Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Infidelity: What About The Children?




This is the fourth article in the series on infidelity. This series focuses mainly on the issues confronted by adults involved in various types of affairs and infidelity.  But, what about the children?  Young or old, children are unwilling participants in marital battles, and their security and self-esteem can be damaged long after the adult issues have been settled.  As painful as infidelity issues are to the participants, the adults must realize the necessity to protect the welfare of their children.  Children of all ages, even adult children, are too often drawn into loyalty conflicts and made privy to information which should be confidential among the adults.


As a therapist and adviser to adults, I do not want to make the mistake of focusing solely on adult issues as if the children's needs were invisible.  Children are dependent on adult protection, and so I am pausing in my discussion of adult infidelity to focus on the needs of our children.  A child's identity is composed of parts of Mom and parts of Dad.  When drawn into a loyalty battle between parents, the child's identity, security and self-esteem are conflicted and compromised.  A child's understanding of adult issues is also very limited.  When told of adult indiscretions or when they make such discoveries themselves, children fail to comprehend the adult issues, instead becoming confused and feeling that their home base is no longer safe or secure.


The first premise, then, is to protect a child whenever possible from exposure to information about adult indiscretions and marital battles.  A child can understand that adults argue and then make up.  Research on children's exposure to conflict shows that children can and do tolerate conflict between their parents as long as the children are made aware that the adult conflicts are resolved in a satisfactory manner.  Unresolved, ongoing parent conflicts are extremely destructive to children.  Children do become aware of adult tension and stress which then should be explained as disagreement about problems which can and will be resolved by their parents.  Ideally the parents will come together to talk with their children in this manner.  A united front is particularly reassuring to the children.  Even when separation or divorce is planned, experts advise the parents to meet together with the children to discuss plans for their family.  Such meetings should also allow children to ask questions, make comments and express feelings.  Above all, let the children know that adult issues are not their problem.  Let the children know that they are not the cause of adult disagreements and neither can they resolve parent issues.  During such discussions and often thereafter, children should be reassured that both parents love them and will continue to love them.


As may be obvious from the above discussion, children should know and be told as little as possible about infidelity.  Sometimes parents feel that the child should know the truth about the other parent.  However, consider the blow to the child's self-esteem to hear criticism of one parent by the other.  The unfaithful spouse may feel a need to justify the affair by criticizing the marriage partner, or the betrayed spouse may feel a need to share his or her pain and anger about the parent who has betrayed the marriage and family.  Don't!  You will regret it when you see the toll this takes on the children.  Adult children may be intellectually capable of understanding infidelity, but realize they also are emotionally unable to really comprehend the enormity of these problems occurring in their own family.  Children become aware of, and learn to cope with, the character of their parents as they interact with them.  The quality of the parent-child relationship is most important, not information about adult interactions.  Many parents who are unable to sustain a troubled marriage can provide competent or adequate parenting to the children.  The task of the adults is to provide the best parenting possible under the circumstances.


There may be times, however, when the children have made observations or been told information about the affair.  Address the issues in words that the children can understand, ideally in discussions with both parents who plan ahead what to say.  The information can often be addressed as parent disagreements or parent problems “getting along” with each other.  Older children who have specific information may be told that one parent "got too friendly" with another person, but Mom and Dad are working together on the problem.  A "no-no" is to swear a child to secrecy.  This places on unfair burden on the child.  In fact, children stressed by adult problems may need to talk with a counselor or child therapist to help them better cope with their responses to family problems.


As usual, I advise the readers of this column who are affected by these issues to seek information and assistance from professionals experienced in dealing with such problems.  A little prevention or intervention goes a long way in helping support parents and children in difficult situations.