Sadly badmouthing the other parent to a child is an issue that’s often raised in mediation – with each parent accusing the other. Why would loving parents do this? Separation can create a huge & painful trauma. They may each feel they have been vey badly treated by the other. There’s often a strong desire to verbalise this and let others know that it’s not fair. They may fear their children will be manipulated by the other parent and that they need to set the record straight and that can involve telling children what they believe the other is doing wrong. Anger often plays a part too. It’s therefore easy to lose perspective and confide in your child about adult issues or vent to them. Whatever the motivation, it hurts children.
How do children deal with badmouthing?
When a child hears negative comments about their parent, it is often upsetting and hurtful. They are half mum and half dad and will recognise similarities and characteristics they share with each parent. When they hear a parent criticised by the other, it creates insecurity and conflicted emotion. They may feel torn and that they are being forced to take sides. They may even feel disloyal as they haven’t defended the criticised parent. If they accept what’s said as a truth, they can begin to feel that the other parent no longer cares about them. As a mediator I sometimes meet and listen to children. A 12 year old child once said the worst thing about her parents separating was hearing the mean things they continually said about each other to her. I asked her what she needed from her parents and she said she needed them to stop. She loved them both and she didn’t want to hear anything bad about either of them. How did it make her feel? ‘Scared and really uncomfortable.’ She said sometimes she wanted to scream ‘shut up’, but just said nothing and hoped it would stop. She also said she wanted to pack her bags and go and stay with the other parent when it happened. The most concerning aspect was that she said each parent told her such differing accounts, that she didn’t know who to believe. Sometimes she believed one and sometimes the other. In the past she had always trusted both and this made her feel safe. She now didn’t feel as safe and secure. Whilst she didn’t think her parents would ever be friends again, she wanted them to move forward with their lives and leave any bitterness behind. A pretty mature 12 year old – wouldn’t you agree?
Children are parent pleasers
Children love their parents (often unconditionally) and want to please them. Sometimes a child will tell each parent what they think they want to hear, whilst internalising their real feelings. They do this to keep the peace, gain acceptance and to avoid rocking the boat. I once mediated child arrangements with the parents of a teenage boy. They were each adamant that he wanted to spend more time with them and not the other. He currently spent half his time with each. They wanted me to listen to him as they each believed he would tell me what they wanted to hear. What did he want them to know? He was happy with the current arrangements and enjoyed his time with each parent. However, each parent said he had told them he wanted to spend more of his time with them and not with the other. He didn’t think he had said that. He said they had each told him what he wanted and he didn’t feel able to tell them that they were wrong. They were so angry with each other that they had assumed he couldn’t possibly enjoy spending so much time with the other.
Listening to children & making sure you are ok.
Both of the children I have referred to were fortunate that they were able to speak to an impartial adult who helped them to share their feelings with their parents. What happens to children who don’t have the same opportunity? They can experience guilt and shame when they are caught between conflicted parents. This can turn inward and lead to low self-esteem and in extreme cases self-hatred and blame. They can feel that their parents don’t listen to them and respect their feelings. They are at risk in some cases of future depression and even substance abuse or self harm.
If a parent is struggling to cope at such a difficult time then they need to seek support. Counselling can be extremely beneficial and so can talking to a caring and non judgemental friend. Family mediation helps parents to focus on the future and not dwell on the past. Communication can drastically improve as assumptions and misunderstandings can be cleared up and ground rules for future communication can be established. Children benefit enormously when parents can put aside their differences and co-parent without conflict.
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