How to Minimize the Damage on Your Kids in a Damaged Relationship

The fighting, the bickering, the name-calling, the selfish actions and the childish reactions…sound like a scene of toddlers at daycare? Nope. I’m talking about the many situations that take place during separation and divorce between two adults. While we all know that a breakup of any relationship is often difficult and heart-wrenching, all too often the adults forget that they’re not the only ones breaking up; their kids are caught in the crossfire and they’re also going through the breakup with you.

While most parents are cognizant of the fact that kids suffer through divorce as well, what many of them fail to realize is that kids don’t see divorce the same way adults do. Children, especially young children, don’t have the ability to comprehend complex adult issues. So while they, too, are going through the separation along with you, they don’t understand much of anything that’s going on, so they rely on you, the parent, to guide them and help them through this rough transition.

With that in mind, you can just imagine how easy it is for some parents to get caught up in their own problems and not think about how their sometimes selfish actions during and after the divorce can negatively impact their children. Therefore it is not uncommon for parents to say things to or around their children about the divorce or their soon-to-be-ex-spouse that they may or may not realize have a negative impact on their kids. Here are some well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning things parents say or talk about around children during or even after a separation:

Fighting about money.Numerous studies have shown that money is the number one reason why couples argue, and many divorced couples site financial troubles as the main, if not the sole, reason for the split. So it’s no surprise that couples who are separated or divorced would fight about money as well. While your ex may not be paying their share of child support or you feel they are not contributing fairly financially to meet your children’s needs, confronting them about it in front of your children will only make your kids feel like a commodity. This is especially true if one parent withholds visitation from the other parent based on a money issue alone (i.e. they aren’t paying support). Likewise it is not OK to tell your child that your financial woes are the fault of the other parent, e.g. “Daddy can’t buy you the toy you want because Mommy takes all his money.”

Divulging the real reason for the separation. OK, so maybe your husband cheated on you with your sister. Or maybe your wife has a debilitating drug addiction and you’ve had enough. Whatever the reason for the separation, your children want and deserve some sort of explanation. But letting them in on every gory detail of the breakup is not only gratuitous, it’s just plain wrong. That’s not to say that you should lie to them, but use an age-appropriate and toned-down response. Going into too much detail is like launching into an astrophysics lecture when your child asks why the sun rises and sets. A good generic response to most situations could be simply, “Mommy and Daddy just aren’t very good friends anymore and being together makes us sad, and we know that when we fight, it makes you sad too, so we decided to not be with each other anymore.” If it’s something like a drug or alcohol problem, you could say, “Daddy just has a problem right now and he’s trying real hard to be a better person, but we decided together that he needed to work on this alone.” If the child(ren) press for a more detailed explanation, give them as much as you feel they can handle (especially older children), but for the most part for smaller children a generalized explanation will suffice.

Name calling. This one is a no-brainer, but it happens so often that it needs to be addressed. We teach our children from the moment they can talk that name calling is just not acceptable behavior. So most likely it will come as a surprise to children when their parents resort to doing just that in a divorce situation. Please keep in mind that while you may not like your soon-to-be-ex (or may even hate them), your child(ren) probably still think they’re the bees knees. So if they hear one parent calling the other a derogatory name or spewing epithets, directly or indirectly, it only serves to confuse the child(ren) and they may cause them to feel guilt about loyalty to one or both parents

Sending “messages” to the other parent. One day my 6-yr-old son randomly proclaimed, “My dad says that men who have long hair are girly-boys.” While this sounds innocent enough, it wasn’t. My boyfriend has long hair and I knew that my ex was trying to send us a message through our son, and his only intent was to harass my boyfriend by proxy. Children are not messengers, and using them for this purpose, either legitimately (by intending to inform the other parent of something) or back-handedly (see example above) is not appropriate. Don’t rely on children to pass along important information to other family members – it’s your responsibility to deliver that kind of information to them directly – and by no means should you say things around them that you just know they will repeat. Children, especially small children, can and will repeat everything they hear, and it is just plain negligent for you to capitalize on this fact to satisfy your own brittle ego.

Forcing responsibility on the child. I have a co-worker who is embroiled in a bitter custody battle with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. She refused to take the kids to school in the morning, claiming it was his responsibility, and he refused the same, claiming it was her responsibility, because they were still in the process of mediation and nothing had been solidly agreed upon. Meanwhile the kids were stuck at her home with no way to get to school. One of the children called him and said that their mom had finally agreed to take them to school, and suddenly in the background he heard her scream, “No I did NOT say that, you tell your father that I am NOT taking you to school!!!”, which subsequently made the child cry. Putting a child in the middle of an argument just because you are trying to make a point is a travesty of parenting. Even if the custody isn’t yet set in stone, remember that your child’s well-being comes well before your overwhelming desire to “be right”.

Telling your child the other parent doesn’t want to see them (even if it’s true). Depending on how the custody played out in court, you may have more placement with your kids than the other parent. This makes it hard for children to understand why they don’t see Daddy as often as they see you, for instance. Or, there may be times when the other parent fails to meet their visitation obligation or misses an anticipated date with your child (such as the other parent promising to take them to the park on Saturday, but they are called into work instead.) When they ask why, don’t be tempted to take a dig at your ex by saying, “I guess Daddy just doesn’t want to spend time with you.” Shedding a negative light on your ex with the sole intention of making yourself look better only hurts the kids. Even if your ex is truly being a deadbeat, it may be difficult to resist the temptation of being honest with your kids about it, but you must. This doesn’t mean you have to lie and constantly cover for your ex, but just like the point about revealing too much information about the separation, you may need to candy-coat it just a little bit by saying something like, “Daddy loves you very much, but something came up and he couldn’t make it.” If your ex is consistently being a jerk, it won’t take your kids long to figure this out on their own, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing you took the high road (and your kids will respect you for it later).

Divorce is never easy for anyone involved. The last thing we want to do as parents is make it any harder on our kids than it has to be. It’s important to always be in tune with your kids’ attitudes and moods, and be sure to make it very clear to them before, during, and after the separation that you’re always available if and when they need to talk, vent, ask questions, or whatever. If you’re found guilty of any of the above “violations”, your children will find it very difficult to come to you when they need help through this trying time. Above all, always make sure your childrens’ needs come before your own and be there to help guide your children through this transition.

E.B. Smart is best known for her snarky one-liners and random daily observations. While she clearly has a well-developed humorous side, beware the things that go bump in the dark night in her sick and twiste…  View profile

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