In my work with couples who are learning how to parent their children together after ending their marriage/relationship, we spend a good deal of time talking about how the ending of their relationship affects their children, what the internal experience of a child could be, and how the child manages their parents’ conflict.
There are no descriptions that accurately describe what this is like for every child. We often see differences even between two children from the same family. We can discuss some of the possible scenarios to give you a flavor of what your children might be experiencing.
It is often the case that children have their first experience of witnessing love ending when their parents divorce. You may have noticed that a child’s experience may be narcissistic. In other words, they see the world only as it is influenced by them (that happened because of me). When viewing the changes in their parents, they could have the thought at an unconscious or conscious level that if my parents can stop loving each other, they can also stop loving me. This thought is difficult for parents to take in because they do not feel they love their children any less because of the ending of the marriage. And the perception of the child may have no relationship to their actual experience.
It is possible that the fear of losing the love of a parent could explain times when children will tell each parent something different. For instance, Johnny may tell Mom he wants to be on the soccer team and tell Dad that he would rather play baseball. When the parents talk about how to decide what sport Johnny will play, they each believe they have the straight scoop about what Johnny wants to do. They find out they have different information. How can this be? Why would Johnny tell me one thing and you something else? Is he lying? Is he deliberately creating trouble? Is he undecided?
One of the possibilities is that Johnny wants to tell the parent what he believes the parent wants to hear and in that moment also believes it is what he wants as well. Most often these statements are not deliberate lies or attempts to create mayhem between parents already experiencing conflict. He wants to protect the love of that parent and do nothing that will risk it ending as it did toward the other parent. He may not be consciously aware of this as a course of action.
Another aspect of a child’s experience is in the child’s need to attend to his or her feelings of split loyalties. Children have a healthy fear of being pulled into the dysfunctionality of their parents. Young children often want to be caretakers of the parent who is perceived as weaker. Children are strongly pulled to who they perceive to be the underdog and can suffer feelings of guilt when they make that choice. They might develop angry feelings towards the perceived stronger parent as a way of warding off those guilt feelings. For some children, they will align with the perceived stronger parent in an effort to not have to face weakness in themselves. One way or the other, the issue of loyalty can create an internal schism that looks for an external expression.
In the situations described, the best approach to helping children not be in the position of either offering disparate information or battling loyalties is for the parents to work at having a relationship with each other that allows the children to feel the collaboration on their behalf. When children know their parents talk with each other, make decisions together, and are not arguing with each other over anything to do with them, it reduces stress and the conscious or unconscious need to repair their internal struggles.