In this post I will address how children are effected by their parent’s affairs. In subsequent posts I will discuss the effects on adult children of affairs and offer suggestions for parents involved in affairs on how to best support their children through this difficult time. You may also wish to read about “Children of Affairs”.
Unfortunately, it is frequently true that when caught up in an affair you can unintentionally become disconnected from your children and their needs.
In other posts I have talked about the trancelike state of consciousness that one inhabits during an affair. In this altered state links between actions and consequences dissolve; in the euphoric bubble you inhabit you believe you can pursue an illicit relationship and no one will be hurt because you believe that you can control everything and so prevent this from happening. However, this is a grandiose assumption that more and more requires you to lie to, manipulate and avoid intimate contact with your family, sometimes with irrevocable results.
Many couples I see who are trying to work on healing from an affair are devastated not only by the destruction in their own relationship, but also by their children’s reactions. Other couples are in complete denial that the children are effected at all; since the children are showing a lot of support and understanding. In fact, children can get pulled in and become the source of comfort for either spouse. They can be manipulated into taking sides and vilifying one or the other parent. In many of these cases, the long-term effects on these children are not considered and the couple may be surprised years down the road at the amount of rage that the child has about what happened and how they were drawn in, and treated as another adult rather than the vulnerable child that they actually were.
There are reactions that occur while the affair is going on, but before it is disclosed, and reactions once an affair has been disclosed.
If you think back to when you were a child it is easy to remember how much more you knew about what was going on in your family than the adults around you thought you knew. Children are tuned into the nuances of their parent’s relationships in ways that might be surprising to adults. I have heard more than once about a 2 or 3 year old becoming alarmed when mommy and daddy aren’t talking and actually trying to physically pull them together, while urgently pleading “daddy talk mommy.” Many betrayed partners, when looking back, can recount exactly when the affair started, even though there wasn’t “disclosure” until much later. The change in their partner’s affect; “you were acting like you were on acid” “you just turned off to me, overnight” was obvious, but the meaning could not yet be expressed. Children feel these changes too, and for them they have suddenly lost the parent they always knew, someone else has taken their place and this is very frightening. An anxiety with no name sets in, this anxiety can follow children throughout their entire life time and leave them with not being able to feel safe in their most intimate relationships.
Catherine Ford Sori has delineated children’s reactions to affairs according to age.
Younger children might not fully understand what has happened, but nevertheless can be traumatized by the change in the emotional climate in the home. There is a sense that something that was whole that was the foundation for everything else has been severely damaged if not destroyed. These younger children cannot put this into words very easily, but instead usually develop regressive problems such as physical illness, clinging, bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, fire setting, temper tantrums or night terrors – in fact, anything that seems an appropriate response to the fear that the family is about to be wiped out. Conversely, the child may start trying to be perfect, completely hiding the intense anxiety that is eating away at them on the inside; if the parents are preoccupied with the fallout from disclosure the child can feel abandoned and no longer loved. When thinking about young children It is important to keep in mind that the younger a child is, the more the family is experienced as if it is the whole world.
Older children may also regress, but they also have more access to language for what they are thinking and feeling. The older a child is, the more capable he or she is of abstract thinking, so worries about what is going to happen to the family and how their lives will change or who they will lose if there is a divorce can surface. They may withdraw or act out in an effort to get their parent’s attention, stop the affair, or prevent a divorce. Shoplifting, vandalizing, getting into fights, running away from home, acting hyper, setting fires, and even threatening suicide are common reactions. “My parents will realize they have to stay together if they see how disturbed I am.”
Preadolescent and adolescent children: The older a child is, the more apt he or she is to get drawn into the conflict surrounding the affair by one or both parents. They may be asked to keep secrets and/or expected to chose sides. Asking a child, overtly or covertly, to take a side is like asking a child to lose that parent. This always has severe consequences. Keeping secrets from one or both parents can create a terrible guilt and sense of self as destructive.
Adolescents continue to develop their capacity for abstract thinking. They are highly aware that they are preparing to enter the adult world and therefore questions of values become paramount. They are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy; when a parent’s actions are exposed as opposed to his or her stated values that parent falls off a pedestal. And when a parent falls off of the pedestal it changes the child’s whole conception of who their family is and thus, their sense of who they are. Identity and moral development are impacted negatively. Frequently, up until this happened, there was an unconscious assumption that one behaves with integrity as a matter of course. Suddenly, the very people who have ingrained this in you have demonstrated this is not the case.
Adolescents are also developing sexually, they are entering their first relationships and struggling with their own experiences of infatuation, falling in love, physical intimacy, boundaries and trust. They look to their parents to demonstrate how all of this is handled. They want their parents to behave as adults, as role models, not as peers. If there is no ideal to strive for, it is very easy to fall into dysfunctional relational patterns that can become entrenched such as promiscuity, dishonesty, insensitivity, self-devaluation and an inability to trust. Furthermore, the experience of real love can become intertwined with the expectation of abandonment. Relationships can feel doomed, what’s the point of trying?
Adolescents can also act out in other ways, such as substance abuse, truancy, apathy, low achievement, or running away. They can become emotionally unstable; anxious, rage-prone, reckless, depressed, and/ or extremely disrespectful. They can engage in self-injurious behaviors to try to get the parent to chose them over the affair. If the parent refuses to end the affair the adolescent can become truly suicidal.
As adolescents move farther out into the world they need to know that their parents will be okay without them, otherwise, they can remain in a regressed guilty state their entire lives. It is natural for parents to feel sad as an adolescent becomes more and more involved in their own lives, with their peers and is around the house less and less. An adolescent who cannot do this because their parents are too injured by the separation will carry guilt about normal experiences of separateness into other relationships and may never feel truly free to develop their own unique life.