Trust me. I know what it’s like. You’ve just had the billionth phone call from the ex about why he can’t take the kids again this weekend after you’ve made, and cancelled and made again, plans for a much needed getaway. Your children are disappointed and you are devastated and angry. Your blood is boiling, your head is spinning and despite your better judgement you feel the words rising in your throat and, yep, you spew vile and vitriol. Do you feel better? Maybe, for a few minutes. Meanwhile your children have been standing by soaking up your words like the little sponges they are, interpreting and internalizing. Do they feel better? Not a chance.

Here are some examples of dumb things we say in the heat of the moment, but pay attention to how your child might well interpret and internalize your words.

1. “Your father is such an #$%$@&%!” (There are a variety of options here, but the name typically refers to a part of the anatomy closely related to the southern-most region of the gastrointestinal system)

Translation: Mom is ticked off and Dad did it, that much is clear. However there seems to be an additional factor here that goes beyond what Dad DID. Mom seems to be identifying something that Dad IS. I am part Dad and part Mom. Dad is a red-haired, freckle faced Irish guy, and so am I. So if Dad is also an (part of anatomy) then I must be too.

Comment: Freckles often disappear with the blush of shame. Your children are very aware that they are part Dad and part Mom, and when one parent makes disparaging comments about who the other parent is as a person, that will be taken to heart by the mini-ex standing nearby. It is okay to acknowledge frustration at times, but make it about the behavior and not the person. If you model positive ways to cope with frustration, you teach your children to problem solve effectively. If you disparage their other parent, you hobble them with shame. You pick.

2.  “I wish I had never met/married/live with her!”

Translation: Mom + Dad = Me. Mom – Dad = No Me.

Comments: Really? Do I even need to explain this one? Imagine saying to your child “I wish you didn’t exist!” Need I say more?

3. “If he REALLY cared he’d pay his child support on time!”

Translation: Dad doesn’t care about me. According to what Mom just said, money equals love, and if the money isn’t here on time, that means my Dad doesn’t love me.

Comment: This is wrong on so many levels, and the damage done by these words can last a lifetime. Equating a parent’s love with money not only distorts the meaning of real love, but it subjects a child to equating love with money in other relationships as well. Understandably, it is difficult when child support doesn’t come on time, but what will serve your child much better is to reinforce to them that BOTH parents love them completely and keep the “money talk” and the “love talk” separate. Always. No matter what.

4. “You’re just like your mother!” (Assuming your intent is not an overwhelmingly joyful discovery of a trait your daughter has that reminds you lovingly of your ex-wife.)

Translation: I don’t love your mother, in fact I act like I hate her most of the time, so if you are just like her…

Comment: I can’t even finish that statement, but you get the gist, right? Parents say this a lot but they don’t play out the obvious implications of this statement in their minds. Their children do though, I guarantee.

5. “I can’t wait until I never have to deal with him again!”

Translation: Wow! Mom is really eager to get me grown up and outta here! If I weren’t here she wouldn’t have to deal with Dad, which seems to be the biggest obstacle to her happiness, therefore I must be the real cause of her pain.

Comment: Mini-ex standing nearby just heard a confirmation that no matter how many times you tell your child “the divorce isn’t your fault,” you are showing them that it really is. Your child is what keeps you linked to that other parent, and if you are constantly bemoaning that fact, your children will feel that they are as much of a burden to you as your ex.

The common thread in all of this is that we often forget that “our children” are not our clones. They are unique and wonderful beings born of a combination of traits and characteristics of each parent, but also creations in their own right. To disparage their other parent in any way is to disparage your child. Even in the heat of the moment, think about your words and who is listening. Imagine saying what you are about to say about your ex directly to your child as if it were about them, and then decide if it’s worth it.

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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(c) 2011 Chris Lewis EdS, LPC. All rights reserved.