When an affair happens we keep talking of its effect on the spouse but have you ever thought how affairs affect children? Since they do not express their feelings it can leave a scar on their psyche that they could carry to their adulthood. This is something I have been dealing with as I keep counselling people in my profession as a psychotherapist.
There is no denying that upbringing and parenting have a profound effect on the attitudes and behaviour children develop. If the parents are an affectionate, touchy-feely kind of couple, it’s likely the children will be similarly demonstrative. But if one grows up with parents who don’t get along or parents who had a divorce or had an affair, it could have long-term effects on them.
The principles that the father or mother displays in their personal and professional life will shape the moral character of the grown child.
This applies equally to all aspects of life, from social to physical to sexual. However, as the following analysis shows, often the larger environment that surrounds a child has a mitigating or aggravating effect on the direct influence of the parental, home situation.
What effect does a parent’s infidelity have on a child? The effects of infidelity can be many. In many cases I have seen children become reticent, they start doing badly in their studies, they may start misbehaving and even become wayward.
The effects of cheating fathers on their daughters is even more. Very early in her life a child develops trust issues because she has got a jolt from her father, the man she trusted most in her life.
How Affairs Affect Children – Case Studies
To tell you how affairs affect children, what is the kind of impact a cheating father has on his son, I will bring your attention to two cases I have handled.
If parents realise the kind of effect infidelity has on children and deal with it sensibly then the impact is minimised. But in many cases I have seen that they are so entrenched in their own issues that they leave the child grappling with their emotions and that has an adverse effect on their future growth.
Case A: When child’s exposure to extramarital affairs is managed well by parents
Past: When Vanshika was 13 and Akash 11, they found out that their father was having an extramarital affair. They were told this by their mother. They lived in a joint family of 10 people who made sure that their father’s affair didn’t affect them.
Their father was a hardworking man who was an alcoholic, too. He loved them but couldn’t get along with his wife. (He’s been with the other woman for 25 years, and married to Vanshika and Akash’s mother for 28 years.)
Present day: Akash and Vanshika are both in happy marriages and have kids. They lead a traditional loving family life, except for the fact that they share a troubled relationship with their father, ever since they found out about his extramarital affair.
Their father said, “My children hate me because I had an affair.” However, they still talk to him and are cordial.
Case B: When child’s exposure to extramarital affairs is NOT managed well by parents
Past: Rishita is an only child. When she was 13 years old, she saw her mother have an extramarital affair with a man for whom she left her family. Rishita’s father, an alcoholic who tortured her mother, brought another woman to the house as soon as his wife left. There was no one in her family to take care of her; she was left to fend for herself.
Present day: A woman in her mid-20s, Rishita has recently had to abort a baby that she conceived with her married boss, after a 7-year affair. Her father is abusive and forced her to be in a relationship with her married employer, and she hasn’t spoken to her real mother in 14 years.
I read an account about a woman from a broken home, with an alcoholic father and an unfaithful mother, who married very young for love. When circumstances created a physical distance with her new husband, she succumbed to temptation and had an affair with his friend.
Her marriage survived and she later had a child with the husband. What sort of conclusions are possible from this story?
We can conclude the effects of cheating fathers on their daughters can be so deep that it could push them to a lifetime of wrong decisions and they could keep moving in and out of relationships unable to find an anchor.
Related Reading: Living With an Alcoholic Father
How Affairs Affect Children – Steps To Help Them
When your child finds out you cheated, that could be through your spouse or through overhearing the endless fights you keep having, your child feels insecure. The first thought on their mind is if their parents will break up because of the infidelity.
When mothers have affairs, children find it harder to accept it because they have a sense of possessiveness towards their mothers and they feel shattered when they come to know that she’s had a life beyond her family, most importantly beyond her children.
I told you how affairs affect children, now I will also talk about how it is possible to minimise the impact of infidelity on children.
1. A supportive family is important
One of the most important factors influencing the upbringing of a child is the kind of environment he/she is raised in. Having a joint family that is loving and understanding forms a cushion of emotional security for the child to fall back on.
Even if they see distress in their parents’ relationship, they can see other couples in the house and learn that not every marriage is the same.
(Just like in Case A where the kids had a bunch of people in the family, like grandparents, uncle and aunt, who took care of them and took care of their needs if ever a parent wasn’t available. Unlike Case B where Rishita had no one to go to except her alcoholic and emotionally unavailable father and unconcerned stepmother.)
Related Reading: Confession Story: How I Dealt With Having An Affair With My Boss
2.Emotional response or backup
Again, having a family or even a sibling who listens to you and shares your feelings of happiness or resentment can minimise the effects of an affair. As a child we need someone to share our experiences with and having a sibling or an elder to talk to makes it easier to regulate our emotions.
(Case A: Vanshika and Akash had each other as well as their extended family to talk to and make logical decisions and reason with each other. Case B: Rishita, an only child, had no one to talk to hence making her further closed off and emotionally vulnerable.)
Nowadays school teachers, tutors and even neighbours, who are close to the child, can lend an ear. Parents who realise the deep impact their extramarital affair had on their children, often take them for counselling. Counselling helps to deal with the distress they feel.
3. Parents as role models
For a child, their parent is by default a role model. They shape their behaviour to please their parents and in that process imitate their parents to seek approval. So it becomes a bigger responsibility for a parent to say and do the right things in front of their child. They should avoid certain parenting mistakes at all costs.
Even if the child is reprimanded once for copying a parent’s foul behaviour he she may register it subconsciously and repeat it once they believe that there’s no one to check them, correct them or that there’s someone who ‘cares’ enough to stop that inappropriate behaviour. (Case A)
Related Reading: Child Abuse by Parents? Here is What You Need to Do
However having an affair doesn’t mean that the parent becomes a bad person or a bad role model for the child. If the parent is emotionally available for the child and gives them time as well, never fights with their spouse in front of kids. An affair affects a family but this makes it easier for children to accept the situation as adults. (Case B)
4. Personality traits
Acceptance for any situation comes from within. Even in the case of kids, the acceptance of the fact that their parents are not like most couples comes (or not) from within.
An introverted child who doesn’t talk much about his feelings (Case B) will have a tougher time accepting his/her parents’ situation more than the child who expresses his doubts, concerns and anger (Case A. Both Vanshika and Akash, extremely expressive).
Some children often shut off the memory because it is so unpleasant to them and then in their adulthood they keep walking in and out of toxic relationships.
When your child finds out you cheated but they never talk about it, it does not mean they are not affected by it. So it’s important to have conversations with them to know what they harbour in their heart.
5. How conflict effects the children
Another very important factor to determine a person’s behaviour as an adult is hugely affected by how, as a child, they discovered their parent(s)’ infidelity.
If the situation is presented to them as something normal. As in Case A, it becomes easier for the child to come to terms with the conflict. Unlike Case B, wherein the child was suddenly abandoned by her mother, without any notice, or she constantly witnessed her father hitting her mother, making her grow into a woman with deep abandonment issues.
She got so vulnerable that when her married employer showed her a little love and took care of her material needs she gave in to that toxic relationship.
Whether it’s an affair, it’s a divorce or abuse, conflict affects children adversely. No matter what the parents are going through they should make every effort to keep the children away from this conflict.
In Kanta’s case we can’t for sure point to a specific trigger. While watching her parents led her to grow distrustful in relationships, we cannot generalise and conclude that the girl’s infidelity is the direct outcome of her observation of her parents’ behaviour. There must be other factors playing in the background which lead to her choices.