Even young children are aware that they are part of both parents. We tell them the story of our courtship, our wedding and of their birth. We show them baby pictures. “You have Daddy’s smile and you have Mommy’s eyes,” we tell them. This is one way children feel they are part of a family. It helps our children develop a sense of identity and belonging. As children grow older, we begin to identify more traits in them that remind us of ourselves. “You are artistic like your dad” or “you have your mom’s wit” are further ways we continue to build connection with our kids.
But when a marriage starts to deteriorate, parents sometimes focus only on the worst traits of their spouse and now flinch at any similarity they may see in their children. When anger and stress collide, parents find themselves comparing their children in a negative way to “you’re no good lazy cheating father” or “that crazy drunk of a mother.”
As acrimony between the parents escalates, these remarks can become sharper and more frequent. The child of divorcing parents who is told, “You remind me of your father,” when he misbehaves, hears a painful rejection of himself. The thought process goes something like this: “If you divorced Daddy, because you didn’t like him, and I am like Daddy, will you divorce me, too?” The child is suddenly confused and frightened. Once, being a part of both parents was a positive, affirming, secure and supporting. Now, suddenly, those relationships turn tenuous as they child deals with a sense of profound rejection and disapproval.
This child feels torn, and needing to feel good about himself, he may gravitate away from the verbally negative parent and staunchly defend the criticized parent. Or he may distance himself from the slandered parent, in order to gain the negative parent’s approval and attention. Either way, the child’s relationship with both parents is damaged as is his sense of self. He is denied access to freely love both parents. Furthermore, he is denied the freedom to accept himself completely. The result may be a child who is alienated from a parent, or even worse, is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing. The child is used as the ball in the tennis match getting lobbed back and forth for parental “wins.” Unfortunately, this child takes all the shots.
Be mindful of your child’s need to love both parents. Your spouse might be the worst person on the face of the planet, but it is your children’s right to find that out for themselves, based on their own experience, not yours. Talk with a friend, support group, therapist, or relative about your negative feelings. But do not share these feelings with your kids. If you continue to let them know your deep disapproval of your spouse, you can do irreparable damage to your children and your relationship with them.
As you read this, you may be saying, “I would never do that to MY child” no matter how much I dislike my child’s other parent. But take a moment to REALLY assess your own behavior. You can send huge messages of disapproval by a simple sneer or eye roll. Children are experts at reading their parents. Don’t believe for one minute that those expressions of distain or disgust, no matter how subtle they seem to you, fly under your children’s emotional radar.
©2011. Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC, is a licensed psychotherapist in Connecticut. Her newest book is available at bookstores everywhere, Amazon.com or at www.profileactics.com. This article is from her first book, From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce, which won an Honorable Mention Award by the Independent Publishers Association. To read more about the author and her work, please visit www.donnaferber.com
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Guest Contributor Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC
Donna F. Ferber, is a psychotherapist in private practice for 28 years. She is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor and an educator. Donna works with individuals and in groups. Her office is in Farmington, Connecticut.