When parents separate, they must find ways of answering a lot of difficult questions about how they will care for and manage their children. Where will the children live? How much time will each parent spend with them? How will decisions about the children be made? Who will pay child support, and how much will be paid?
Many couples are able to resolve these questions on their own. However, these questions are hard because they're about the thing that is most important to most people--their children--and so the questions often trigger powerful fears and anxieties about the future. What if he tries to take the children away from me? What if she doesn't pay enough support and I can't make ends meet? What if she changes the children's names? What if his new girlfriend wants to play mommy? As a result, many other couples can only manage these problems with the help of lawyers and mediators, and sometimes only with help of the court.
There's nothing wrong with needing help. Resolving these issues is hard. What I worry about is the conflict the unanswered questions arising from separation can create between parents, and the effect this conflict can have on their children.
Separation is always difficult for children. Although children are generally resilient and will usually get over the turmoil and disruption created when parents move apart, separation still undermines children's sense of stability and the security of their relationships. Separation is often the first real crisis they have experienced.
The "normal" negative outcomes for children of their parents' separation--and by normal, I mean outcomes that happen often enough that they're not unusual--include:
* mental health problems like depression and anxiety;
* emotional problems like sadness and anger;
* problems at school like falling behind or dropping out; and
* social problems like delinquency and falling in with the wrong crowd.
With support, lots of communication, and healthy parent-child relationships, the likelihood that these outcomes will happen can be minimized. Some children even thrive during and after their parents' separation, and experience benefits like improving ability to talk about their feelings and to be independent, patient and compassionate.
However, the likelihood that one or more of the negative outcomes will occur, and the severity of their impact, increases when children are exposed to conflict between their parents. Almost every kind of parental conflict can...