In a newsletter from Dr. Mark Goulston I read that: "A majority of teenagers, when asked if they had the choice between their parents being nicer to them or more loving towards each other, will pick the latter. The animosity between parents is very painful to their children."
Stop and think about that for a moment. In Dr. Goulston's experience, teenagers would sacrifice receiving more love from their parents if they could assure their parents got along better with one another.
This reinforces what most mental health professionals have long known: Parental conflict is a source of continual pain for our children -- whether the parents are married or divorced.
As a divorce and parenting coach and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network for parents, my goal is to make sure both parents fully understand the impact of parental discord upon your children. That's why I ask every client: Do you love your children more than you hate your soon-to-be-ex? If you really do, then you need to understand the negative consequences when parents (and other relatives and friends) fight, disparage or in other ways disrespect one another around the children.
Parents are the stability in any family. Children derive security from parental love, support and protection. Even after divorce, if the children feel both parents are still there for them -- participating in their lives and providing love and guidance -- they can thrive.
However, when one parent tries to demean the other parent or uses the kids as confidants to vent their anger or frustration about the divorce, the sanctity of security is broken. Now the children are thrown into a state of conflict and confusion. With whom do they side? Will the other parent resent them for taking sides? What if they still love their other parent who is being criticized and demeaned? Are they being disloyal to mom or dad if they want to defend or support the other parent?
Children, even older teens, are deeply troubled when trying to find solutions to these challenging questions. It robs them of their sleep, affects school performance, and changes who they are emotionally and psychologically. This is a burden no parent should inflict on their children, yet it happens all too often, with little awareness of the consequences.
Feeling guilty, shamed and confused, children start acting out to cope with the internal conflict. They may get more aggressive, start bullying at home or at school, and showing other behavior problems with parents or siblings. Others turn within, disengage from family and friends, withdrawing from school, sports or other activities they used to love. The despair and loss of trusted parental security creates despair and can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Child psychologists deal with these challenges regularly as parents bring their children in for "help." Most haven't a clue that the cause was their poor parenting choices during and after divorce.
Here are some typical comments to avoid when talking to your children about their other parent:
• Do you hear yourself saying: "Sounds like you picked that up from your Dad/Mom."
• Do you make a negative retort about their behavior and end it with "just like your father/mother."
• Do you frequently compare your ex with other divorced parents you know, making sure the kids get the negative judgment?
• Do you counter every positive comment your child makes about your ex with, "Yeah, but ..." and finish it with a downer?
• Do you make your children feel guilty for having had fun visiting the other parent or liking something in their home?
• Do you throw around biting statements like "If Mom/Dad really loved you ..."
• Do you try to frighten or intimidate your kids during a disagreement by saying "If you don't like it here, then go live with your Mom/Dad?
It's easy to fall into these behavior patterns -- and they can effectively manipulate your children's behavior -- for the short-term. But in the long run you will be slowly eroding your personal relationship with the children you love and alienating their affection. This will bite you back in the years to come, especially as your children move through their teens and grow older.
Minding your tongue around your kids can be one of the most difficult behaviors to master after a divorce. However, it is also one of the behaviors that will most benefit your children on a long-term basis. Don't let anger, bitterness and indiscriminate remarks hurt and harm your kids. Work on maintaining the best possible relationship with your ex - for the sake of the children. Need help? Join a Co-Parent support group, find a compassionate Divorce Coach, seek out a therapist, talk to a school counselor. Master communication skills and be the role model you want to be for your children. That's a gift that will keep on giving, enhancing their lives -- thanks to you!