In a family with kids, divorce is seldom taken lightly. The husband, once a prince, is now a monster. The wife, once an angel, is now a witch. But for children of divorce, those decrowned and dethroned monarch remain mom and dad. Because unless one of the parents harmed one of the kids, the relationships between child and parent will remain intact and important as ever. Which means despite anger, spite, and frustration, those relationships should be championed and protected. Even when it hurts.
“Your child is half you and half your ex-spouse. So visualize your child split right down the middle,” says Ann Arbor licensed clinical social worker Erin Barbossa. That’s especially helpful, Barbossa says, because children already see themselves that way — half a product of you, and half a product of your ex. Every time a parent tears down an ex-spouse, the kids feel like a part of themselves is torn down too. Without realizing it, parents essentially level every malicious comment about their exes at their children. “At a subconscious level, no matter what you say or do, your child internalizes that they are half of your ex-spouse.”
“The more compassion you can show your ex-spouse, the better your child’s self-esteem will be,” Barbossa adds. “Because every time you criticize your ex, you are criticizing half of who your child is, and they will feel that deeply.”
Now, this is not the best approach in all circumstances. Barbossa acknowledges that, when your ex is out of the picture due to abuse, drugs, or neglect, biting your tongue can be particularly difficult. But even in those cases, Barbossa suggests keeping the criticisms to a minimum and only speaking negatively about your ex with compassion — and without blame. “As your child develops and matures they will learn through their own experience who your ex is without your input,” Barbossa says.
Not that it’s always necessary to say anything at all. “Ask yourself why you’re sharing this,” says Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis. “Are you explaining something that happened, or are you complaining about your ex-spouse? Keeping the goal in mind helps you to make sure that you’re communicating with your child for the right reasons.” This is especially crucial when speaking to very young children about legal decisions or logistics. “Some kids in elementary school feel like they have to take sides,” Torgerson says. “That emotional stress can get in the way of your child focusing on other important things, like school, friends, and just being a kid.”
And as ever, simplicity is key. Kids should be told about your legal and marital spats strictly on a need-to-know basis. Because a kid’s first job is to be a kid. They don’t need to know everything, and it’s not their job to help you work through your pain. “While we know that situations can become complex,” says Torgerson, “Keep your explanations as simple as possible.”