"Mom told me not to tell you."
"Dad said this should be a secret just between us."
Most of us cherish that special bond we hold just one-on-one with our child. That knowing look, the funny grin, or silent gesture that let's the other person know there's something between just the two of you. These are the teflon bonds built between mother and son, or father and daughter, which develop over years of trust, living together and unconditional love. While little secrets between a parent and child are nothing new, and are often harmless, these same secrets can take on an entirely different meaning when parents divorce.
Post-divorce, "Don't tell your mother or don't tell your father," can mean "I want to have something over your father, so I can use it against him," or, "I don't want your mother to know what we're doing, so she can't intervene."
"Don't tell" could mean "I don't want your mom to know about my trip to Hawaii," or "I don't want your father to know that I'm dating." Regardless of the underlying meaning, or good intentions of the speaker, the end result still places an unfair burden on a child, who is now left holding the bag of secrets. The interpretation of "Don't tell" to a child of divorce is extremely detrimental to the child's emotions and growth. Requests to keep secrets from a parent forces the child to make choices impacting his or her loyalty to one parent over the other, and creates an environment of anger and distrust towards both parents. This often leads to a deterioration of relationships, and becomes a breeding ground for hostility and resentment.
Example #1: Following her divorce, mom met the man of her dreams. After dating for a while, she introduced Mr. Wonderful to her young children, but instructed them, "Don't tell your dad about Mr. Wonderful." After meeting Mom's new boyfriend and seeing how happy they are together, the children are left wondering, "Maybe mom was concerned about dad's feelings?" "Maybe mom was concerned that dad won't like Mr. Wonderful being around us?" "Maybe something is wrong with Mr. Wonderful and we shouldn't like him?"
"Don't tell" instructions are often confusing to young minds, who likely don't have all of the information needed to make certain assumptions. In the above scenario, the children are confused and question why they wouldn't be able to share such happy news with their dad. Mom's reasoning could have been that she didn't want to hurt her ex-spouse's feelings, or, maybe she was concerned that her new relationship could place her alimony at risk. Setting aside her justifications, mom should instead be focused on how her children might interpret her request to keep a secret from their dad, and how it may impact their feelings.
Example #2: Dad is a typical, modern, working dad, who is very hands-on with his son and daughter. His daughter has been caught by her mother to be experimenting with marijuana. Mom, trying to be the "cool parent" tells her daughter, "I'm glad you are doing this in the safety of my house, but don't tell your father." More significantly, mom never tells dad that their daughter was found smoking pot in her house.
Fast-forward a few months, and the girl's behavior is changing dramatically beyond what would be expected of a typical teenager. She becomes uncharacteristically withdrawn and secretive, her straight As plummet to straight Fs, and she is caught stealing money from her best friend's backpack. Together, both concerned parents seek counseling and therapy for their daughter's problems, though dad remains completely unaware of his daughter's earlier experiments at her mother's house.
Unbeknownst to both parents, however, their daughter's drug use has escalated from "just weed" to more serious, illicit drugs. Mom feigns ignorance about any known drug use, until it is revealed during a therapy session that mom had been aware of their daughter's interest and experimentation. Suddenly, the impact of "don't tell your father" is apparent, when all opportunities for early intervention were lost.
Setting aside what side of the fence you fall on the marijuana debate itself, the scenario above is merely demonstrative of the potential consequences of intentionally keeping one parent in the dark about important child-related information. This example could have been about a child, who was being bullied in school, or who was struggling with gender identity. In an effort to maintain the only bond with the child, the co-parent effectively:
• Communicates to a child that it's okay to lie or hide information,
• Alienates the other parent, and
• Forces the child to choose one parent over another.
"Don't tell mom" or "Don't tell dad" means that when a child is having a real problem, one parent has no frame of reference for the issue, while the other parent secretly knows what's going on in the child's life. While one parent tries desperately to understand why her child committed suicide, the other parent knew that the child had been cyber bullied at school. "Don't tell mom" or "Don't tell dad" means that children are left to their own devices to figure out why they're being asked to keep a secret from a parent.
The cornerstone to effective co-parenting is communication. While there is no requirement that you tell your former spouse every detail about your new life, or, actually agree with your former spouse on parenting styles or decision-making, transparency about what's going on in your child's life should be an absolute goal and objective for both parents. The post-divorce journey can be treacherous, especially when children are involved. Your words and actions have meaning beyond simple statements, and impact those around you. Choose your words carefully and pay attention to the little ears that may be listening.
Have you been co-parenting with someone, who instructs your child not to communicate an important incident with you? Do you believe that co-parenting is a myth or just an ideal? When should divorced parents choose parallel parenting instead of co-parenting? Your comments and responses are welcomed!