Assisting Families in Transition

Are You Really Acting in Your Child’s Best Interest?

“My teenager is really mad at me and constantly defends his/her father. I think she needs to see a counselor!”

I frequently hear this when consulting with co-parents who are in conflict. When I delve deeper into the dynamics, I often hear these kinds of comments:

“My child’s other parent just isn’t living up to her/his parenting responsibilities. I want my child to know that. It’s the truth, after all.”

Or

“I got so sick of my co-parent expecting me to provide clothes for my child during his/her parenting time, that I finally told my child I was not going to do it any more, and that it was time for my child to go clothes shopping with the other parent.”

Both of these are examples of how parents’ negative feelings about the co-parent trick them into making poor parenting decisions, placing the child in a loyalty bind. When parents portray their co-parent in a negative light to the child, it is natural for the child to rise to the maligned parent’s defense. The parent doing the trash-talking often ends up damaging their own relationship with the child. The goal of telling children “the truth” in these situations is not driven by some noble pursuit of Truth, morality, or character building, but is rather an unabashed attempt by one parent to destroy the child’s relationship with the other parent.

There are many “truths” we can tell our children. Some of them harm them, some do not. Choose “truths” that do not send the message  that it is not OK for children to love the other parent…even if the other parent is a jerk.

Keeping your kids out of these kinds of conflicts is far more important than whose clothes they wear. At times like these, it is essential to shift focus away from teaching the other parent a lesson or trying to force them to be the parent you want them to be. Instead, acting in the child’s best interest guides you to focus on solving the problem, not on getting what you want. The problem in this example isn’t that the other parent is not buying clothes. The problem is the parties are engaged in a power struggle that harms the child. Solving the problem is simple: ensure your child is clothed and keep your negative comments about the other parent to yourself.

While you are at it, adjust your expectations to match your reality. Assume that your co-parent is never going to live up to your expectations. It’s nuts to expect from someone something they have never demonstrated they are willing to do. Learn to expect nothing more from your co-parent than she/he has already shown you he/she is willing to deliver. You’ll be a lot less frustrated and your kids will benefit from the reduced conflict.

Originally posted on March 9, 2012