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Lies And Alibis - Does Divorce Make Children Less Truthful?

Trying to spare Junior the awful truth? Fighting behind closed doors? Concealing your emotions instead of addressing the issues? How does divorce really affect your children's HQ: Honesty Quotient?

"This whole horrible mess is just awful," lamented Connie, a former accountant turned "dedicated mom" who decided to throw in the towel after 12 years of marriage "to a perpetual lying womanizer. Claude was messing around and lied about it the entire time, even when I confronted him with the most obvious evidence. He even had the temerity to bring her to dinner on a few occasions and passed her off as a client! And he told this to our kids!" What are these kids learning? They're learning how to lie - by their own parents.

Age Appropriate Alibis

Why do they lie in the first place? Lying starts very young, and believe it or not, bright kids - those who do better on other academic indicators - are able to start lying at the age of two or three. According to research conducted Dr. Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor of Montreal's McGill University and a leading expert on children's lying behaviors, it appears that lying is related to intelligence and that it is an advanced skill which Talwar has concluded as a developmental milestone. "Generally speaking, children lie to avoid punishment," explains Lawrence Goodrich, Ph.D., a family therapist in Reno, Nevada and a specialist in child development. "Unlike adults, who will lie to impress, children will lie when they feel there are under a reward and punishment system. But lying should not be dismissed - because children will continue with it." According to further research by Talwar, children do not grow out of lying but grow into it, therefore stressing the exigency for honesty in the first place. "It should be noted that children will respond to your behaviors as well. One of the worst things a parent can do is try to hide a divorce in the first place. Your child will eventually discover what's happening and resent you. You must be the catalyst who is honest," says Goodrich.

Effects of divorce on children and their behaviors

Many children in today's society will experience the trauma of divorce and will for the most part express their emotions through their behaviors. Understanding common reactions to divorce on children can help parents be sensitive to a child's needs. The effects of divorce will differ depending on the age of the child but may include the following:

Under Five Years Five to Eight Years Nine to Twelve Years
The fear of abandonment is very common and is expressed in a variety of ways. Children may cling, whine and have tantrums when left at child care. When a parent returns, the child may greet the parent with tears or crankiness.
Anxiety about abandonment is still common. It may be expressed through overeating, begging for gifts, or fantasies about special treats or vacations.
Loyalty Conflicts:
Children have a shaken sense of identity; they feel responsibility for the divorce and caught in the middle.
Children often regress for weeks or months. They may return to the comfort of security blankets or outgrown toys or have lapses in toilet training.
Intense sadness and sense of loss, often expressed as a yearning for the departed parent. School work often suffers.
Peer Relationships:
Friendships deteriorate as children focus inward. Many children experiment with drugs and alcohol.
Some children become more irritable and engage in fighting while others show an increased fear of aggression and of being hurt.
Anger is often directed at the custodial parent and other children.
Children often have intense anger and express their anger at one or both parents. Some children may indulge in petty stealing and lying.
Guilt & Self-Blame:
Young children move between extremes of feeling helpless and of taking total responsibility for the divorce. They have a hard time comprehending the concept of cause and effect and blame themselves.
Wishes of Reconciliation:
Children dream of bringing the family back together again.

The psychological effects of divorce on children are more extreme when they're forced to endure a protracted and acerbic custody battle. These children may suffer from a variety of psychological problems like denial, guilt, low self-esteem, physical problems, depression, anger, panic, destructive or even criminal behavior and may resort to lying to themselves in order to maintain some semblance of self control.

The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children Depend Greatly on the Father

According to research it is critical that children have BOTH a male and female role model in their lives. The less of a role the father plays in his son or daughter's life, the more negative the psychological effects of divorce on the child will be. They will not only suffer in their childhood, but also many years into adulthood as well. Prisons are replete with fatherless children. A father (and a father alone) has SUCH a powerful impact on his children's lives that he can choose to create an emotionally secure, productive adult or a problematic adult with a vast array of problems and insecurities. Connie Peel, a social worker in Rye, Connecticut, works with distressed youths who were aversely affected by divorce. "I cannot even tell you how many of these children were deserted by their dads," she exclaims. "Every single one of them will fabricate stories about 'their dad,' a dad who is actually non-existent."

Which age group is impacted most?

Pre-school Aged Children - It's common for pre-school aged children to become very withdrawn, sullen and angry. Your child senses the conflict in your marriage and often takes it personally even if you attempt to hide your mutual resentment for your spouse.

Suggestion: Family counseling may reduce the levels of acrimony and tension. Even if you have no intention of reconciling, you will attempt to create a safer space for your child and thus entertain the possibility of expressing honest communication. Common psychological effects of divorce on children of this age might consist of fantasizing about their parents getting back together at some point. Withdrawal from their friends, family or activities is also prevalent. One of the most common psychological effects of divorce on children is fighting, bullying other children, cheating, lying, stealing, and running away.

What comes first? The lies or the alibis?

There are approximately fifteen million children in the US who have experienced directly their parent's dicthe process of divorce. Divorce unfortunately brings out the worst in people and parenting skills seldom improve. Even when parents are able to see beyond their own emotional, physical and economic chaos they make mistakes that will impact the relationship with their children for years to come. In their attempts to reassure their children, parents lie, deny and obfuscate. Bartering and buying their children's love, or demeaning the other parent is another typical component of the divorce drama. During the process of divorce children suffer multiple losses, not only the nuclear family but the loss of their parents and support system. Some children are forced to suffer not only altering relationships with their parents but also abandonment. Some lose their childhood and become burdened with the physical and economic responsibilities of helping support a single parent. Many children become a "best friend" to their parent and the consequent obligation to "fix" everything, but because it is rarely the child's fault in the first place, these schemes seldom work.

When does lying become a concern?

There are multiple situations that may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to consult a professional.

  • A child who is lying and at the same time having other behavioral problems such as setting objects on fire, harming animals, experiencing sleep problems, or is very hyperactive, may suffer significant psychological problems.
  • Children who do not have many friends or do not want to play in groups may have poor self-esteem and be depressed.
  • Children lie in order to get something from someone else and do not show any signs of regret or remorse.

Children older than age of 3 should be confronted with any lying or stealing, but it is important to remember that most of these behaviors are part of growing up and do not represent severe problems. Each child is unique, and your child's physician should be involved with any concerns.

There have been many studies examining the relationship between divorced parents' psychological stability as well as those of their children. Of the 15 studies that have examined this relationship 13 discovered that there was a positive relationship between the mental health of parents and their children's mental health (Amato & Keith, 1991). That is, children whose parents are better adjusted maintain better than children whose parents are not adjusting well. There is some evidence to suggest than when the divorced parent's adjustment is taken into account that some of the differences between children from intact and divorced children disappears. Despite the general support for these conclusions, here's a caveat: The causal relationship between parents' and children's adjustment is not clear. It could be possible that having better adjusted children improves the well-being of the parent; that is the parent has less with which to be concerned.

There are a number of factors that account for why children in divorcing families may have difficulties—loss of contact with a supportive parent, fewer economic resources that lead to multiple changes, more stress, poor parental adjustment, lack of parental competence and conflict between parents. When these risks can be reduced or overcome, then children will fare better.

Overall Conclusions

The overall results of these studies suggest that while children from divorced families may, on average, experience more major psychological and behavioral problems than children in intact families, there are more similarities than differences. The most important question is not whether children from divorced families are having difficulties, but what particular factors cause these differences. Current evidence suggests that the loss of contact with parents, economic difficulties, stress, parental adjustment and competence, and interparental conflict all contribute at least to some degree to the difficulties of children. Some new findings shift our attention from major problems to milder but important long-term painful memories and feelings of helplessness. These feelings can continue well into young adulthood which reminds us that there are many things we can do to help children. These results provide significant implications to practitioners interested in designing interventions for children and adults in divorcing families.

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