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Separation and divorce affect children's emotional life Print
Guest column
Thursday, Jul. 02, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Question: "I'm currently going through a separation with my spouse and I'm concerned about my children. How could the separation affect them?"

Response: William McKenna, M.S., Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services

The Church clearly states that those who fear for their mental and/or physical safety (and by extension the safety of their children) may separate from their spouse, but that they should seek to restore their normal marital life quickly if at all possible.

Therefore, if any reader or their loved ones have left their spouse for the above reasons, then please understand that this article does not claim that you are somehow at fault for the consequences following seeking safety for you and/or your children.

Indeed, life rarely provides us with black and white situations and I am sure that you have good intentions for you and your children when deciding to separate from your spouse and that this has been a very difficult decision for those involved.

Change in child’s life

Nonetheless, the dramatic change that occurs within a child's life when their parents cease living together can cause real emotional damage to them, research indicates (Weaver & Schofield, 2015).

Parents should, therefore, be aware of this damage when weighing their options before separation. This is not to say that the challenges children face are impossible to work through, but brokenness within families can have long-term effects and education can go a long way in helping.

Internal working model

One principle within attachment theory that helps us to understand how children are affected by marital separation is called the internal working model (IWM).

What the IWM does is help someone understand how everyday human relationships function, along with helping him or her predict how a relationship will play out.

For instance, when a child grows up being told and witnessing that marriage is a loving and lifelong union, he or she naturally comes to believe that marital relationships function a certain predictable way.

What happens, then, if one day their parents decided to challenge that internalized belief by announcing a separation? He or she may very well go into what I call an emotional tailspin because their IWM has been attacked. In response to this attack, children tend to react in a manner that is synonymous with a traumatic response.

This traumatic response is characterized as an attachment injury -- meaning that the child perceives that their attachment figure(s) (in this case, mom and dad) have abandoned them.

The child then reacts in a variety of ways to express their anger, fear, guilt, and shame over the unthinkable action that has occurred. For instance, in an attempt to work through their anger, children may decide to act out their feelings via misbehaving, throwing temper tantrums, breaking the law, acting out in school, and abusing substances.

These decisions are not the child intentionally being difficult, but rather the way the child communicates his deep hurt and desire to be protected and loved by another.

Disrupts emotional life

In all, divorce not only disrupts the couple's emotional life, it also damages the emotional lives of the spouses' children by upending the children's understanding of interpersonal relationships along with their understanding of themselves.

Regardless of your reasons to separate from your spouse, my advice to you is to have you and your children begin therapy and seek out resources and support, even if the children have not begun to act out.

A web site such as can shed more depth into particular topics. Also discussing with your spouse how to handle the situation proactively is ideal. In this way, you will allow both your children and yourself to talk about your pains, struggles, and hopes for the future.

Have a practical question related to psychology and faith? Write to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it For more information about IPS (the Institute for the Psychological Sciences), visit