Parents Acting Up Series: Disparaging The Other Parent

As a psychologist, I often work with children during one of the most tumultuous times in their young lives- their parents’ separation or divorce. Divorce and separation are often accompanied by immediate and long-term adjustments to new living arrangements, caregivers, schedules, and adjustments within the parent-child relationship. Given the protracted nature of divorce, the children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development needs change throughout the divorce process. Their respective developmental stage interacts with the stage of the separation/divorce, and parents, caregivers, school personnel, and treatment providers must be mindful of these interactions to ensure the adjustment of the child. Divorce or separation has been associated with anxiety, depression, poor social adjustment, and poor academic performance among children. Research demonstrates that it is not the separation or divorce that may account for your child’s difficulties per se. It is the way you divorce and the amount of parental conflict that characterizes the divorce. Disagreements about the divorce in general, finances, living arrangements, and visitation, can lead to significant discord between parents before, during, and after the separation/divorce. This conflict increases parental harshness, rejection of the child, and limits time and resources otherwise provided to the child. The central tenet of this theory is that conflict between parents threatens the child’s sense that either parent is able and willing to continue to take care of them, thereby eliciting fear of abandonment.

This series will focus on themes that are commonly present in the clinical setting. This first article will refer to disparaging comments made by one parent about the other and how this hurts all involved. The most common statements I hear in my office involve insults regarding financial habits, dating practices, and parenting practices. These statements can come from either parents or other caregivers. Here are some all too common examples:

Financial
“We don’t have money because I have to pay your mom child support. Now we are broke.”
“I can’t buy you that because your dad doesn’t want to give me money.”
“Your mom spends all the money on herself.”

Stepparents
“She’s not your mom and can’t tell you what to do.”
“He smokes marijuana and is a drug addict.”

Parenting differences
“What did y’all eat? McDonald’s again? Does he ever cook for you?”
“We do things the right way in this house.”

Grievances
“She’s the reason why your daddy and I aren’t together.”
“Your mom’s bipolar.”
“Your dad is a narcissist.”
“He’s nothing but a drunk.”

Comments such as these attack the child’s sense of emotional security by weakening their belief that either parent can care for them, creating a deep sense of insecurity. This places the child in an insecure position. One of his/her parents made a hurtful comment about the other parent whom the child depends on for love, security, and a sense of identity. This likely impacts how the child perceives the first parent, all while reducing the credibility of the other parent. Children respond to situations such as these by taking their emotional security into their own hands. They may hide and isolate themselves from one or both parents to avoid the conflict. They may act out in an attempt to deflect from the conflict. Over time, this can lead to significant behavioral and emotional problems. Refraining from making direct or indirect slights aimed at the other parents can aid the child’s adjustment to the separation/divorce.

One technique that can help in reducing this practice is to ask yourself the following before making a statement about the other parent:

1. What is my child going to do about this issue? Can my child fix this issue?
2. How will knowing this affect my child now and in the future?
3. How will sharing this information impact our relationship and the child’s relationship with the other parent?
4. Am I angry or scared right now? If yes, who should know about this?

This is not to minimize legitimate concerns parents have about their co-parent. Issues of abuse and neglect, and substance abuse notwithstanding, the majority of these issues can and should be worked out through legal means, individual or family therapy, or through the use of a parent coordinator or parent facilitator. Establishing these boundaries will reduce the impact of the separation/divorce on your child in the short- and long-term.