I’m a therapist working with {couples}. How infidelity impacts kids.

Courtesy of Talal Alsaleem

  • Talal Alsaleem is a marriage counselor specializing in infidelity counseling.

  • Children are affected by their parents’ infidelity in both the short and long term.

  • This is Alseleem’s story as told to Lauren Crosby.

As I said, this essay is based on a conversation with Talal Alsaleem. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When I started practicing as a young clinician, I quickly realized that the population I am passionate about working with is couples. It is difficult to help couples as a therapist because you are dealing with two people with very different experiences and sometimes opposing intentions.

When I sat down with couples, I found that most of them came to me because they were in crisis. About 50% of the people in my case group were dealing with the aftermath of current or past infidelity and in 2014 this led me to start a practice working exclusively with these couples.

There are countless reasons for infidelity in a relationship, but they can be broken down into three categories: environmental, relationship, and individual factors. The consequences of affairs can be cosmic between the two people in the relationship. They may feel like they are in the middle of a tornado they cannot get out of, with intense emotions, a great sense of despair and confusion about how to proceed.

In this tornado, the people who are often forgotten are the invisible victims of affairs: children.

Although very little research has been done on the effects on children, in my clinical practice I have observed a number of long- and short-term effects that infidelity has on children.

Short term effects

When the cheating partner discovers that their partner has been unfaithful, there is likely to be some awkwardness in the house. People are sad, angry and scared. Because of the emotional intensity that hovers around the house, every part of life is affected by the discovery, including her ability to become a parent.

Children often have poor care and hygiene because parents are not careful. They may miss school and sports and appear exhausted from long nights of parental arguments. Teachers sometimes see kids acting up in school to get attention, even if it’s negative.

The story goes on

When children experience emotional stress, they respond with similar stress, often feeling depressed, sad, tearful, or irritable. They don’t know what’s going on in their house and their cognitive and emotional range is really occupied with what’s going on with their parents.

Your concern about the outcome may manifest itself as a change in appetite, too little or too much sleep, and a lack of ability to concentrate.

The most damaging short-term effects on a child are parenting and triangulations. Parenting is when children take responsibility for adults because their parents are busy discovering. Triangulation is when the child gets stuck in the middle between two parents who are at war with each other. The child becomes a plaything for each parent, embroiled in the chaos and pain of their parents. Both are big responsibilities for children, especially when you consider that they are already involved in so much in their own development and life experiences.

Long term effects

When children learn that one parent is unfaithful to the other, there is a chance that their own sexual development will be called into question. Questions about what sex means to them and their own identity are often asked in later years, long after the event has happened.

I’ve also seen that children who grew up in a home of infidelity may be more likely to bring that infidelity into their future relationships. They might trust others less and doubt a partner even if they have no proof of cheating.

Or they become unfaithful themselves because they did not place a high value on faithfulness in their childhood. It becomes part of their cultural norm.

How parents can protect their children

If there has been infidelity in a relationship involving children, the best thing parents can do to protect their children is to minimize exposure to other people. While parents may want to tell their close friends and family, my advice is to keep it to yourself and hire professional people to help.

This includes telling children about it. Even though there’s no way to hide the emotional impact of the affair, children don’t need to know the details of what happened. Parents should simply explain to children that they are dealing with some problems and will do whatever they can to fix them.

Most importantly, children should be assured that they are not to blame for friction in the home.

In the recovery process, I strongly recommend that parents engage in family therapy to include children, in addition to specialized couples therapy for infidelity and recovery. There is a lot of potential harm, and children need a place where they can safely explore how an affair might have affected them.

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