Children Suffer When Adults Fight

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Children invariably suffer when adults fight and they always lose regardless of who wins. Still, many adults sincerely believe that they are fighting for the benefit of the child in question.

What is happening with Elian Gonzales has similarities with what happens to millions of children caught between fighting parents. Children who are victims of a bitter divorce lose one of the parents and are forced to take sides. Elian is just a little boy being pulled in opposite directions by a feuding extended family and bystanders who claim to have his best interests at heart. If that were the case, their top priority would be to provide Elian an opportunity to heal from the loss of his mother and the trauma he suffered at sea and now through the seizure. Healing requires a degree of privacy. How can a child heal when everyone around him is frantic and dozens of photographers and reporters are milling about?

Psychologist David Elkind, who has been researching child development for the last 40 years, believes that Elian has not yet had a chance to heal from the emotional pain of his mother's death. In an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, Elkind explains how the grieving process might have been interrupted through, "Living with people who were nearly strangers, in a house that was constantly surrounded by chanting, singing crowds, could only compound his confusion."

It is probable that either Elian does not truly understand that the loss of his mother is permanent or he might have repressed his emotions. Consideration for Elian's emotional health now and in future years should override political ideologies and material interests. To work through grief and trauma, children should be in a familiar environment, with their immediate family, playmates and above all with caregivers who are congenial and act in harmony with one another.

After reading Elkind's article, I pulled out a book from my shelf, The Hurried Child, which he wrote in 1988. Children are hurried to grow up too fast and too soon because grownups driven by their own agenda impose too much too soon. They are expected to behave as if they are older than they really are. Parents embittered by divorce expect their children to share their resentment and not ever want or need the other parent. They force their children to choose when choosing amounts to losing. Elian, too, by now, understands that he can please or displease people by choosing to stay here or return to Cuba.

Many children of divorce are coerced to pronounce similar choices every day. They are expected to affirm or reject one parent's wishes. Each parent pulling them in opposite directions shatters their dreams and hopes and multiplies their sense of loss. Ironically, the pain of the children of divorce is often multiplied from the actions of well-meaning parents who believe that they are trying to "protect" the child and acting in the "best interests of the child."

Shay Bilchik, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America in a recent guest editorial in the Banner says it well: "We must never use our children to try to resolve adult problems, put them in the middle of adult disputes or deprive them of a lifelong relationship that is theirs to have, as long as it is safe."

Divorced parents should seek mutual, informal mediation and negotiate. Both parents have to be willing to do that. One parent acting alone can minimize the child's trauma to some extent but can't eliminate it altogether. Incidentally, with the exception of a lawsuit involving a perpetrating parent, a court cannot exactly serve as a house of healing for a child who is hurting.

Parents who feel totally rejected and humiliated by the divorce are hardly in a position to recognize the subtle emotions and needs of their children. They may be blinded by their own rage and pain and lose sight of how their actions might be hurting their children. Children as a general rule do not develop emotional disorder primarily as a result of parental divorce. A child's emotional problems such as bad dreams, refusal to go to school or sleep alone at night, or frequent outbursts of anger are often an indication of a difficult divorce process or post-divorce disputes.

Even a first grader can recognize when he or she is being exploited by one parent; when a parent is trying to coerce, punish or extract information about the other. Such a realization brings extraordinary stress to bear on the child and is likely to make him bitter and sad.

When a parent doesn't pay child support, the child feels unwanted and unworthy. When parents voice complaints or taunt in front of their children or try to convey unpleasant message through them, the little ones are likely to feel abandoned and exploited by both parents with no one to look up to for support.

If the Elian saga can make us look close to home, he may not have suffered in vain.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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