Not every divorce is problematic, estranged, or chaotic. Many families find healthy ways to separate and still keep the family system in tact for their children. However, there are also many situations in which the split between parents doesn’t occur until it becomes obvious to everyone that the two must separate.
Anger, fighting, toxic interactions, are many of the tell-tale signs of these relationships. Unfortunately, the children are usually the ones suffering the most. Even after the split, through the divorce, and likely for years after all court proceedings are concluded, the children feel the effects of the divorce more than anyone else. Worse, when the parent whom has primary custody over the children use them as leverage or attempt to alienate them from their other parent, the effects are detrimental. Because the primary parent has very negative feelings about the other parent, they either inadvertently teach the child (even when they try to hide it) to feel negatively about their other parent, or overtly express their dislike for their ex and attempt to convince the child they should have the same views. This is toxic.
So what are we teaching our children when we ask them align with us against their other parent?
1. “I am half bad.”
Well most obvious, we are teaching them they are half bad. In the eyes of the child, “I am 50% mom and 50% dad, so if (other parent) is bad, then a part of me is too.”
2. “I have no good memories of…”
In order to reduce any conflict within themselves and fully align with the primary parent, the child must deny any positive experiences they may recall. Without the presence of pleasant memories, it becomes much easier for hate to replace the need for love from the other parent.
3. “I have no other family”
The extended family often becomes lost to the child when the primary parent pulls away. In an effort to alienate the child from the other parent, the extended family is often alienated out of concern they will be loyal to the other parent and attempt to create connection or influence the child. Not only has the child lost a parent but now they have lost half of their family.
4. “I don’t have to be respectful.”
Most parents teach their children how to interact with others in a respectful manner. When a child is alienated from their other parent, they develop a coldness, rudeness, of spitefulness toward that parent that goes uncorrected by the primary parent. Many times, when the other parent attempts to correct them, the primary will support the behavior using justification related to ways the other parent has been absent, negligent, or not fulfilling their obligations (child support is often a rationale).
5. “I don’t need reasons.”
When we hear a child speak negatively about their other parent we often wonder what spurned such disgust in such a small child. At times either the other parent, a family member of the primary parent, or a care provider may question the child about these feelings in hopes of reducing some of the anger or hurt in the child. Its typical for a child to respond immaturely and complain about things that they see, hear, or make up but that don’t warrant such hate, such as they “talk stupid”, they “can’t cook”, or they “are boring”. It is also common for these children to make up things about the other parent they believe warrant their hate.
Even in situations where it is impossible to get along with the ex, it is important to seek help and support to allow the child interaction with their other parent and that parent's family. Finally, having family therapy available for the child may help alleviate confusion and disturbances in the child and create a better understanding of themselves during this difficult time. If you need help, please contact a family mental help provider near you.