Talking to Your Child About the Estranged Parent
Tina Feigal, M.S., Ed. Copyright © 2015 Center for the Challenging Child
When parents are separated or divorced, a gradual or sudden taboo around talking about the estranged parent often sets in. This can result in some very strong loyalty struggles, with kids feeling guilty for discussing mom with dad, dad with mom, or both. Many parents have asked how to handle this, feeling completely undone by the rift, and not knowing what’s best for the child.
First, there’s a rule to remember: Don’t leave the child hanging with no sounding board during the biggest challenge of his or her life. If you are not comfortable having a conversation with your child about the other parent, find someone who can talk to your child. Do it right away.
Second, it’s very important not to put the other parent down, because as hard as it is between you, that person is half of your child’s sense of self in the world. If you put him or her down, you put the child down. And if the Golden Rule ever applied anywhere, it’s here. Check if you’d want the other parent saying what you want to say to your child, about you. You will never regret holding to this rule. Your child will be eternally grateful, even if he or she can’t express it during the storm of emotion, that you avoided negative talk about the other parent.
Third, and this is the one that most parents don’t know: You can be a sounding board for your child regarding the feelings about the other parent. Just KEEP IT FOCUSED ON THE CHILD’S FEELINGS IN THE MOMENT. Too often kids get trapped in their feelings, desperate for someone to validate them, and have nowhere to turn. Validating their feelings is your job here.
How do you do that? Here are some examples:
Parent: “I know it’s hard, now that daddy and I are not together any more, to talk to me about your feelings about him. I promise you I will not put him down. I also promise you that I will listen to your feelings, because that’s what moms do. You don’t have to feel alone in this.”
Child: “I hate going to daddy’s house because he’s so strict.”
Parent: “Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling, Honey. I hear you. You feel daddy is too strict, and that’s tough when you have to stay with him.”
Child: “Yeah, he needs to let up on me. He orders me around like I’m a robot or something.”
Parent: “You feel like he thinks you’re a robot when he orders you around.” (This is just affirming the exact expression from the child. It is not a put-down to the other parent, which might sound like this: “What a jerk. He shouldn’t treat you like that. He calls himself a dad?”)
Child: “Yes, and I hate that. I’m a kid!”
Parent: “You really hate that. You should be seen as a kid, because you are a kid.”
Child: “Yup. I want to be a kid, not some robot. How can I make daddy stop that?”
Parent: “What would you say to telling him that you don’t like coming to his house because he’s so strict that you feel like a robot?”
Child: “I might be too scared to say that.”
Parent: “I sure understand that. But if you want help in feeling strong enough to talk to him, I’m here for you. Think about it for a few days, and we’ll talk about it again.”
Child: “Thanks, Mom. I feel better just being able to tell you about it.”
Parent: “You’re so welcome, Honey. I love that you can tell me.”
The child is no longer trapped by the feeling that she or he can’t express negative feelings. This may be one of the most traumatizing experiences of being in a divorced family, and you have just resolved it for your child. Remember to keep the focus directly on what he or she says, and not to veer into your opinions. Ask open-ended questions, starting with “how”, which will keep you on track. “How did you feel? How did you handle it? How do you want me to help you?”
If your child wants you to ask the other parent to stop a behavior or start a missing one, be willing to do that, but first encourage direct communication. You can be the back-up if it doesn’t go well, but always help your child to feel empowered to say his truth to the other parent first.
If you do want to express your child’s thought to the other parent, say or write it like this: “I spoke with Gina last night, and I want you to hear her exact words. She said, ‘Daddy is too strict at his house, and I feel like a robot, not a kid. I don’t like going over there.’ I am just telling you this because she was reluctant to say it to you, and she asked me to do so. I will leave it to you to resolve it in whatever way you see fit.”
The other parent may or may not accept your comments, nor make a change in his or her approach, but at least you’ve done your job in helping your child feel heard. If no change comes, you can ALWAYS help your child feel heard when he or she is with you. Nothing will ever take that from you and your child. It’s a lifelong gift for both of you.
If the child expresses that abuse or neglect is occurring at the other parent’s home, you need to report it to your county’s Child Protective Services department. Check with your lawyer before doing so, so you are going about it in a way that works. Here’s a resource for reporting.
A footnote: Try to remember the good things about your ex, and reiterate them to your child when the emotion has subsided. Do not do this when the child is expressing his or her hard feelings, though, as it could be felt as a rejection of those feelings or of the child. It’s very healing to everyone to remember the good things at a later time, and it may be well worth your effort as you navigate co-parenting with your ex.
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