Quick: what hurts kids most when parents divorce?
Is it the shuffling back and forth between homes?
Is it confusion over why their parents aren’t together?
Is it having to deal with different rules in each home?
Is it not being able to see a parent when they want to?
Is it not being able to see a parent when they want to?
While all of these issues are very real concerns for your kids, one of the BIGGEST stressors they deal with often gets overlooked.
After over 20 years working with separated parents and their children—and being a child of a difficult divorce myself—I can tell you that even the most loving parents with the best intentions can slip up from time to time.
Emotions run high, there’s a disagreement and a cutting remark about the other parent slides right out. You see the look on your kids’ faces, and regret instantly sets in. You desperately hope your kids will just forget you ever said it.
Of course the gate swings both ways, I have also worked with parents who are biting their tongues but their ex isn’t. Parents consumed by bitterness often engage in a range of behaviors from making a careless negative remark about the other parent to routinely badmouthing and criticizing a parent in front of the children.
And this is tragic.
Because when anger takes over, words often fly right out of our mouths and into our children’s hearts.
Believe it or not, kids literally think of themselves as half Mom and half Dad.
Before the split, those halves were usually associated with the very best part of each parent. Ever remember telling you kids things like…
You have a beautiful smile just like your dad.
You’re a math wiz just like your mom.
Now that you’ve split up, those comparisons unintentionally take a turn for the worst.
You’re so messy, just like your mom. Why can’t you clean up after yourself?
Why do you have to be so lazy? You are exactly like your dad, he never helped out around the house.
Whether it’s an off the cuff comparison or a blunt statement, when kids hear negative things about a parent, it has real staying power. Expect your child to hear those comments as a direct criticism—as if you are saying something negative about them.
If Dad pops off with, “Your mom is such a gold digger, she took everything,” Victoria has to wonder, “Am I that way too?”
When Mom rants about what a loser Dad is, Caden may question, “Does Mom feel that way about me?”
Keep in mind, not all kids may be able to talk about how it feels for them, but it’s there all the same—and it can come out in the form of low self-esteem, kids not talking about their feelings, isolating or withdrawing, protecting or defending a parent.
Over time children may grow to resent the badmouthing and begin to distance themselves from the critical parent.
The most heartbreaking result is damage to the child’s sense of worth and self-esteem.
Think about it: if you have parents who hate each other, what does that say about you?
When kids hear something negative about a parent—even if it’s true—they tend to take it in as something bad or undesirable about themselves. And when that opinion comes from someone they love, it packs a powerful punch. If they think your opinion of the other parent is “bad,” they see themselves as “bad.” And they may be wondering if you see them as “bad” too.
And they don’t know what to do with this.
Even though your ex may be the worst husband or wife on the face of the planet, they are and always will be the only mom or dad your kids will ever have.
Keep in mind that the quality of your relationship with each other doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of who you are as a mom or a dad. Kids are fiercely loyal to their parents and have a deep need to be both accepted and loved by them.
Which is why it is critical that you find some way to separate your feelings for each other from your kid’s need to have a positive loving relationship with each of you.
In other words, how you feel and what you think about your ex shouldn’t determine what kind of relationship your children have with their other parent.
And they need to feel good about both parents in order to feel good about themselves.
Remember badmouthing can also backfire. Kids may grow to resent a parent’s relentless negativity. When children get exposed to badmouthing, they may feel the need to stick up for the parent who is being run down. They aren’t just defending that parent, they are also defending their own sense of worth.
That’s why, every time you say ANYTHING about the other parent, assume your child will take it to heart.
Whether your opinion of your ex is true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is what you say in front of your kids. Don’t expect your truth to be your children’s reality.
How children experience divorce is often very different than how their parents feel and think about divorce.
You may think that because your ex behaved badly with you, that this means your children will see him or her the same way. And it’s just not true.
There is just too much damage that can result for your kids from talking badly about the other parent.
Fortunately, I have that covered for you. I’ve spent the last two decades of my career helping parents JUST LIKE YOU navigate some of the most pressing and common challenges of co-parenting.
But I can’t possibly help every single parent on a one-on-one basis who needs my guidance. That’s why I’ve partnered with Flourish, so I can extend that help and guidance to as many parents as possible.
Your children deserve nothing but the best you have to offer, and I want to help you discover the way to give that to them.
When you subscribe to our FREE Advice Newsletter, you get access to articles about your most pressing parenting issues, from an accomplished community of carefully-selected parenting experts. You also get articles on dating, improving your relationships, self-love, happiness and wellbeing.
With your free subscription, you’ll also learn:
Simply enter your name and email address in the box, and you’ll get all this plus much, much more.
It’s free, it’s easy, and you’ll love the tips, advice and guidance you’ll receive from me on how to help your children feel secure, resilient and happy during this challenging time for your family.
You want to do what’s best for your kids, because they are the most important thing in your life. My tips are practical and are designed to help you get on with the business of being a loving and strong presence in your children’s life, no matter how many ups and downs you experience post-split with your ex.
Wishing you and your children the very best,