When a Parent Disses the Other Parent in front of Children

It’s a commonplace in the child development literature that telling your children how much you blame your former spouse or partner for the breakdown of the relationship may be harmful for the children themselves.

Anthony Wolf

Clinical psychologist, Anthony E. Wolf, tackles the subject in his August 12th column in the Globe and Mail:

On one of his weekend visits with his father, Duane tells him: “Hey Dad, Mom says you and her [sic] got a divorce because you used to get real mad all the time, and that you were really mean to her. She says if it weren’t for the way that you treated her, you’d still be married.”

Wolf illustrates the reasons why it is considered deleterious to bad-mouth the other parent to your children:

We ask Duane, “How do you feel when your Mom tells you this stuff?”

“I feel bad. Mad at Dad from what Mom is telling me. But I never like hearing about it. It always upsets me. I don’t like hearing bad stuff about Dad. I don’t like feeling that I have to take sides. I have enough to worry about.”

As hard as it may be, don’t try to defend yourself. Don’t get into […] the particulars of the marriage. Don’t counterattack. The best strategy? Stay neutral.

“Your mother and I got a divorce because we did not get along.”

“But what about what Mom said?”

“Your mother and I got a divorce because we did not get along.”

This is where any parent reading my advice who has been in this situation will go berserk: “But you have to say something. You can’t let Duane go forward with this totally wrong opinion.”

Actually, your teen will be happy that you’re not getting into it. It will be a relief.

“The truth is I don’t want to hear anybody’s side. It just make me crazy.”

As children develop, they gain perspective and clarity, and are able to articulate what is at stake when a parent criticises the other within their earshot:

[…] if we were to ask Duane six years from now whether he thought that it was important that he knew the true story of his parents’ divorce we might well get the following response:

“Not really. I didn’t care whose fault it was. And I don’t care now. What I wanted was not to hear about it. What I wanted was to have as good a relationship with each of them as I could. I certainly didn’t want to have to take sides about whose fault the divorce was. Mom always said how Dad would lose his temper about everything and that he was impossible to live with. But when I would say anything to him about it, he really didn’t say anything or defend himself. I always felt that with Mom it was always that she wanted something from me. Thinking back, I definitely liked Dad’s approach better. He was way more mature about it. I still love Mom and all. But I do think that her telling me all that stuff was more about her needs, rather than anything that was best for me. Because it wasn’t. It just messed with my head.” (emphasis added)