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MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: Family conflicts and the pain children feel

By Jeanine Hatt
Special to the Herald Democrat

The coronavirus pandemic is straining many marriages — some to the breaking point. There are signs that separations and the divorce rate is rising as couples struggle with the emotional and economic fallout of the past year. According an article in WebMD last November, family lawyers surveyed in April and July reported a 25% to 35% increase in requests to start divorce proceedings compared to the same time in 2019. 

Unfortunately, the family members who are most at risk of being hurt are the children. There are so many times that, during a child’s visit in my pediatric office, I have witnessed a parent criticizing the other parent in front of the child as well as admitting that there are heated arguments at home with the children present. New research warns that kids who see their parents bicker are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Karey O’Hara, research professor of psychology at Arizona State University and her team interviewed 560 children between ages 9 and 18 yrs., whose parents were separating, asking about how frequent and intense the conflict was, how often one parent said bad things about the other and how often they felt caught in the middle. 

O’Hara said, "We found that exposure to conflict predicted children's fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents. In turn, children who reported higher fear of abandonment were more likely to report more mental health problems 11 months later."  Such problems included bottled-up feelings of distress and/or general feelings of anxiety or fear. 

One of the surprising findings in the research was that having a good relationship with their parents did not protect these kids from negative mental health impacts. Although all age groups had negative effects, the greatest impact was among the younger children. Appropriate parenting is a very strong and powerful protective factor for all children, especially after a separation or divorce, but although good parenting is protective, it does not appear to be enough to cancel out the negative effects of exposure to conflict. 

Dr. Anne Glowinski, director of child and adolescent psychiatry education and training at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, emphasizes that almost all the negative impact of divorce can be attributed to ex-spousal conflict. All pediatricians know that, during a separation or divorce, the better the parents do, the better the children will do.  

Basic advice for parents includes not arguing or fighting in front of the kids, being especially careful to not say negative things about the other parent in front of the them and avoiding saying things that make children feel caught in the middle, like they have to take sides. Children need to be reassured by their parents that, although their mom and dad are separated or divorced, they will continue to care for and love them.  

Finally, parents who cannot control their own anger or their bringing children into the conflicts around separation, need to seek help. There are many resources in our community for parents, and this includes contacting your child’s physician. 

Jeanine Hatt

Dr Jeannine Hatt is a pediatrician who has served the children of Texomaland since 1980 and is affiliated with TexomaCare Pediatrics and on staff at Texoma Medical Center. She is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and supports the work and policies they promote in the US and globally. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.