When Kids Need to Know Bad Things About a Parent - Part 2

You are convinced that your child's other parent, or a grandparent is bad, and the kids should know about it. Do they really need to hear what you have to say?
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You are convinced that your child's other parent, or a grandparent is bad, and the kids should know about it. Do they really need to hear what you have to say?

When facing the impulse to present a parent or grandparent in a negative light, do some serious soul-searching. Five questions help cut through self-deception, expose irrational motives that could be fueling your behavior, and focus attention on your children's genuine welfare. If you review the questions before exposing your children to criticisms of their loved ones, you can avoid destructive communications. Still, lapses in judgment are inevitable. Every breakup has such moments. This test serves as a reminder to be careful about what you say. When you do slip up, reviewing these questions can help strengthen your resolve to do better in the future. If you believe that you are the target of bad-mouthing, these questions help you clarify what is wrong with your ex's behavior.

The Warshak test sets a high standard by which parents can grade their past and future behavior. The closer parents come to meeting the standard, the more they shield their children from the harmful effects of acrimony.

  1. What is my real reason for revealing this information to the children?
  2. You may think of several reasons. But if any one of these does not concern their best interests, think again about whether the children will truly benefit from what you plan to say. If you decide to tell them, you will need to make sure that you do so in a manner that does not serve motives other than their best interest. Divorce Poison presents a list of motives that fuel much of the badmouthing and bashing of parents that children hear. Make sure that your criticisms do not serve purposes such as getting revenge, needing to feel superior, or assuaging guilt.

  • Are my children being harmed by the behavior I am about to criticize? Or, are they being harmed by not having the information I am about to reveal?

  • You may have a legitimate grievance about your ex-spouse, but there is no reason to share this with the children if they are not hurt by the behavior in question. For example, a man wanted to tell his children, who were raised Catholic, that their mother had an abortion years earlier. He insisted that they had a right to know the truth. But when asked how withholding this information harmed his children, he drew a blank.

  • How will it help the children to hear what I am about to tell them?

  • Even if the children are being harmed by their other parent's behavior, before discussing it with them you should be convinced that your revelations will actually benefit the children. A woman believes that her ex-husband was stingy in the divorce settlement. She knows that more money would enable her to provide better for her children. But she decides not to complain to the children about their father because she cannot think of how it would help them to hear her opinion that their father is a cheapskate. There was nothing the children could do about the situation. Her revelations would only succeed in placing the children in the middle of an adult conflict and perhaps diminish their respect for their father.

  • Do the possible benefits of revealing this to the children outweigh the possible risks?

  • In many situations there is reason to believe that the revelations might benefit the children, but at the same time might create problems for them. An honest discussion of the other parent's flaws might help the children have more realistic expectations. But it might also poke holes in their idealization of the parent before they are emotionally prepared to give this up. Or it might lead to greater conflict in the parent-child relationship. If, after weighing the benefits and risks, you decide to share your criticisms with the children, you will want to do so in a manner that maximizes the benefits while minimizing the harm. The next question helps accomplish this goal.

  • If I were still happily married to my spouse, and I wanted to protect our children's relationship with him or her, how would I handle the situation?
  • This question helps raise your consciousness so that the content and style of your communications with your children avoids the influence of irrational motives. It challenges you to think of the most constructive course to take. If, when happily married, you would not want your children to have the information you are about to give, why do you think they need to know it now? And if, when happily married, you would find a way to discuss it that minimized harm to their relationship with the other parent, an approach that did not undermine their general respect and regard for that parent, that same discretion is called for after divorce.


    It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that bad-mouthing is justified. Because of the potential damage to our children, we should be convinced that what we say, and how we say it, meets the Warshak Test.

    What if we are unsure about whether to include a particular observation or opinion in our conversations with the children? Here is a simple rule to follow: When in doubt, leave it out.

    Next: Part 3: Using the Warshak Test to Keep Kids Out of the Middle

    Dr. Richard Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (HarperCollins), and Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Parental Alienation. You may find him at www.warshak.com and his blog, Plutoverse.

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