One of the hardest things to handle, though, is when your child’s father is talking to your children in a way that you feel is inappropriate. What can you do about it? How do you protect your children?
It’s sickening to think of your children being used as a pawn, or to imagine a grown adult man leaning so heavily on his children emotionally that it causes emotional damage. Sadly, though, divorce can bring out the worst in people, and many grown ups – moms and dads included – find that they say things to the kids that they never would have thought they’d say.
If it’s a question of mental health – which is fair, because divorce is difficult – it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist, or to encourage your ex to do so. You (and he) are only human, and it’s not unusual or inconceivable that you or he (or both) would struggle with the transition. But, if you’re in agreement that the mental and emotional health of the children is your paramount concern, going to therapy can be a great place to start. Emotionally, we just can’t lean on our children. It isn’t fair, and, even as adults, they just can’t take it.
But what if my child’s father is still making comments to the kids?
It’s never easy to find out that you’re trying to play a grown up game, and he’s engaging as a child. It’s common, but never easy.
While you can have some sympathy for someone who is reaching out to the kids to fill his own emotional needs (it’s inappropriate, but more understandable – everyone’s suffering), it’s much less sympathetic to use your words to hurt your spouse, without caring about the impact that they have on the children.
The first thing I would do is to get both myself and my children into therapy. I’d try to have a conversation with them that explained what I could explain – that we’re trying to work it out, that it’s hard, that grown ups sometimes make mistakes, but that mommy and daddy love you very much. I’d double down on my efforts to not use the kids in the same way, too.
The children will figure it out. They’ll know who lied and who put their interests first.
One of the worst things that I think divorce lawyers say is that, ultimately, the kids will figure it out. It’s awful, because it means that some kind of world weariness on the kid’s part is inevitable, and so too is the damage that comes from knowing that at least one of their parents is all too human and fallible. But we say it because it’s true. In these cases – especially where one parent is using the children as pawns and trying to parentally alienate the children from their mother – the children DO figure it out. I don’t know if that’s encouraging or discouraging (personally, I think the latter) to you, but they do. So, if your child’s father is playing a nasty game, I do think he’ll get his comeuppance eventually.
Can I talk to them to combat what their father has said? I just want to make sure they know it’s not true.
It’s tempting to think, well, if he can do it, so can I – but I think that’s a really counterproductive opinion to have. I think, instead, it’s better to say, “He’s doing this, and I want to minimize the damage, so I’m going to work on myself to make sure that it never comes from my lips.”
The greatest gift you can give your children is their childhood. Even as adults, in this context, they’re the children, and their innocence and their good opinion of both parents should be protected at all costs.
There’s nothing that’ll undermine your relationship with your children as much as not putting their needs first. If you’re calm, kind, supportive, and understanding, they’ll know that you’re a safe place. As they learn the difference between fact and fiction, they’ll start to see what you’ve done to help keep them innocent and as happy as possible.
From a legal perspective, though, documentation is everything.
I’d also document it. Document all of it. Screen shot your text messages, save your emails, write down dates and times and details your child(ren) share with you. You’ll forget the details later, so it’ll be helpful to have a log, especially if it rises to the level of parental alienation.
Although you want to help your children maintain a good opinion of their other parent, you’re probably furious. And your main concern will be being able to protect your children from this kind of behavior over the long term.
If you’re petitioning for custody, or petitioning to modify an existing order of custody and visitation, this kind of information will be helpful to the judge and the Guardian ad litem.
Parental alienation can be insidious, and difficult to bring to light. In many custody cases, I advise clients to remember that it’s a long game, and that the ‘truth’ may take time to come to light. By continuing to gather evidence, to maintain a healthy relationship with your children during your parenting time, and working together to coparent or parallel parent with your ex, you’ll be doing as much as you can to make sure that your children are protected.