Divorce is tough enough. When children try to protect their parents from its consequences, the parenting moves backward, and the results are devastating. Always be careful of what you share with your children regarding your emotional state during and after your divorce. It can create enormous confusion for your children, along with guilt frustration and despair.
Keep the family roles clear and well-defined
Children who experience their parents divorce are helpless to change the circumstances. But they often try. They want to do something to "fix" the situation, but they haven't a clue how. Sometimes they create solutions that make sense in their young minds but cause greater complications. That's why it's so important for parents to take the emotional burden off the shoulders of their children. Reassure them that Mom and Dad are still their parents and will continue to be there for them with compassion and love. Tell them they need not worry and remind them that none of this is in any way their fault or responsibility.
Don't take sides
Children can be very resourceful in how they behave when they sense either one of their parents is vulnerable or hurting. Often they will side with one parent over the other as a means of support. They may fear that expressing happiness about time spent with one parent can seem like a betrayal of the other. They worry about hurting the feelings of the emotionally weaker parent or experiencing the disapproval of the emotionally stronger parent. Either way, it's a lose-lose situation for the child who feels caught in the middle.
As the adult, be supportive
Parents are not always aware of how children interpret their comments or emotional displays. If a parent confides to a child, they are very lonely when he or she is with their other parent, it frequently creates a need to "protect" the sad parent. So the child may elaborate on the truth by telling you what they think you want to hear. "I miss you, too. I wish I could always be with you. If I didn't have to stay with Mom or Dad, I'd never be there."
These small white lies can grow into larger stories – even outrageous lies – with the intent of protecting one or both parents. It can also become a vehicle for pitting both parents against one another. Children easily sense when they can manipulate their circumstances – and their emotionally vulnerable parents. This becomes even easier and more tempting when the parents are not speaking to one another or co-parenting cooperatively. The result can be devastating for everyone in the family – each pointing the finger at the other in blame.
When parents are too caught up in their own self-righteous dramas to put their children's needs first, those children have little recourse but to start parenting themselves. The consequences for the children can take many directions: a sense of mistrust of adults, guilt about knowing they are exploiting their circumstances and deep insecurity because their world is no longer safely guided by parental boundaries. The responsibility here must always fall upon the parents – not the innocent children who are trying to cope with an adult made situation beyond their control.
Be honest. Communication is key
Communication is the key to avoiding these complex backward parenting situations. Talk to your children about divorce-related issues as a parent, not a confidant. Remember that your former spouse is also a parent your children love. If your communication with that parent is poor or limited, you are setting your children up for compensating in any way they can – with guilt, frustration, confusion, shame, anger – even revenge – as the motive.
When you accept responsibility for creating a Child-Centered Divorce and co-parent in the best way for your children's well-being, they will feel more secure, stable, loved, protected and supported. That gives them permission to continue being children without bearing the burden of having to parent their parents after divorce.
Do you want your divorce to rob your children of their right to enjoy their childhood? Of course, not. Then understand the serious consequences of backward parenting and communicate mindfully and responsibly when discussing divorce or related family issues with the children you love.
Rosalind Sedacca is a Divorce & Parenting Coach, author and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network for parents. Get her free ebook, articles, coaching services and valuable resources on divorce and parenting at www.childcentereddivorce.com.