Three Parenting Mistakes Good Parents Make — Mistake #3
The Third Mistake parents make is speaking negatively about one another in front of their child. Let me widen the definition of speaking negatively to include disparaging body language, undermining indicators of disapproval at the mention of the other parent, and oversharing with the child the “truth” about their other parent.
Anything that vilifies, or victimizes either parent is problematic for the child.
Divorcing parents must keep their adult reasoning and understanding, misunderstanding, hurt, disappointments, and betrayals, out of communications with their children. Conceptualize that when bilious sentiments leak into the conversation, they poison the child’s otherwise wholesome life supply.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the one good reason for parents to share specific divorce-related information is this: to support their children in processing the divorce. Let’s pause here a moment for some tips about child-proofing talks on this sensitive subject. When speaking about the divorce, parents should first have their motives and message clear.
Tips for Parents Speaking to Their Kids About Divorce
1. Consider what message would be most constructive for your children to hear. Keep in mind that your words will be replayed and repeated by them many times, to themselves and potentially to others, as they grapple with the complicated adult concept of divorce.
2. Formulate and agree with your spouse to create a shared “divorce narrative.” A good message is typically simple, high level, and limited in detail. It relates pertinent information and addresses the worries and challenges facing the child. A thoughtful communication does not overburden kids with unresolved feelings of the parent. It is a version that is both true and childproofed. It is the version that centers around the child’s need to understand what is happening — primarily to them — and be reassured that they are not to blame, in particular, and that they haven’t lost either parent. (Note: For a child, losing a parent can include feeling prohibited from loving a parent for fear of being disloyal to the other parent; i.e. having to choose.)
Once parents have the foundational divorce narrative in place, other communications can follow the same principles. Helpful communication neither blames nor disparages.
Some common examples of blaming that should never be uttered to children:
“We can’t afford to live here anymore because mom wanted a divorce and spent all our money on getting her own place.”
“You can’t go to that college because Dad left us with nothing. His new wife is more important than your education.”
Those kinds of things harm the child and damage the child’s relationship with both parents — the criticized and the criticizer.
No child should be forced to serve as a receptacle for hateful words or difficult messages about either parent; it can force him to contain conflicted, hostile feelings and internalize them. The child is impossibly tasked with loving both the person who is deprecating someone he loves and loving the parent who is being cast in an unfavorable light. Internalized parental acrimony can result in self-destructive behavior immediately or years down the road. Good parenting protects children from that risk.
Children, strongly identified with their parents, can ascribe the negative characterization of either parent to themselves. This means that exposing a child to unflattering talk about the other parent is tantamount to depreciating her and attacking her sense of self.
Perhaps most importantly, a child’s sense of security is compromised when he must entrust his care to people preoccupied with their own ongoing conflict. How much more reassured the child is by parents able to surmount their hostilities in order to get on with the critical business of parenting!
Childhood, usually replete with complex feelings towards caregivers, is difficult in ideal circumstances. It requires the constant, selfless help of grown-ups. During a divorce or other challenging times, the Herculean job of parenting doesn’t lessen, rather it expands to require even more of parents. In particular, charging them to protect their children by keeping them off an adult battlefield. (Best to have no battle at all.)
Avoid parenting mistakes by extending the love for your child to include how you talk about their other parent.