I n order to focus on their many developmental tasks, children need a stable, relatively peaceful environment. Sibling battles and occasional parental squabbles are tolerable disruptions, but a child needs to feel basically free to focus on his own life. Young people don’t do so well when they have to deal with strong or confusing emotions or intense stress. Under such conditions, they have less energy for study, social relationships, creative outlets, and even play.

“I felt like it was up to me to keep our home intact. My parents fought a lot, and then they would each come to me afterward to complain about each other.

“What was I supposed to do? I was just a kid. Now that I’m an adult, I see clearly what an unfair predicament I was placed in. What on earth could a child understand about marital dynamics? Also, I needed the love of both my parents. I didn’t want to hear how bad my mother or father was. And I didn’t want to risk losing approval by disagreeing with them either.

“For example, if my mother said that my father was horribly abusive, I couldn’t defend him without ruining my relationship with her. On the other hand, it terrified me to think that they might get divorced, so I didn’t want to agree with her either. I had to think really hard about what kind of answer I could give that would support her and also protect my home.

“I was nine years old. What’s a kid supposed to do in that situation?”

Logical Sources of Support?

Parents who “confide” in their kids don’t mean to assign larger-than-life tasks to these youngsters. Usually, they’re just distressed and not thinking clearly. They want someone to help soothe their emotional pain. Children are often nearby, many times privy to the ugly conversations that occur between irate spouses, and are “logical” sources of support.

“You saw what just happened, didn’t you? Your mother is crazy!”

Parents may think that their kids understood what they saw and heard, while, in fact, it’s very unlikely. What was obviously “crazy” to an adult was probably frightening, confusing, and painful for the child, severely impacting his ability to assess the behavior.

Even if the child was perfectly calm, there is no way that he or she could assess the meaning behind a snippet of highly emotional parental behavior. The parent’s mental health, personal history, marital history, and other relevant factors impacting on that moment are out of the child’s reach. The only thing that the child can perceive is a strong sense of threat and danger.

In such a situation, the youngster will often attempt to restore calm and stability in whatever childlike way he or she can come up with. So much for tonight’s math homework.

Quiet Threats

In today’s world, many children put extraordinary amounts of energy into managing their parents’ post-marriage relationship — that is, their divorce.

“My parents had a ‘good divorce.’ There were never any big fights and we kids spent equal amounts of time with each parent — but I don’t think anyone understood the strain I felt.

“Whenever I was with one parent, I felt terribly lonely for the other parent, but I would never say anything about that because I knew that would be hurtful to the parent I was with. Although no one ever told me I had to keep secrets, I knew I had to keep lots of things secret just so my parents wouldn’t feel bad. For example, my father spent lots of money on me and my mother was broke. I could never tell her about the things he bought and did for me.

“I lived in two separate worlds, and each of my parents only knew half of me and my life. Even when Mom started dating someone seriously, I couldn’t tell my father about it because I didn’t want him to be sad. No one knew how tired I was from thinking about my parents’ feelings all the time.”

Children in some homes and situations find themselves occupied with thoughts and feelings that other children never have to consider. Although parents can’t always prevent the stresses that a child must endure, they can consider his difficult position. Knowing how much children suffer in their attempts to reduce adult conflict, the least parents can do is refrain from asking them to take sides. (Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 545)