Indeed, such effects can be carried into adult life, and, therefore, be passed on to the next generation.
POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF DIVORCE ON CHILDREN :
– REDUCED EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT: studies have shown that children of divorced parents can have a reduced capacity for learning and perform, on average, worse in maths, spelling, and reading than their peers
– POVERTY: divorce results in a large drop in household income and, in the USA, 50% of children from divorced families are placed into poverty as a consequence.
– SUBSTANCE ABUSE: children of divorced parents are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, particularly in order to try to cope with the emotional pain of conflict and rejection.
– CRIME: children of divorced parents are more likely to become involved in crime. For example, a study by Robert Sampson, from the University of Chicago, showed that the divorce rate of specific areas was predictive of the number of robberies carried out
– RELATIONSHIPS: divorce can weaken the relationship between the parents and the child. It can also lead to the child developing destructive ways of handling conflict which can persist into adult life. Indeed, children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce their own partners in adult life. Furthermore, children of divorced parents show less desire to have children themselves when they become adults.
Children of divorced parents also often find in later life that their own capacity to have deep and trusting relationships has been reduced. Also, if, as adults, they do decide to have children, they will often struggle to create a positive and healthy environment for their families to live in.
– NEGLECT: children of divorced parents are twice as likely to suffer neglect. Studies have shown that divorced mothers tend to be less able to provide their children with emotional support and divorced fathers are less likely to have a close relationship with their children.
A LIST OF OTHER POTENTIAL EFFECTS :
The child of divorced parents may :
– become prone to rage and anger
– become anxious/fearful
– become depressed
– feel rejected
– experience a sense of conflicting loyalties
– feel extremely lonely
– find that their confidence and self-esteem have been damaged