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Parental Infidelity and Children

03/15/2011 03:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the 1990s, I was the owner and operator of a private preschool and Kindergarten in a resort community. There was couple who brought their two year old son, Joey, to us five days each week, and as time went on, an unusual family dynamic began to evolve. The mother, a striking brunette who worked for a resort, was using our parking lot to meet her lover when she dropped Joey off for childcare. In full view of her child and the school staff, she carried on with the boyfriend -- it was all whispered intimacies and public displays of affection.

One day during an assignation, the father, a county deputy sheriff, arrived on the scene. It was quite a public gathering as the resulting drama unfolded, much to the confusion of the little boy, and the chagrin our school staff. Eventually, the mother told me she was separating from her husband. And my response to her was: "I think it would have been appropriate for him (the husband) to know this before all the rest of us did."

This episode was retrieved from my memory recently while attending a Kids' Turn Retreat and Conference, where a featured guest speaker was Kids' Turn Board Member, Dr. Alison Thorson from the University of San Francisco. Her topic was Marital Infidelity and its Impact on Children. Dr. Thorson is an expert in communication and one of few researchers in the United States examining a social dynamic rarely discussed. The major focus of Dr. Thorson's remarks brought into focus the need to protect children from adult situations they are too young to understand or absorb emotionally.

It seems parents tend to disclose these indiscretions to their children if they do not feel supported in their own lives. It makes sense that parents inappropriately turn to their youngsters to fulfill the role of confidante if they have no adults to talk to. The indescribable burden this puts on kids exposes them prematurely to infidelity -- an inarguable and acute violation of social norms.

Additionally, a burden is put on children to maintain adult secrets. Dr. Thorson quoted a young girl who acknowledged covering up for her mother when the dad called and asked to speak to her: "She's in bed....she's asleep...there's no way waking her up," said the child, covering for a mom who was out with a boyfriend. This role reversal where the children are taking care of the parents also upsets the natural order in a family. If the kids are taking care of the adults, who is taking care of the kids? And where do the kids put their loyalties? With the cheating parent or the unknowing spouse?

And finally, these intense family situations wreak havoc on child development. Children who are not nurtured by preoccupied parents easily regress in their own development as a way to re-engage the attention of the adults in their lives. Joey, for example, became impossible to potty train and was aggressive with other children. The preschool staff felt total empathy for this small child who could not make sense of the selfish, confusing behavior of his parents.

The implications for families in this new area of research are huge. In an atmosphere where adult connections are facilitated quickly and easily through the use of technology and a relaxed interpretation of social norms, the negative impact on children exposed to these episodes has to be considered.

Children are entitled to be protected by their parents and not expected to unnecessarily share the burden of family secrets. Requests for specific details of Dr. Thorson's important research can be sent to her attention at: athorson@usfca.edu .

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