When Kids Need to Know Bad Things About a Parent - Part 3

02/21/2011 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Warshak Test helps parents judge whether their criticisms of each other are likely to help or hurt their children. The purpose of the test is to raise awareness of the impact of your words on your children and to help you learn why and when to keep quiet about the other parent and how to speak when it is appropriate.

To illustrate the use of this test, consider a scenario that often prompts divorced parents to criticize their ex-spouses to their children: reacting to a parent who is chronically late. A father is always late to pick up his children. This often disrupts his ex-wife's schedule. After repeated instances of such inconvenience, she wants to berate him in front of the children. She thinks of telling them, "You can't count on your father," or, "He's so irresponsible," or, "Your father cares more about his girlfriend than he does about you."

When this mother asks herself question one of our test, "What is my real reason for revealing this information to the children?" she realizes that she has mixed motives. On the one hand she feels bad for the children and angry with the man who disappoints them. On the other hand she is angry that he is inconsiderate of her needs. She concludes that her concern for the children is genuine, but that if she decides to talk with them about their father's lateness, she will need to be cautious not to allow her anger at him to influence the way she handles the situation.

Next she asks, "Are my children being harmed by the behavior I am about to criticize?" Yes, they are being harmed. They are constantly disappointed when he does not get them on time and they are anxious that he will fail to show. Not only are they disappointed and anxious, but they may assume that their father is late because they are not important enough to him. This could hurt their self-esteem.

The next question, "How will it help the children to hear what I am about to tell them?" It could help them have a different mind set while waiting for their father so that they can avoid excessive disappointment and worry. If the issue is discussed openly, their mother could help them find a healthy way to cope with his lateness. It could also help them place their father's behavior in perspective so that they do not regard it as an index of their worth to him.

Question four, "Do the possible benefits of revealing this to the children outweigh the possible risks?" The risks are the discomfort they could feel when their mother criticizes their father. Their mother's criticisms could cut deeper than their father's lateness. Nevertheless, if she chooses her words with discretion, she can help the children while minimizing the likelihood of stressing them even further.

The question that helps the most is question five. "If I were still happily married to my husband, and I wanted to protect our children's relationship with him, how would I handle the situation?" This forces her to think about the best way to discuss the issue with her children. She realizes that she actually handled the same issue during the marriage in a different manner. She can think of no reason not to handle it in a similar way now. While she was married her husband's lateness was a chronic irritant to her. But the children always showed much more tolerance of this trait. By the way, this is true in general: Children are more able and willing to tolerate faults in their parents than spouses are with each other.

Armed with this perspective the mother realizes that it will not help the children to hear her berate their father as irresponsible or inconsiderate. It could undermine their respect for him. Instead, she tells them, "You may have noticed that Dad is usually late to pick you up. I know he loves spending time with you, but Dad has always been late for things, even things that are very important to him. A lot of people have a problem being on time. I wish Dad did not have this problem, but it does not have to be a big deal. Instead of just waiting by the door for him each time, find something to do that will keep you occupied and take your mind off the time. That way you won't have to worry so much. You know he always shows up and then you have a great time together." It would not have been wrong if she also encouraged the children to tell their father how they felt about his lateness.

None of the above discussion is meant to justify the father's lateness or to minimize the inconsiderateness of his behavior. His ex-wife had good reason to resent his irresponsible handling of his time with the children. His behavior hurt the children. It caused her to be late for her own appointments. Time is a precious commodity, especially for a single parent.

This mother deserves our respect because she handled the situation constructively. She carefully balanced her children's need to respect and admire their father with their need for assistance in coping with his lateness. She did not allow her resentment to dictate her behavior. The result is that she remained focused on what was most important to her--her children's welfare.

Next: Part 4: Using the Warshak Test to Explain Why You Got Divorced