by Debra R. Marsilia, November 1999
Children are our most precious gifts. As parents, the most challenging responsibility we have is protecting our children. We must realize the importance of protecting them, not only from the outside world, but sometimes from someone within our own homes. Many people suffer from verbal and emotional abuse from spouses and do not realize that the children, whether the abuse is directed at them or if they are only witnessing the abuse, are also affected. “Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that attacks a child’s emotional development and self-worth.”(1) It can include excessive or unreasonable demands on the child, constant criticism, insulting and teasing. This form of abuse can be just as painful as, if not more so, than physical abuse because the effects remain long after any physical injuries have healed. Children deserve the stability, warmth and safety of a loving home. Divorce can be a way to protect children and provide them with a home in which they know they are safe from abuse.
Many religions view marriage as a holy commitment, not only to another person, but also to God. The Catholic Church, for example, believes that once you enter into the “holy state of matrimony”, marriage being one of the seven sacraments, you can not terminate the marriage. However, the Catholic Church also believes that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule.”(2) The church places, with the parent, the responsibility of raising a child in a tender, caring, forgiving, and respectful household. If a person is in an abusive situation, the well-being of the child is at risk of being sacrificed.
There are many that portray the idea of “staying together for the sake of the children” as valid. According to Ashton Applewhite in her 1997 article, DOES DIVORCE DEVASTATE CHILDREN?, two professors, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur compiled a study and arrived at the conclusion that “The worst thing for kids is to be around a constant state of warfare.”(3) Children absorb what goes on around them. If they are being abused or are witnessing their parents yelling at and tearing down each other, they can become confused, hurt and angry and it is likely to affect their attitude towards both parents and others. They may begin to act out this anger and confusion on their parents, teachers and even their friends.
A child that suffers from verbal and emotional abuse can begin to “act out” their pain and anger in many ways. There are observable and behavioral indicators that can be present when a child is in an abusive situation. Observable indicators can include, but are not limited to; inappropriate aggressiveness, destructive attitude towards others, sleep or speech disorders and demonstration of compulsions, obsessions, phobias, and hysterical outbursts. Behavioral indicators can include; negative statements about themselves, overt shyness, slow physical, mental and emotional development, self destructive behavior, increased aggressiveness and cruelty to others. These indicators should be seen as warning signs to caring, loving parents. A child cannot develop socially and emotionally with the tremendous amount of stress brought on by verbal and emotional abuse. If an abusive situation exists, and children are beginning to exhibit these traits, it is the parent’s responsibility to do something to change the surrounding conditions under which the child lives. If one parent can not see the pain they are inflicting on their child, sometimes the only viable solution is to remove the source of the pain through divorce.
There are many reasons to remain married, children being one of the most important, and there are many reasons to seek a divorce, again, children being one of the most important. Children’s lives, regardless of age, are affected by witnessing what goes on around them. Parents who remain in marriages that are, in effect, detrimental to themselves, sometimes don’t understand that it is even more damaging to the children. “If a child is abused or is witness to abuse, the child suffers.” (4) A child will grow up believing that this type of behavior is acceptable and will, in turn, cause him to not only react in the same way as his parents, but to also seek that same type of relationship that will provide him with more pain and unhappiness. A parent that remains in an abusive marriage not only runs the risk of having a tremendous amount of problems with their young children, they are also potentially condemning their children to adult lives full of anger, hurt, and mistrust.
According to “Dr. Irene’s Verbal Abuse Site” on the Internet, “Abused children manifest a myriad of disorders in adulthood: post-traumatic stress disorder, panic and anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance abuse problems.”(5) If a parent realizes the importance of removing a child from an abusive household and providing a warm, stable home for the child, he may have a better chance at preventing many of the problems that could occur. However, many people hold onto the idea that marriage should be “forever”. Patricia Evans writes in her 1992 book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship”, that “It is important to know that children can be better off in a nonabusive single-parent home than in one in which abuse takes place.”(6) If parents choose to leave an abusive marriage and remove their children from a hostile environment, this could provide the children with the security and stability they need. Barbara Cyr, believes that “The children feel more secure because they are living in a stable environment.”(7) This comfort and stability could help the child develop a better mental and emotional outlook on life and possibly prevent many future problems.
“Staying can hurt the child. It is totally invalid to think that staying in a marriage ‘for the sake of the children’ has any merit whatsoever. It is extremely detrimental. Whether the abuse shifts to the child or the child just unconsciously absorbs the mechanics of an abusive relationship, it is agonizingly painful in the long run.”(8) As parents, our responsibility lies in what we teach our children. We need to provide them with a stable environment, free from the stress and anxiety of the abusing parent, in which they can grow emotionally and physically. The children should be taught, by watching their parents, how to love and respect others, as well as themselves. We need to show them, by example, what a loving, caring relationship with another person is supposed to be. If a parent remains in an abusive relationship, the parent is validating that type of behavior for their children. It is the parent’s duty to end the relationship and show the child that an individual must be strong enough to admit their mistakes and move on with their lives. We must show our children how much we value ourselves and how much we love them by providing them with a warm, loving, nurturing environment in which to live. This will, in turn, teach them to value themselves, make them stronger, as children and adults, and help them make better choices in their adult lives.
(1) 1997 Safe Child-Child Abuse
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday Publishing, New York, 1995, Section 2223
(3) Applewhite, Ashton. DOES DIVORCE DEVASTATE CHILDREN?, 1997, p. 1
(4) Evans, Patricia M. The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Expanded Second Edition. Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, MA , 1992, p. 200
(6) Evans, Patricia M. The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Expanded Second Edition. Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, MA , 1992, p. 200
(7) Barbara Cyr, Divorce and its Effects on Children, p.1
(8) Evans, Patricia M. The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Expanded Second Edition. Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, MA , 1992, p. 17
Applewhite, Ashton. DOES DIVORCE DEVASTATE CHILDREN?, 1997
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday Publishing, New York, 1995
Evans, Patricia M. The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Expanded Second Edition. Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, MA , 1992
Safe Child-Child Abuse, http://www.safechild.org/childabuse3.htm