Most kids will suffer for a short time after a marriage ends, but what exacerbates and extends their stress and anxiety is when they feel torn between two parents, says communication researcher Tamara Afifi.
Fifteen years ago, I was doing field research for one of my first studies on divorce (TEDxUCSB Talk: The impact of divorce on children) and I experienced a moment that had a huge impact on me. I was going into families’ homes and spending four to seven hours interviewing them. In one house, I sat down with a 12-year-old boy and asked him about his parents’ divorce. He was having difficulty concentrating at school, he told me, and his stomach often hurt. When he said his parents fought a lot, I asked him if he talked to them about it. “No,” he answered. “Because if I bring it up, it makes the fighting worse.”
Parents don’t always know what their kids are thinking because, like this boy, they keep their feelings to themselves. As a result, they go around believing everything’s OK with their child when it’s not. Kids may suppress their emotions for a number of reasons — they don’t want to make their parents upset, they don’t know how to express themselves, or they’re simply too absorbed with their grief. After I talked to that boy, I thought, “I have to do something different to show parents how their fighting is affecting their kids’ bodies.”