When parents split up the children are affected – that is such an obvious statement that I almost didn’t mention it. How they are affected and to what extent are the real questions. The fall-out is going to vary depending on so many factors. – their age; the reactions of the extended family; the extent their lives are disrupted (school changes, changes in economic class, changes in residence, changes in time spent with a parent); their mental heath and the mental health of the parents; whether new significant others are promptly introduced into the mix; whether there is domestic violence which sometimes accompanies a breakup; the degree of maturity and wisdom exercised by the parents; whether the children are put in the middle; and any number of other elements peculiar to individual cases.
It is hard to predict with any certainty which kids will suffer significant long lasting damage but if I were a betting woman, the easy bet is that children whose unhappiness lingers into adulthood are those children who have been placed in the middle by the parents, extended family and friends.
Let me repeat that:
The easy bet is that children whose unhappiness lingers into adulthood are those children who have been placed in the middle by the parents, extended family and friends.
What I have learned as a guardian ad litem is that most adults already know this and completely agree that children should not be placed in the middle.
What I have learned as a guardian ad litem is that most parents know this and completely agree that children should not be placed in the middle but most do it anyway.
What I have learned as a guardian ad litem is that there are two main reasons (and a multitude of minor reasons) parents put their children in the middle. They include but aren't limited to:
1. They don’t think what they are doing counts as placing the child in the middle.
2. They believe the other parent is placing the child in the middle and think they have to even things up to undo that damage.
Let’s start with the first reason – that they don’t think what they are doing counts as putting the child in the middle. Here is a non exhaustive list of common ways parents do this:
1. They give the child the responsibility to pass on messages to the other parent, including the details of visitation, school activities and doctor’s appointments.
2. They explain to the child what is “really” happening, often under the noble sentiment that “I don’t lie to my child!” (This makes me absolutely nuts. The parent with this mindset is completely convinced that he/she is working on the side of the angels by being "honest." I have found that there is no convincing them that holding back certain facts not suitable for children won't invariably result in the child believing the parent has betrayed them.)
3. They explain to the child that they can’t buy certain things (or even that they might end up on the street) because the other parent has not paid their child support or is too much of a tightwad to pay the fees for recreational activities, child care, etc. Even better – they are diligent in making sure the child realizes that this is evidence of a lack of love on the part of the other parent. (This happens constantly).
4. They insist that the child not discuss anything that goes on at “our house” with the other parent. Alternatively, they insist that the child give a full account of all the things they did and what was said at the other parent’s home. (These children end up utterly stressed out. It is a terrible thing when a child, who just wants to be a kid, is anointed the keeper of secrets and not allowed to discuss how he spent his time. This one really burns me because it is so grossly unfair to the child. Here is a clue, parent – yes, I am getting testy as I write this - you don’t own a child’s memories and experiences. Just because you don’t want anyone to know your private life, doesn’t give you the right to put a muzzle on another human being who may just want to talk about the exciting things he did last weekend. What could be more normal than that? What could be more healthy than that?
Moreover, sometimes, when the questioning parent finds out something from the child, all hell breaks loose. Guess who gets chewed out for spilling the beans? Now, it is the child’s fault that the parents are all upset. In case you haven’t guessed it, this is one of my pet peeves. The reason is that this is ALL ABOUT THE PARENTS. They are so worried about their privacy that they don’t even consider the box they are placing their children in. Secrecy has absolutely no “up” side for the child. In fact, he simply can’t win. The best he can hope for is to become secretive, guarded and worried that he is going to slip and say the wrong thing. Those same parents will end up being disappointed in him when he keeps things from them as a teenager. And when he becomes an adult? He will already be adept at compartmentalizing his life so that he can engage in activities his mate/friends/employers don’t need to know about. GRRR!!)
5. They share all the gory details of the custody/visitation case with the child, including how Grandma Maggie shamelessly lied on the stand. (Hey, what is the big deal? He has TWO grandmothers, afterall. Grandma Maggie is just a spare.)
6. They encourage the child to play the role of protector against the mean, other parent. Or life in general. Even if the child is only eight years old.
7. They ask the child to choose which parent they want to live with.
8. They tell the child how hurt they are if the child says they don’t want to live with them. (May they rot in hell).
9. They insist that the other parent is taking steps to throw them in jail and explain to the child just how horrible the other parent is and how they will lie to the police and the judge.
All these count as putting a child in the middle. Moreover, if a parent allows him or her to overhear conversations, by telephone or otherwise, with other people discussing conversations that impact things they have no power to impact the result, you are putting them in the middle. If a parent has some doubt that what he/she is doing or saying might be putting the child in the middle, assume that is happening and stop. STOP! I cannot stress enough how much long term misery this causes children. Many never recover.
As for the second main reason parents place their child in the middle, i.e., because they believe the other side is doing it and they have to "even things up," consider the actual motivation. Generally, in this situation, a parent isn’t directly fighting for the child’s best interest. Instead, they are fighting to protect their relationship with their child. That is a terrible place for a parent to find himself/herself, and I appreciate what an awful choice they believe they are facing. A lot of parents are thinking is that if they don’t wade into the fight they will lose their child and the end result will be even worse for the child than the damage caused by placing them in the middle. The truth is, some parents flat out fight dirty. Mama may well be faced with a situation where Papa is diligently striving to alienate the child from her. Mama may feel like she has no choice but to set the record straight.
Just slow down. Stop. It doesn’t have to go that way. Parents in this mindset are nearly always in reaction (freak-out) mode.
As a practical matter, attacking the other parent in the presence of the child doesn’t help anything. Mom is not going to change Dad's behavior just because she decides to also get nasty. On the contrary. Moreover, even if Mom confines snotty behavior to times when the child isn't present, every snotty thing she does is going to be shared with the child by Dad. He will certainly put his spin on it and since the child didn’t even hear it first hand to judge for herself, she is somewhat at the mercy of an unscrupulous reporter.
Most children are looking for heroes and they need to know that when they are with their parent, they are in a safe place. Nine times out of ten, showing class (while the other parent is showing their ass) pays off. They might go along with the louder parent to keep peace, but chances are when the chips are down, they know who to call.
There are no guarantees, of course. If Mom is a drama queen who insists on keeping things in a constant state of hysteria, by the time of the breakup you may well already have a child who, even before the breakup, thrived on chaos and was drawn to the dark side. But then, let’s reason together – will additional hysteria by Dad, designed to entice the child to “his side,” really be in the child’s best interests?
What about a young child who prefers a hapless father who is marvelous playmate (but couldn’t remember to do the laundry to save his life)? Of course the child is too young to make a rational judgment about the relative fitness of either parent and it is understandable that they want to be with the “fun” one. But, again, let us reason together. Does pointing out to a child that their beloved parent-chum is totally irresponsible going to result in anything other than a distressed child? The place to fight this battle is in court.
What about a child whose utterly reprehensible mother, time and again, lets him down by showing up late (or not at all), or makes promises but doesn't keep them, etc. - doesn’t the father have a parental obligation to clue in the child so that he doesn’t keep getting his hopes up? Does he cover for the mother so the child doesn’t get his feelings crushed? I wish I had an easy answer. No question - it is incredibly frustrating to be the “good” parent who is frequently unappreciated by a child who would do ANYTHING to attract the attention of the parent who frequently has “better things to do.” Again, there are no guarantees, but if a parent is smart, he won't distract the court from noticing the flaws of the other parent by engaging in self help that does nothing but distress the child and make him look vindictive, mean spirited and self centered.
My rule of thumb to parents is that if the child can't control the outcome of a disagreement, please don't burden them with the problem. Let them be a child. Pointing out the other parent's flaws to the child won't change that parent's character or actions. Placing the responsibility of communicating with the other parent on the child is simply unfair. Be the kind of parent you want to be instead of allowing the frustration of the situation to distract you from what parenting is all about.
And on another front - Jezebel's nose is getting fuzzy, again!