For our inaugural post, I thought it appropriate to write about how parental conflict hurts kids, even when it is not played out in front of the children.
When parents decide to end their relationship, it’s normal for some level of conflict to be present. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, and misguided efforts to reconcile influence parents’ behaviors. Sometimes those things can trick parents into making very poor parenting decisions that are motivated not by the children’s best interest, but the parent’s negative feelings about their co-parent. So even if the parents aren’t arguing with each other in front of the children, they can still be harmed by decisions parents make when they are angry or upset. Some common examples that I encounter include:
- Not allowing a parent to see the child;
- Revoking an agreement for off-schedule access previously made;
- Avoiding discussions with the co-parent about child-related matters/using the child as a messenger;
- Saying negative things about the co-parent to the children or within earshot of them
Of course, there are innumerable ways that angry parents find to “stick it to” the other parent when negative emotions short-circuit their reasoning skill. But the bottom line is quite simple: when parents choose to be in conflict, they are making a choice to harm their children. Parents can, instead, choose to set aside their desire to punish their co-parent and do what actually is in the child’s best interest.
How can you tell if you are making co-parenting decisions that really are in your children’s best interest? I coach parents to consider this: All parents will make mistakes–none of us are perfect (including your co-parent…and you!). One difference between a good parent and a bad parent, in my opinion, is that the good parent will observe the negative impact on their children when mistakes are made. They say to themselves, “Yikes. That didn’t work out for little Johnny. I’m not going to do that again!” Bad parents, on the other hand, observe the negative impact on their children, but continue to engage in the behavior because they have placed their own needs ahead of their children’s needs. Example? Saying negative things about the co-parent in front of the child is probably the most common.
Most folks learn to move past their differences and create some form of a working relationship with their co-parent so they can raise their children without creating unnecessary stress for them. You can get there, too. Even if your co-parent is not willing to cooperate with you, there are many things you can do to ensure you don’t add to the conflict.
Be the parent who chooses not to hurt your kids, no matter what others do.
Jack Bannin, MS, LPC, LMFT
Owner, Bexar Family Solutions
Originally posted on June 22, 2011
“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.”
“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
I recently heard a story about a NY attorney’s experience that led him to move from practicing traditional adversarial family law to collaborative law. His tale resonated with my experience working primarily with families involved in some sort of family law process. It confirmed that, while attorneys are essential to navigate the mine field of a family law suit, sometimes they create more problems than they resolve.
Imagine this scenario: a couple decide to divorce and agree to the major issues facing them–division of property, conservatorship of the children, and parenting plan. They then go to attorneys to draw up the paperwork, only to have one (or both) attorney reject the deal the parents have worked out.
This can happen for any number of reasons, and I think it often stems from the fact that attorneys are educated to “advocate zealously” for their clients’ interests. And some attorneys just really like the litigation aspect of their profession…they are competitive and they like to win, no matter the cost. The problem, of course, is that this can transform two reasonable litigants into angry enemies, creating unnecessary barriers to resolving the issues before the court, tricking parents into making very poor decisions, and leaving their children torn between the parents. What, then, have you gained if you win the battle but harm your children emotionally by the parental conflict?
It is your attorney’s job to represent your interests, not your children’s interests. Consequently, your attorney may give you advice that is great for your case, but is terrible for your children. Take, for example, clients who frequently tell me they’ve been advised to call the police whenever a co-parent is late to a scheduled exchange. From a legal perspective, this makes (dubious) sense. It’s designed to document the failure of the other parent to live up to his/her obligations, later to be used as a club against him/her at a hearing or trial. But let’s examine that advise from the child’s perspective for a moment.
- Using the police to resolve insignificant parenting problems teaches your children not to solve problems, but to escalate them, to bring in powerful others to get your way. Is that really the lesson you want to teach your children? Your children are looking to you to teach them how to handle disagreements, and this makes one a very poor role model, indeed.
- It can trigger your children’s natural fear of abandonment if they believe the police might take mommy/daddy away. Children will already be fearful about that because it has already happened to them when daddy/mommy moved away from each other and the child (typically) loses daily contact with both parents. Children don’t need more emotional stress in their lives, they need less stress. Don’t take actions that will trigger these very scary feelings.
- It risks teaching your children to resent law enforcement, to think of them as something bad. I’m sure you can imagine what consequences that could have on your children as they grow into their teen years and begin to push boundaries.
Attorneys can be a powerful force for good in family law cases, and I have met some attorneys who do, in fact, keep the impact on the children in mind when advising their clients. But it’s the “winner take all,” “we’ll get everything you’re entitled to” approach of some attorneys that harms far too many children.
My advise to you is to listen to your attorney’s counsel, but introduce some sense into the process. Object/protest when you are advised to do something that clearly will be bad for your children, even if it that action would improve your position. It’s your responsibility always to keep your children’s best interest in mind, not your attorney’s. Never lose sight of that fact.
Originally posted July 22, 2011
Imagine this scenario:
A teen comes back from spending time with parent A. When parent B asks how the weekend went, the teen says that parent A “did not feed me.” Shocked, parent B inquires further, but the teen sticks by the story. Parent B, concerned about this neglect, immediately contacts Child Protective Services and an attorney. The attorney files for an emergency protective order denying parent A access to the child until the Court can further assess Parent B’s allegations.
At the subsequent hearing where parent A is allowed to provide a defense, the judge begins to suspect something is not quite right about the allegation. The judge conducts an interview of the child in the privacy of the judge’s chambers. There, the rest of the story emerges.
The teen admits to being angry at parent A when that parent denied a request to have some candy just prior to dinner. Following dinner, the child returned to parent B–still angry–and told that parent about not being fed. Of course, there is some truth in the statement, but critical information was omitted. It wasn’t that the parent failed to feed the teen entirely, but instead did not feed the teen candy.
The moral of the story? Parents in conflict are more likely to make two fundamental parenting mistakes by assuming that
- Every word out of the child’s mouth is the Gospel Truth; and
- The story contains enough information to make a good parenting decision.
To reduce the likelihood that children will learn to manipulate their parents in this way, coparents must consult with each other about the stories their children tell them. Do this by stating the facts and leaving out accusations. Then use that information to inform your decision.
Parent B could have called parent A and informed her/him of the facts. “Our [son/daughter] came home and said you did not feed [him/her]. What’s your take on that?” Notice, there is no accusation or blame in that statement.
Parent B would have learned from parent A, “Oh, [she/he] is just mad at me because I didn’t let [her/him] have candy before dinner.”
That, of course, could have led to much more effective parenting. Children will naturally attempt to manipulate situations to obtain what they want–they do so in intact families, too. When parents do not communicate about those things, children learn quickly how to take advantage of that gap in verifying stories.
If you find yourself in these situations, stop yourself from reacting immediately other than to say, “Oh? Thanks for letting me know. I’ll talk to your [mother/father] and we will get it worked out.” Resist the urge to assume the worst from your coparent. Get more information. Then make your parenting decision. Children will learn they cannot play their parents against each other when the parents verify the stories told to them.
Originally posted on April 30, 2012