When an extramarital affair takes place, we keep talking of its effect on the spouse, but have you ever thought how infidelity affects children? Since they do not express their feelings as openly as adults, it can leave a scar on their psyche that they could carry on to their adulthood. This is something I have been dealing with as I counsel people in my profession as a psychotherapist.
There is no denying that upbringing and parenting have a profound effect on the attitudes and behavior 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.
What Effects Does A Parent’s Infidelity Have On A Child?
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 or home situation. So, when a child finds out you cheated, it completely alters their moral compass and confuses everything that they have understood about marriage so far.
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 and have antisocial tendencies.
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. This can lead to her having her own romantic issues in her personal dating life.
How Affairs Affect Children – Case Studies
To tell you how infidelity affects children, what is the kind of impact a cheating father has on his son or daughter, I will bring your attention to two cases I have handled that will shed some light on the same.
If parents realize the kind of effect infidelity has on children and deal with it sensibly then the impact is minimized. 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 Anna was 13 and Jacob was 11, they found out that their father was having an extramarital affair. They were told this by their mother. But the kids were always in touch with their grandparents who lived a block away and had a lot of cousins in the same town as well which kept them distracted.
Their father was a hardworking man, but also an alcoholic. He loved them but couldn’t get along with his wife at all. (He’s been with the other woman for 25 years, and married to Anna and Jacob’s mother for 28 years.)
Present day: Anna and Jacob today 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.
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Case B: When child’s exposure to extramarital affairs is NOT managed well by parents
Past: Rebecca 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. Rebecca’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 Rebecca; she was left to fend for herself.
Present day: A woman in her mid-20s, Rebecca has recently had to abort a baby that she conceived with her married boss, after a 7-year long affair. Her father is abusive and forced her to be in a relationship with her married employer, and she hasn’t spoken to her 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. Still wondering how infidelity affects children?
We can conclude that the effects of cheating fathers on their daughters can be so deep that it could pushes them to a lifetime of misguided decisions and they could keep moving in and out of relationships unable to find an anchor.
Related Reading: Infidelity: Should You Confess To Cheating On Your Partner?
How Infidelity Affects Children – Steps To Help Them
When your child finds out you that you cheated on their other parent, 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 this is one of the breakup signs that will destroy their family.
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 does infidelity affect a child; now I will also talk about how it is possible to minimize the impact of how affairs affect the family.
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. 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, uncles and aunts, who took care of them and took care of their needs if ever a parent wasn’t available. Unlike Case B where Rebecca 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 minimize 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: Anna and Jacob had each other as well as their extended family to talk to and make logical decisions and reason with each other. Case B: Rebecca, an only child, had no one to talk to hence making her further closed off and emotionally vulnerable.)
Nowadays school teachers, tutors and even neighbors, who are close to the child, can lend an ear. Parents who realize the deep impact their extramarital affair had on their children, often take them for counseling. One of the benefits of counseling is it helps to deal with the distress they feel.
3. Parents are role models
For a child, their parent is by default a role model. They shape their behavior 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 behavior, 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 behavior. (Case A)
However if you’re wondering how does infidelity affect a child, this is what happens. 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)
Related Reading: Child Abuse by Parents? Here is What You Need to Do
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 Anna and Jacob are 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 affects the children
Another very important factor to determine a person’s behavior 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, 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 because one doesn’t realize until too late how infidelity affects children.
Parents need to realize that everything they do has an impact on their children. Infidelity, an abusive marriage etc. shape a child’s ideas about love, relationships and marriage. It is important to be honest with your children, and kind to your spouse or ex-spouse even when a marriage isn’t working out.