“Sticks and Stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Understandably, when people are going through a divorce, emotions are high, patience is low, and feelings are raw. Words are often said simply to inflict pain, with little to no regard for the lasting impact they may have.
While parents may realize words cause harm to others, they may not understand the extent that children can be harmed by the heated verbal exchanges of their parents.
Courts understand children should not be caught unfairly and inappropriately in the middle of parents’ disagreements. Consequently, custody orders often state:
Neither parent shall make negative comments about, or criticize, or disparage the other parent in the hearing of the child.
Both parents shall speak only positively to and about the other parent in order to encourage positive feelings in the children for the other parent.
However, courts do not always explain why it is so important to protect children from harmful words. Children internalize both the overt and subtle messages behind words. As a result, when a child hears statements about one parent that are not consistent with the child’s love or positive feelings for that parent, the child may experience distress and anxiety, and be negatively impacted in his or her development.
Consider the findings of clinical psychologists, S. Margaret Lee[i] and Nancy W. Olesen[ii]:
Children younger than about eight-years-old “cannot, cognitively and emotionally, maintain a cohesive, enduring rejection of a parent in the face of positive interactions with that parent . . . In very young children exposed to exaggerated negativity about a parent, one will often see anxiety at the point of exchange as they leave the parent who expresses or implies that they are entering a dangerous situation. However, once soothed by the other parent, they can enjoy that contact . . . The shifting alliances seen in younger children are rooted in their difficulty in holding two perspectives [about a parent] simultaneously.”[iii]
For slightly older children, hearing one parent disparage another may cause “distortions in their developing moral identity . . .[School-aged children] have a strong need to see parents as good . . . Concern about whether a parent is ‘lying’ or is ‘bad’ is always very distressing . . . It is still more distressing for a child to know that one parent must be telling them lies. The child will feel compelled in most circumstances to decide which parent it is.”[iv]
Ms. Lee and Ms. Olesen report that a child’s development of a strong sense of self, as well as his or her capacity for good reality testing, may be impaired when forced to hold mutually exclusive perspectives about a parent.[v]
Clearly, words can cause harm – they are that powerful.[vi]
How may a parent reduce the possibility that a child becomes presented with conflicting perspectives about a parent?
Not saying negative things about the other parent in front of your child is very important. Make it a goal not even to place children in the middle of the divorce by using them to convey messages to the other parent about the divorce, even something seemingly as benign as next week’s custody schedule.
Remember, as well, that children pick up on subtle and less obvious statements or cues made by one parent. Almost equally important, be sure to guard your child from your adult conversations about the divorce, especially when expressing your feelings about the other parent. You might be surprised that even young children in a different room of the house may internalize comments made by a parent to a third person.
Finally, be mindful that incredibly subtle statements made to a child but intended to hurt the other parent may cause the child to question his or her perspective of that parent. Seemingly benign statements, such as, “Don’t worry, I put a phone in your bag in case you feel unsafe,” may begin to fill the child’s mind with a second, conflicting perspective of that parent.
Refrain from using words to hurt. The potential for lasting harm to children caught in the middle of their parents’ divorce is simply too great.
What do you say to a child while going through a divorce?
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. If the child is sad, say, “I know this all is very upsetting for you.” Helping a child find words for his or her feelings is an invaluable gift to any child.
Explain to your child in age-appropriate language what to expect from the future: that the parents will be living apart but that the child will be able to continue to spend time with both parents. Giving a child something concrete to hold for the future will ease his or her anxieties. If the child is concerned about the changes the future holds, reassure the child that you will figure out the details as you walk the journey together.
Be positive. Be honest with your child but hopeful about the future. You can say, “Things will not always be easy, but they will work out.” Your child will be encouraged that life will be okay despite the changes if you model positivity.
Most importantly, tell your child that you will always love him or her. Letting your child know that nothing – not even the divorce – can change how much you care about him or her is a simple but important message to convey.
As much as words may cause harm, words can also reassure, heal, and empower a child who is going through difficult and confusing circumstances.
Words are that powerful.
Michelle Forrest is an attorney with McManis Faulkner. Her practice focuses on family law, assisting clients in all aspects of marital dissolution, including child custody and visitation, assessment of child and spousal support, domestic violence and enforcement of court orders. For more information, please visit mcmanislaw.com.
[i] Ms. S. Margaret Lee, Ph.D., works with post-divorce and divorcing parents, as well as children. Her work with children includes performing child custody evaluations and psychological assessment of children.
[ii] Ms. Nancy W. Olesen, Ph.D., performs child custody evaluations and provides therapy to divorcing families.
[iii] S. Margaret Lee and Nancy W. Olesen, “Assessing for Alienation in Child Custody and Access Evaluations,” Family Court Review, Vol. 39, no. 3 (2001): 282-298.
[vi] There is literature directed to parents who have experienced that their relationship with their child is damaged by the other parent’s words and actions. Divorce Poison, by Dr. Richard A. Warshak, offers both sound advice for alienated parents and also strategies regarding how to rebuild a healthy relationship with their child.