There are some statements that therapists often hear from parents when they go through a traditional divorce. Instead of helping parents come together for the sake of their children, divorce frequently creates more disharmony and mistrust. The mental scars to the offspring cannot be overstated. Below are some of what therapists here.
“My ex is poisoning my kids towards me. She is feeding them lies!”
“He’s a narcissist, that is why I am divorcing him. Now he continues to try to control me through our children.”
“I don’t want my son turning out like my ex. My ex and I can’t agree on anything!”
Litigious divorces are difficult for the adults. While many adults often recover, let’s focus on the developing and impressionable mind of the most important party of all in a divorce: the children. The negative effects last long after the divorce is settled. It is not hyperbole to say that adversarial divorces likely affect every future relationship the child/adolescent may have. The children may form a lasting perception: ‘can love ever really be trusted? Is love, after all; really a war?’. Adversarial divorces push parents in their opposing corners where they frequently communicate with each other via their lawyers. Matters frequently get misconstrued, misperceived, and misinterpreted. When this occurs, parents may take a defensive posture often assuming the worst from their ex-spouse. This defensive and hostile attitude gets transferred to the children who frequently know far more about their parent’s struggle than simply “mom and dad don’t like each other”. The child or teen overhear conversations adults have with their extended family or friends or read subtle nonverbal behaviors. Even a sigh, discourteous words, or contemptuous facial expressions can create bitter guiding principles in the child’s developing mind whenever the other parent calls or visits. These adverse statements or conversations from one parent about the other can vary from subtle scorn to outright alienation.
When children transition from one home to the other, they experience not only the difficulty of moving to a new setting, but also trying to acclimate to a different parent and his/her different set of rules and expectations. The first few hours or days after a transition can often be a painful jolt for the children who may let off steam by venting. Or worse, they may suffer in solitude.
Not uncommon, what the child says may reflect a mood or view they picked up from the other parent’s home. If the two parents have miscommunication, many times these children’s venting sounds negative or like bashing. The parent wonder, has my child been poisoned by my ex?
As a parent, when your actions, values, beliefs and intentions are questioned, the reflexive thing to do is become defensive. When your child mentions something negative about you or what you did or said, you want to question (interrogate) the child further and give them your side of the story or “the truth”.
As a psychologist, I often see parents defend themselves by questioning the integrity of the child’s word, assuming they are parroting the other parent. By doing this questioning, the child/adolescent often feels invalidated and discounted. What this dynamic unwittingly creates is more distance between the child and the parent, whom the child is accusing of wrongdoing. This further distancing is called “estrangement”; where the alienated parent inadvertently pushes the child further away from them.
A common scenario is when an adolescent changes houses:
Mom: “I’m glad to see you. Tell me about school”
Daughter says nothing and goes to her room.
Later mom goes to her daughter’s room.
Mom: “Is something wrong?”
Daughter: “Why do I have to be here? Why can’t I stay with Dad during the week? This is so useless and hurts my grades!”
Mom: “Did your father tell you that?”
While being attacked is never easy, the best method is to first listen without commentary or defensiveness. At a later time, you can bring up the allegations and get clarification from your child. Also, you may wish to say, “I know this must be confusing. I’m sorry you may be thinking that. There is another side to the story. But it really needs to stay between the adults right now. I’m confident that in time, you will figure out if your father and I are really ‘that bad’ or not. Please keep talking to us. You are the most important person in our world and we both love you dearly.”
Giving your child the chance to talk and air out their confusion will help your relationship in the long run. Confronting them and accusing them of parroting the other parent will create more estrangement and distance between you and your child
While divorce is inherently difficult, it does not have to be damaging to the children. There are many ways to mitigate damage. One way is with collaborative divorce. In this process, a neutral team of professionals (Typically two lawyers, a Mental Health Professional, and a Financial Specialist) help parents work together to develop a parenting and financial plan and promote good problem-solving/communication skills. Parents will often complete a collaborative divorce process feeling that they can work together and talk fairly for the sake of the children, and in a private, secure setting. This helps with their children’s overall mental health and adjustment in countless ways.