Parental conflict affects children in varying ways, depending on their age. For example, teenagers around the age of fifteen or sixteen are most likely to involve themselves in their parents’ battles. Younger children may keep their feelings hidden inside and may only show signs of depression in late childhood or early adolescence. Other children may adapt to parental fighting by trying to become perfect children. These model children try to do everything right while walking on eggshells, fearing their family will collapse if they make a mistake.
Unfortunately, more and more children seem to be growing up in families with marital conflict. Research has shown that the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996, and the trend is so well established that 40 percent of all children have experienced the breakup of their family through divorce. To this large number, add all the children whose parents are unhappy with each other but who don’t divorce. It’s not hard to see that a substantial segment of the population grows up in very unhappy homes.
Here are some effects that divorce may have on children and teenagers:
Children whose parents have divorced are increasingly the victims of abuse and neglect. They exhibit more health problems, as well as behavioral and emotional problems, are involved more frequently in crime and drug abuse, and have higher rates of suicide.
Children of divorced parents more frequently demonstrate a diminished learning capacity, performing more poorly than their peers from intact two-parent families in reading, spelling and math. They also are more likely to repeat a grade and to have higher drop-out rates and lower rates of college graduation.
Divorce generally reduces the income of the child’s primary household and seriously diminishes the potential of every member of the household to accumulate wealth. For families that were not poor before the divorce, the drop in income can be as much as 50 percent. Moreover, decline in income is intergenerational, since children whose parents divorce are likely to earn less as adults than children raised in intact families.
Religious worship, which has been linked to health and happiness as well as longer marriages and better family life, is less prevalent in divorced families.
Parents usually experience a lot of pain when divorced, and the most common ways of handling that pain are either to withdraw from their children or to become overprotective. Children are sensitive to their parents’ feelings and have many ways of dealing with this trouble, either internally or externally. Children may respond with depression or guilt, feeling that somehow the pain is entirely their fault. Most children have a never-ending hope that their parents will reconcile, even after one or both parents have remarried. Therefore, a sense of abandonment by one or both parents is very common for such children and may contribute to at-risk behavior during adolescence.
Assessing Your Marriage
Parents of a teenager at risk need to ask themselves some very pointed questions to evaluate the quality of their marriage. Some of the questions are listed here:
- Are you sensitive to your spouse’s needs?
- Do you argue in a fair manner?
- Do you resolve conflicts easily?
- When you talk to each other, do feel you have been heard? If not, why not?
- Are you content with your emotional, social and physical intimacy?
- Do you have fun together? Do you joke about the bad times you may be having in a friendly way?
- Are you forgiving with each other?
- How do you handle the division of household responsibilities?
Take a few minutes with your spouse to evaluate how you are doing in your marriage. The first step you must take is acknowledging and accepting any trouble that may exist. It is common for people to brush off an issue, expecting it will take care of itself and eventually go away. Nobody wants marital problems, but if you ignore them, you will only be giving them room to grow. Talk to your spouse about any problems and work together for a solution with which you both agree and feel comfortable.
Not all marital issues can be resolved by the couple – there are some issues that are too sensitive to handle alone. The subjects of such problems might include unfaithfulness; sexual frustrations; conflict involving in-laws, friends, siblings, and children; verbal abuse; and so on. When dealing with such problems, the best course is to ask a professional outside party for advice and opinions.
Many people hesitate to receive expert advice because they are unfamiliar with it and feel uncomfortable. But professional advice is helpful and important because relationship experts have studied and dealt with similar or identical situations to yours and can assist you in seeing your situation from many perspectives with several solutions, of which one or more will suit you and your marriage best.
No matter what your marital trouble may be, always remember these important steps:
- Acknowledge and accept the problem.
- Ask yourself why the problem troubles you.
- Approach your spouse with your thoughts and feelings.
- Talk it out.
- Stay rational.
- Seek an expert’s opinion and advice.
If after evaluating your marriage, you have found unresolved areas of tension, it’s important to try and resolve your problems before they spill over into the life of your child. Improving your marriage may be the most important thing you can do to help your teenager.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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