Like many rejected parents, Maureen bit her tongue when her children returned from their dad spewing venom about their mother's alleged wrongdoings. She thought she was taking the high road. She had the support of her counselor whose advice was to give the children time to figure out for themselves that their dad's view of mom was not accurate.
Like many rejected parents, Maureen found that the laissez-faire policy recommended by the counselor was a disaster. Maureen thought she was taking the high road, but now she wondered whether she and her children would have been better off if she defended herself back when the bad-mouthing first began. The children never did figure out that they were unfairly judging their mother. The tragic result is that these children lost their mother, and their mother lost her children.
Experts agree that one of the best ways to help children survive divorce is to keep them out of the line of fire. It is equally true, though, that too many parents, often following advice from counselors, slavishly follow this tradition, and avoid criticizing their ex, even when their children could profit from hearing valid criticisms expressed in a constructive manner.
All parents sometimes behave in irrational ways that are confusing and troubling to their children. Some parents physically or emotionally abuse their children. If we say nothing about irrational and destructive behavior, we give our children no help in understanding it. We leave them on their own to cope. And when children lack an accurate understanding of their parent's troubling behavior, they may blame themselves for it.
Contrary to the "do nothing" approach, I believe it may be appropriate, at times, for one parent to acknowledge the other parent's shortcomings and help the children make sense of the behavior and place it in proper perspective. Note the key phrase may be appropriate. Whether or not it is appropriate depends on a very careful and sensitive assessment of the situation. If we are not careful, we may cause as much damage as the parent we are criticizing. The need to respond effectively to denigration is never a license for unbridled retaliation.
First and foremost we must maintain a steadfast commitment to shield children from unnecessary stress and destructive communications. Some parents never make this commitment. Others lose it somewhere in the tangle of the disappointment and anger of a failed marriage. They allow their impulse to indulge personal wrath to take priority over concern for their children. So, for example, they run down their ex in front of the children with total disregard for the children's need to maintain a positive image of that parent. They may try to justify their destructive behavior by hiding behind superficial rationalizations. Some common excuses: "I'm just telling him the truth about his mother," or "She needs to know what her father is really like."
Before discussing with your children alleged flaws of their other parent, you should consider your motives. And you should weigh the potential benefits and risks to your children. If this seems like too much work, if you do not have the patience to think critically about such matters, if you just want to get on with the business of telling the children how bad the other parent is, then your motives are not good. Rather than acting like a responsible parent you are indulging your whims. Most likely your children will be harmed rather than helped by your revelations.
Even parents with good intentions are often unsure about when to criticize and when they should remain silent. Separated and divorced spouses struggle with heavy doses of anger, fear, uncertainty, and hurt, along with the very human temptation to express such feelings in destructive and irrational ways. Resisting this temptation is a genuine challenge. Occasionally parents succumb.
Most children can withstand their parents' isolated mistakes and lapses of good judgment. Repeated mistakes, though, can be damaging, especially when they become a familiar pattern of behavior. Part 2 of this article gives parents a test to help them judge whether their criticisms are likely to help or hurt their children. The test is a guide to learn why and when to keep quiet about the other parent and how to speak when it is appropriate. Using the test will help raise your awareness of the impact of your words on your children.
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.