In this post I will address how children are impacted 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”.
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 affected at all.
Unfortunately, the emotional turmoil resulting from the discovery of infidelity can have a negative impact on children unless special care is taken to avoid this. Feeling completely overcome by the pain and shock of the revelation can leave a parent emotionally withdrawn and unavailable to connect with their children in their usual way. Or a child might get pulled in emotionally, “triangulated,” feeling pressured to take sides.
Sometimes I hear, “the children are fine, in fact, they’re being very supportive.” This can be part of a slippery slope in which children can get pulled in and become a source of comfort for either spouse. They can be manipulated into taking sides and vilifying one or the other parent. It might seem obvious to the discoverer of infidelity that their spouse is now a villain. But it is important to know, that once a child becomes convinced that a parent is a villain, they lose the sense of actually having that person as a parent. This is traumatic.
In other posts I have talked about the trance-like state of consciousness that one inhabits during an affair. In this altered state links between actions and consequences dissolve; in the euphoric bubble it is easy to believe that an illicit relationship can be pursued and and no one will be hurt; that one can control everything and so prevent this from happening. However, this is a grandiose assumption that more and more requires lying to, manipulating and avoiding genuine contact with all family members, including the children, sometimes with irrevocable results.
The effects might not show up right away. But years down the road parents are sometimes quite surprised and distressed at the amount of rage that the child (maybe now an adult child) has about what happened and how they felt either drawn in or emotionally abandoned.
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 two or three 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 and someone else has taken their place. 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, 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, hyperactivity, 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.”
Pre-adolescent 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. As I stated earlier, asking a child, overtly or covertly, to take a side is like asking a child to lose that parent. This always has severe emotional consequences. Keeping secrets from one or both parents can create terrible guilt and a sense of oneself 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 central. 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 the adolescent have assaulted this unconsciously held foundational belief.
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 and pointless.
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.
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 and 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 at home less of the time. An adolescent who cannot feel supported and therefore confident about this age-appropriate emotional “weaning” because their parents are too injured by it can carry guilt about forming new romantic relationships of their own. They may never feel truly free to develop their own unique lives.