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.The problem is they won’t.
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.
In my video program, Co-Parenting With Purpose: How to Raise Happy, Secure and Resilient Kids After You've Split Up, I’ll reveal the ins and outs of badmouthing. You’ll learn how to make it right with your kids if you’ve slipped up, as well as what to do if you have a bitter ex who constantly criticizes you in front of your children.
You’ll learn exactly what your kids may be feeling following your divorce and specific strategies to ensure they grow up with a solid sense of self—and the belief that they are worthy of love.
Sometimes, badmouthing happens in subtle ways. Parents may be disparaging of their ex in front of their kids without realizing it. You’ll find out how to avoid these unintentional slip-ups, so you’re not hurting your kids self-esteem.
I’ll also teach you the smart way to handle angry flare ups when conflict strikes—and how to minimize its effects while confidently managing negative interactions between you and the other parent:Stop Making These Common Co-Parenting Mistakes
Remember, no matter what happened between you and your ex, your child still sees himself as half Mom, half Dad. And to your child, thinking half of him is “bad” or “wrong” means he sees himself as ALL bad or wrong.
When you set the right example and never downgrade the other parent, your child internalizes the message of “completely whole.”
Best wishes to you and your children,
P.S. While you may be keeping your opinion to yourself, your ex may not.
Even though it may be tempting to give what you get, remember when you fight fire with fire, your kids are the ones who end up getting burned.What To Do When Your Ex Isn’t Playing By The Rules