Kids in the Crossfire

It’s a sad fact that Oklahoma’s divorce rate continues to be one of the highest in the nation. Sadder still – even tragic – is the number of kids caught in the crossfire of parents’ animosity & bitterness toward each other. Parents who demean, degrade or curse their ex-spouse in front of their children, only compound the distress already being experienced by their kids. A divorce is painful for children of any age, even young adults, and especially for preteens and adolescents. Even in amicable divorce situations, children often have divided loyalties and feelings of guilt, fear, betrayal or embarrassment, which are difficult for them to process and express. Of course, the parents are often also experiencing similar feelings, along with hurt and anger. While it’s understandable that parents in this emotional vortex want others to understand the depth of their anguish and may need to vent, the children are NOT the appropriate receptacle for such expressions. Parents’ fear of “losing” the child’s affection to the other parent may fuel their need to badmouth the ex to their children. Unfortunately, this often only backfires, as it can breed resentment toward the parent who is engaging in the verbal attacks against the other parent. In addition, disparaging a child’s other parent, from the child’s perspective is in effect disparaging that child, because the child knows he or she is a part of both parents.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that parents should NEVER tell their child the other parent does not care about him or her. There may be situations in which that appears to be the case, but there is no useful purpose in telling a child that. If that is, in fact the reality, the child will figure it out soon enough. It is terribly damaging to a child’s self-esteem to contemplate a parent not loving him or her. It’s not uncommon for a child to harbor this fear anyway; after all, if one parent could quit loving the other, couldn’t that parent also quit loving the child? Children, with their all-or-nothing thinking, often conclude that if a parent doesn’t love them, no one else could love them either. Many children already feel responsible for the divorce: if they had been better behaved, or had not done “ x”, “y” or “z”, the divorce might not have happened. To tell a child that his or her other parent does not love or care about him or her in an attempt to turn the child against that parent is a desperate & despicable measure.

This all-or-nothing thinking, which predominates in childhood, creates a double bind for a child when he or she hears one parent vilify the other. Because of loyalty to both parents, the child is in a no-win situation: if he or she listens to the criticism, the child feels disloyal to the absent parent. If he or she does not listen to, or refutes, the criticism, the child feels disloyal to the parent making the comments. Both situations result in the child feeling bad for being disloyal to one parent or the other. Being repeatedly subjected to such emotional conflict at the hands of a parent can create feelings of hopelessness (“no matter what I do, I’m bad”) and despair. Some children will eventually channel these feelings into anger toward the offending parent, in an attempt to protect themselves from this continual distress.

Parents who find themselves resorting to the behaviors described here owe it to themselves and their children to access professional help for themselves to resolve some of their anger and hostility toward the other parent. By doing so, they can continue to be a source of support and an example of civility and resourcefulness for their children during a period which is extremely difficult and life-changing for everyone.

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