It’s become common knowledge that divorced parents should not speak negatively about the other parent to their children. But it seems that extended family members may not have gotten the memo.
In my coparenting counseling practice, I hear a lot of stories about grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, even family friends who say not-nice things about the ex-spouse in earshot of the children. It isn’t fair, and actually I don’t think most people realize how truly damaging such rhetoric can be for kids.
Why It’s Bad
There are two reasons this has to stop, immediately.
First, kids have a right to love both parents without anyone trampling on that. Secondly, healthy attachment and emotional safety are required to develop strong self-esteem.
Your kids understand who they are by who is important in their lives. Whether biological or adopted, children derive their sense of identity and confidence from the people closest to them. Their parents’ love is their foundation for feeling good about who they are. Both parents.
Their attachment, security and emotional safety are entirely connected to their parents, so when someone talks poorly about their parent, especially when they are young and trying to understand the world around them, it feels like a direct threat to the child.
They cannot make sense of it. When children are young, they believe their parents are amazing. They want to have the freedom to love their parents and think of them as the best people they know. Any contrary commentary –especially when it comes from somebody that they love very much – is confusing.
More than that, children do not yet have the brain development to understand through logic and reasoning that two people may not get along but that does not impact their love for their children. Children are dependent on adults for their existence and when someone disparages one of their parents, they turn the negative feelings about the situation inward onto themselves.
Simply put, negative talk about a child’s parent makes them feel strange, shameful, weird or guilty about themselves. They feel responsible for keeping the peace and making people happy. Which is not their job. And if they are in this situation for too long, it damages their core beliefs about themselves and shatters their self-esteem.
If a child doesn’t have a positive sense of self because there is a threat to the attachment and emotional safety in their environment, they often can’t get to the next levels of what parents really want for them. During coparenting counseling, I often have parents write out their vision for their kid. Most say this: they want their children to be compassionate, to volunteer, to do well in school, to have good relationships.
This exercise enables us to have a conversation about what needs to happen for their children to reach those goals. Positive self-esteem is at the root of it all.
Without that, it doesn’t matter what you do for your child – you can send them to the best schools, give them the latest technology, send them to every extracurricular activity. Somewhere along the way, something will fall apart. It could be in relationships, it could be in academics. Inevitably, this lack of self-esteem will play out badly because no one can function well with a core belief that they’re bad and should be ashamed.
What To Watch For
Even when someone is not disparaging directly, facial expressions, tone of voice and body language can send equally negative messages to children. It’s something parents have to be aware of even if they’re not directly disparaging the other parent.
Many situations are fraught with drama. Sometimes grandparents are involved in the drama of the marriage and thus the divorce. We must look at our families with a critical eye, and be honest about what level of toxicity could exist.
Parents are protective about toxic peers, but we often don’t recognize it in our own families. Set strong boundaries with anyone talking to or engaging with your children so what they share is not damaging.
The Kids Can Vent to You
Now all of this is different than your child saying negative things about one parent to the other, or to another family member. They need to feel safe to get things off their chest, and that can only happen when a listening adult does not chime in.
Any caring adult can listen, offer support and love, and remember not to feed into the drama or create a bigger issue. Children only feel safe opening up when they know no harm will come from doing so.
Sometimes a parent will say, “The other parent disparages me! What’s the difference if I stand up for myself?”
I say to them, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If the other parent is saying negative things, the children already don’t feel safe in one home. Chiming in will create another home where they don’t feel safe.
Grandparents should be a soft landing place for kids, providing love and support, and staying neutral.
When the kids are away, of course, feel free to complain all you want to friends or family! But when the kids are around, don’t think that just because they’re in the other room, they’re not picking up on what is said. They’re like little private investigators, listening and watching. They hear you even when they’re watching a movie in another room.
What If It Doesn’t Stop?
Family relationships are the foundation for a strong sense of self.
A parent’s job is to protect their children from damage – physical or emotional. The buck stops with you. You must send a strong message and set boundaries the way you would with any other thing in your child’s life.
When you allow family members to inflict damage, then every family gathering or event – dance recitals, weddings, lifecycle celebrations – become fraught with anxiety for your children.
The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Children
When people are first getting divorced, one of the best things they can do is write a letter together to all the loved ones in your life and let them know you have decided to part ways. Admit that you’re very sad it didn’t work out and you’re looking to all of these people for support – for your entire family.
Part of that support is everybody getting on the same page. Explain in the letter that your shared focus is on the children and co-parenting together and while the relationship didn’t work out, you’re going to be very focused on not disparaging each other and not talking about what went wrong.
Make it clear that the focus is on providing a loving, supportive, emotionally safe environment for your children, and ask everybody to participate in this process with you. Set the tone right from the beginning. That’s the ideal.
It is the parents’ responsibility to take care of shutting down anyone who means well but talks negatively. If a person won’t listen, the parent needs to make it clear that the kids cannot be around them.
You’re not going to always be able to control the situation, but you can minimize the damage.
Even when your children are older, they may be able to filter things out, but they don’t want to hear negative talk about their parents. It makes them uncomfortable and it compromises their relationship with the person doing the disparaging. And at the end of the day, it’s not their job to defend their parents to anyone.
Give your children the best gift – the freedom to be children, to love their parents, and to grow up strong and emotionally whole.