Child Caring

Resolving conflict across the parental divide

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / January 15, 1998

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Citing the best interests of the children, Massachusetts' highest court ruled last month that a fundamentalist Christian father cannot take his three children, who are Orthodox Jews, to his church. Religion, the court said, had become a vehicle by which the 9-, 6-, and 4-year-old were being forced to choose between their parents. In their struggle for their children's souls, the parents were damaging their psyches.

Although this case is an extreme and sad example of what can go wrong in divorce, it holds lessons for all parents. Whether it's food or religion, exercise or style of dress, the problem for children is not the content of a conflict but the conflict itself.

Day in and day out, children are faced with discrepancies that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Young children don't see discrepancies, however, they see differences, and to them, differences are neither good nor bad, just different: Mommy is a girl and Daddy is a boy, and boys and girls are different. ``Noticing and understanding differences is a fundamental part of human learning,'' says psychologist Marla Isaacs, a researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

What children do with these differences, whether they take them in stride or not, depends on parents.

Isaacs describes a family she's working with where the mother is a rigid vegetarian who insists her ex-husband is poisoning their 11-year-old son with the food he feeds him at his house.

``When it was still a good marriage, they just had a difference in food styles,'' says Isaacs. Father and son were happy to eat whatever Mom cooked. Once there was a divorce, food became the battleground on which it was fought.

``The mother told the son what he could and couldn't eat, and what would happen if he ate certain foods. Every time he got sick, she blamed it on the father,'' says Isaacs. Pretty soon, he got sick every time he went to his father's, sometimes with psychosomatic illnesses. The boy became so anxious, he was afraid to go to his father's house. Eventually, the case came in front of a judge who ruled the son's welfare was at stake. The mother, he said, couldn't discuss diet with her son.

This child was reacting to the toxicity of the parents' conflict as much as to anything in his diet.

If parents repeatedly put each other down -- ``That tofu is disgusting!'' -- or put the kids in the middle -- ``Did your father feed you Fruit Loops again?'' -- children feel threatened, insecure, and unhappy. On the other hand, if parents are supportive and tolerant of their differences -- ``I think it's great how Mom pays so much attention to nutrition''; ``Daddy sure has a sweet tooth, doesn't he?'' -- kids do just fine.

``From a developmental point of view, children are very dependent on how much parental tension there is,'' says psychiatrist Michael Jellinek, head of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

If parents become emotionally and angrily divided on an issue, the typical child initially feels more invested in the parent to whom he has a closer attachment. For young children, that tends to be the mother, says Jellinek. When that loyalty is called into question repeatedly, it makes even a young child feel uncomfortable: ``What about Daddy?''

Children under 6 are the most flexible about this, says child psychologist Lewis P. Lipsitt of Brown University who researches early childhood development.

``When they have discrepant information, they make accommodations for it,'' he says. ``They embellish or distort it in order to get rid of the pieces that are too hard for them to fit together.'' Because fantasy and fact are intermingled for them, when Mom says one thing and Dad another, they put aside distortions to create a story they can live with that becomes reality for them: Dad didn't say that. I can still love him.

At about age 5, this balancing act becomes more problematic. ``The child becomes consumed with loyalty struggles,'' says Jellinek. ``That's very difficult to live with.''

When conflict between the parents becomes a dominant theme, he says children have to pay so much attention to the parents and to who's saying what to whom, that they can't pay attention to one of the most important tasks of childhood, their emerging sense of autonomy. Self-esteem suffers, and so does just about everything else, from schoolwork to friendships.

The loyalty issue gets even more complicated at 6 or 7. Isaacs says the typical child grows up feeling that parts of her are her mom, parts of her are her dad, and she holds those pieces inside her. When parents force a child to choose between them, ``not only does a child have to reject a parent, but in doing that, she also has to reject the parts of herself that are like that parent,'' Isaacs says. That amounts to a psychological, developmental loss.

School-age children tend to internalize the conflicts and blame themselves, particularly if the parents involve them in the fight or if the fights are about them: ``I caused them to fight, I caused the divorce.'' This begins to have all sorts of negative ramifications, says developmental psychologist and divorce researcher Kathleen Camara of Tufts University.

She ticks off a list of negative ramifications: aggression, withdrawal, depression, irritability, psychosomatic illness, regression, sleeplessness and, long-term, insecurity about relationships and inability to manage conflict.

The flip side of this is that parents who manage disagreements well teach children positive ways to resolve conflict. ``You don't have to be divorced to do this,'' says Camara, ``but if you are divorced, it certainly helps.''

Her research shows that even if there is more conflict than you would like, if it is discussed and resolved cooperatively in ways children see, they will fare better than if there is less fighting but it isn't resolved. ``The trauma just isn't there,'' Camara says. ``Even if all you do is agree to disagree, or agree to stay away from certain topics, that's OK.''

While a relationship to God has the potential to be one of the most loaded topics of all, Isaacs points out that many families today observe more than one religion without developmental damage to children. They do it, she says, by showing respect, cooperation, and tolerance.

``They show you can love a person even though you disagree,'' says Isaacs.

Clearly, this wasn't happening with Jeffrey Kendall and Barbara Zeitler, the parents whose case made it to the state Supreme Judicial Court. According to court documents, Kendall cut off his 9-year-old son's ``payes'' (long sideburns with religious significance), pushed his faith on his children, and talked in negative and ``distorted'' ways about Jewish culture. At church and from their father, all three were told they would be ``damned in hell'' because they did not believe in Jesus.

In this family, it would appear that if it wasn't God the parents were at war about, it would have been something else. ``And you know what?'' asks Isaacs. ``Any subject can be just as toxic, even brushing teeth, if you invest a lot of negative energy in it.''


- It's not unusual in a home with lots of parental conflict for a young child to flip-flop in loyalty from one parent to the other. It's a sense of fairness that motivates him, not an understanding of the issues. He's trying to balance out favoring one parent over the other.

- Even though a school-age child may tend to buy into one parent's point of view seemingly all the time, it doesn't mean he has stopped loving the other parent.

- It's not until a child is about 12-to-15 years old that she starts to come to such conclusions as, ``I don't trust my Dad's judgment; his track record isn't so good.''

- Researchers say children under 8 tend to be oblivious when parents give each other the ``silent treatment,'' and thus are shielded from parental tension. If the coldness extends to them, however, or includes such exchanges as, ``Tell your mother that I said. . ,'' then they are very aware of it and suffer from it.

- Exchanging heated opinions with your child is good experience as long as it is done in a cooperative spirit.

- A child who is continually overwhelmed by a parent -- ``That's the way it is, period'' -- may temporarily sublimate his own point of view but may become more oppositional over time, either overtly or surreptitiously, through lies and deceit.

- Children who are forced to choose between parents often end up as young adults who want nothing to do with either one.

- Use humor to take the edge off a disagreement.

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