People divorce when they know their marriage is irrevocably broken. Years of conflict, loneliness, bitterness, and anger are the backdrop, and there is no way to pretend that these feelings don’t exist. For many, even thinking of their co-parent is horribly painful and causes almost unbearable rage and sadness. Yet, it is important to compartmentalize these feelings and commit to talking about your co-parent in a way that helps your children psychologically acclimate to the divorce, rather than hinder their chances of doing so.
Your child should understand the basic reasons behind the divorce, but this shouldn’t be done so it makes your child feel contempt for your co-parent. The short-term gratification of having your child know “the truth” (when “the truth” means that your co-parent is a “bad person”) and being on your side is overshadowed by the long-term psychological consequences of your child feeling half of his genetic material is tainted.
Staying neutral is harder when you feel you had neither a direct nor an indirect contribution to the discord. And, although this is rare, let’s say that it is true that your co-parent is solely to blame for the dissolution of the marriage — either by lying, cheating, or getting involved in illegal activities, possibly even incarceration. Still, there is no benefit to telling this to your child, and to your child thinking of one parent as a terrible person.
Blaming has no part in your discussion of your co-parent. This includes passive-aggressive remarks like, “I guess some people think differently about commitment” or “Well, at least nothing much will change in his life!” As you’ve heard, children are sponges, and they soak in not only what you explicitly say about their other parent, but the tone in which you say it. It is very painful for a child to hear one parent badmouth another. They are caught in the middle, which is a stressful and unfair place for a child to be. A child deserves to be able to feel loyalty to both parents. This is tough if it seems like the only way to support one parent is to reject the other.
One 7-year-old son of a DrPsychMom.com reader said that hearing one parent talk badly about the other is “like having someone say your favorite song is stupid.” This is a very insightful way to showcase how hurtful it is for a child to hear a loved parent be criticized or mocked by the other parent. The child is caught in a no-win situation — if he agrees with the badmouthing parent, he feels ashamed for betraying his other parent, but if he defends the parent who is being badmouthed, he risks offending the badmouther. Since children already feel insecure and anxious about keeping their parents’ love after a divorce, it can feel impossible to speak up for one parent and possibly lose a relationship with the other.
Children are literal, and therefore do not know if one parent is exaggerating the deficiencies of the other. If one parent says that the other “doesn’t know how to care take of you,” a child may worry that he is in danger. An expression like, “Your dad is making me crazy!” is not taken as an expression of frustration, but a literal remark that can make a child very anxious.
I have many adult clients who are unable to form lasting and meaningful relationships with individuals of the gender of their “bad” divorced parent. One woman remembers her mother speaking disparagingly about her father throughout her childhood. Her mother’s whole family vilified the child’s father as well. The mother took on a victim role and the child became her emotional caretaker and resolved never to be hurt this way by a man. As an adult, this client married, but was never able to be vulnerable with her husband, whom she didn’t trust on a deep level. She would retreat from him emotionally and physically. Eventually her husband, tired of proving his love, fell in love with another woman and left the marriage. The client took this as confirmation that she and her mother were right all along to never trust men. Only after a while in treatment did she realize that her own closed off behavior, stemming from distrust that she learned as a child, may have contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, at least in part.
For all of these reasons and more, staying neutral and even positive about your co-parent, is of paramount importance when talking with your kids. Parents need to take care not to break a child’s relationship with his co-parent, because that’s an outcome of divorce no child deserves.
Adapted from How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family by Samantha Rodman. Rodman is a licensed psychologist and founder of DrPsychMom.com.
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