One of the most destructive things you can do to your own relationship with your child is to speak negatively about the other parent in front of your child. Assuming for the moment that you have a very good reason to dislike the co-parent, you nevertheless should have a selfish interest in not bad-mouthing the other parent in front of your child.
Why Bad-Mouthing Is Never a Good Idea
Speaking negatively about the other parent demonstrates hatred, and children learn what their parents demonstrate. Expressing your anger toward your co-parent in front of your child is likely to destroy positive perceptions your child has about the co-parent.
However, it rarely stops there. When your child gets angry with you for something, she will manage her anger the way you've shown her anger should be managed—and treat you accordingly.
What to Do When Your Co-Parent Bad-Mouths You
When the other parent is the one bad-mouthing you, resist fighting fire with fire. If you believe that modeling anger and hatred is damaging to your child, it stands to reason that you would not want the child to be exposed to double the amount of anger and hatred.
The rest of the advice on this topic is simple. If your child reports to you that the other parent has said something nasty about you, simply reply that you do not know why they would say that.
Here are some examples:
Child: Mommy says that you love your new baby more than you love me.
Dad: I don't know why Mom would say that. I love you more than anything else in the whole world, and I always will.
Child: Daddy says that your boyfriend is a liar and a criminal.
Mom: I don't know why Daddy would say that. Maybe he was a little grumpy that day.
Your manner of reacting to what your child says will be just as important as the words you speak in response. If you speak the words with a purple face and clenched teeth, you will not be communicating the nonchalance that is important to reduce whatever concern the criticism has raised in your child.
Parents bad-mouth the other parent to the child to create doubt and insecurity in the child's mind. This is why it is such an unhealthy and damaging behavior. Your task in dealing with a bad-mouthing parent is to restore that security, not to prove your case to your child or get even with the other parent.
Resist the temptation to provide long-winded explanations to the child to disprove what the other parent has said. This draws the child right into the middle of your conflict with the co-parent, especially with children who feel the need to report your retort back to the co-parent.
As with many options for reducing co-parenting conflicts, taking the high road is a win-win situation. Save yourself the effort of generating detailed explanations about why the other parent was wrong and counterpoints of equally damaging information, and spend that energy showing your child your love. Even when children are swayed by a badmouthing co-parent, showing prudence in how you respond is always best. It is never wise to fight fire with fire.
When Bad-Mouthing Damages Your Relationship with Your Child
There are times when bad-mouthing parents do succeed in destroying a child's relationship with another parent. Many courts are very sympathetic to parents who can prove that another parent is teaching a child to be hateful and critical, but the process of educating decision makers still has a long way to go. If it appears as though you have tried to remove yourself from the conflict and have avoided using the same tactics, and this has not brought an end to the damage being done to the child, you must carefully document your child's behavior and consult an attorney so that you may seek court intervention. There is no certainty that court intervention will reverse the process, but at that point you will probably have to move ahead within the legal system in order to address the problem.
When Children Reject Their Parents
With ever-increasing frequency, children are reporting that they want nothing to do with one of their parents. I have spent the majority of my career studying visitation refusal and what others have called parent alienation syndrome. Personally, I do not favor the use of this term, primarily because the American Psychological Association does not recognize the phenomenon as a "syndrome," so if a psychologist uses this term in the context of a legal dispute, it is easily attacked because there is no reliable diagnostic category associated with it. Second, the term describes only half of the reason why children reject their parents, and it implies that the rejected parent is a passive victim whose child's mind was bent and twisted by the alienating parent. Most professionals, even professionals who favor use of the term parental alienation, acknowledge that the rejected parent usually contributes to the rejection by making such mistakes as becoming angry at the child, rejecting the child, and displaying anger at the other parent.
How the phenomenon of children rejecting their parents occurs is a matter of speculation and concern among mental health professionals; the fact that it does occur is indisputable. The degree to which the conflict of not wanting to see a parent affects a child's mental health is profound. It is profound enough to drive a child to self-destructive behavior.
If a child is forced against his will, he might run away or threaten to harm himself. While I have never seen a child harm himself over being forced to see a parent, I have been involved in cases where children have threatened it, and that is scary enough. I have also had the unfortunate experience of being involved in a case in which a child's guilt over rejecting a parent became so overwhelming that she took her own life.
Over the past ten years my staff and I have delivered more than ten thousand hours of reconciliation counseling in cases where children have refused to see their parents or have said they never want to see a parent again. The cases are not considered reconciliation counseling when they involve an act of physical abuse or neglect. These are cases where a child decides they no longer want to see a parent.
Often the precipitating event for cases like these is a child acting out the custodial parent's agenda. I have had children refuse to see a parent because there has not been enough child support paid. I have witnessed visitation being refused because children do not want to see or deal with a parent who has been unfaithful to the preferred or favored parent. At my clinic we have had children refuse visitation claiming the rejected parent is "not a nice person." The good news is that the vast majority of these cases end successfully, which is to say that the rejected parent and the child do reestablish a relationship with one another. The bad news is that the mental health community often hampers good results by promoting suggestions that are made with the best intentions but nevertheless prevent reconciliation. These suggestions include giving a child a rest or break from visitation, or suggesting the child not visit at all.
Don't Wait—Act Now
In my experience, the biggest mistake that people make when a parent is rejected is to wait for children "to come around." People mistakenly assume that if time goes by, children will forgive and forget. While this might happen in a percentage of cases, it is a very small percentage. Instead, children start to feel guilty about not visiting a parent. They worry that they will be scolded or made to feel bad that they didn't visit. Even young children know that they are disappointing and upsetting a parent they refuse to see. These bad feelings increase the child's motivation to avoid visitation, because they assume that the visit will be unpleasant or, at best, uncomfortable.
Children know that when they are not getting along well with a parent, the most anyone will force them to visit is once a week, so if they can convince the preferred parent to let them off the hook, they will not have to deal with the issue for a week. For most children, a week's reprieve from not having to face an uncomfortable circumstance is like being able to skip homework for a week and not get in trouble for it. There is generally no consequence to a child skipping visitation, because people can see that they are emotionally upset. It's natural to want to alleviate our children's emotional pain, so we are more likely to give in to children's requests for "a little more time" to forgive Mom or Dad.
As more time goes by, children have to become more creative with the excuses they give for not wanting to go on a visit, and as a result, emotions in the child run hotter, refusals become stronger, and the child becomes more upset, thus protesting more than ever against seeing the rejected parent. To make matters worse, while all of this is going on, Mom is blaming Dad for the lapse in visitation while Dad is blaming Mom; and this conflict is usually very obvious to the child, who in a very unhealthy way sees how the adults around him are so powerfully affected by his behavior.
Watching this sequence of events happen thousands of times has convinced me that when children and parents have lapses in their relationships, it is imperative that the child not be permitted to refuse to visit, and that both parents should make efforts to get that child into counseling with a therapist who understands the phenomenon and how to deal with it.
Unfortunately, most therapists do not know how to deal with it, and, after a few weak attempts at trying to restructure the relationship, conclude that it's best not to force visitation but instead to wait until the child gets older and comes looking for a relationship. This reasoning makes sense to a lot of people, but it does not make sense to me. We do not permit a child to stay home from school simply because she doesn't want to go. We do not permit a child to refuse to go to the doctor when he needs medical treatment. We do not permit a child to go to bed without brushing her teeth simply because the child "doesn't like the way it feels."
Yet, we are, in case after case of visitation refusal, allowing children to "divorce" a parent simply because it does not "feel right." Perhaps it is too difficult to believe that children can reject a parent forever. Perhaps it is because we believe that if a child does not want to see a parent, it must be for a good reason.
More likely, it is because children see the two most important people in their lives hate each other, abandon each other, and proclaim how much better life is when we rid ourselves of the people who made us so unhappy. Children from high-conflict divorce see poor interpersonal problem solving, poor conflict resolution, motivation for revenge, disrespect, antagonism, even violence. Why would it be so unusual for children to compartmentalize all of the anger they have over the breakup of their family and merely eliminate half the source of their disappointment? Parents who permit their children to reject the other parent should prepare to receive the same treatment themselves.
When you teach a child to hate, you cannot control who the targets of that hatred ultimately become. Sometimes, in the most distressing of all outcomes, we find that children whose hatred and rage originate in family conflict go outside of their families, to their schoolmates and to strangers, to act it out, the results of which are ultimately communicated in the news media.
- As a general rule, the fewer questions you ask a child, the more the child will tell you.
- Do not quiz your children about what they ate at the co-parent's house. If you think your child is being deprived of proper nutrition, speak to the co-parent directly.
Do not ask your child to reveal the whereabouts of possessions that you are looking to retrieve from the co-parent's house.
- If your child asks you questions about the co-parent's life or about the specifics of your divorce, just say, "That's grown-up talk. That's not something we can discuss."