Consequences in children of divorced parents: Assumptions hurt kids
It was a common scenario. Six year old Tyler’s parents were getting a divorce and he spent every Wednesday evening and every other weekend with his Dad. One week, Tyler complained to his father that his mother was mean to him, and that she made him go to bed at 7 o’clock and only gave him a peanut butter sandwich for supper. (He forgot to mention that he had been playing in the street and almost got hit by a car so Mom had been giving him a consequence.) Dad felt angry that his son was being treated so poorly, but he tried to make it easier on Tyler by saying only, “Maybe you were bothering Mom and she just needed some time to herself.” It hadn’t occurred to Tyler that his mother thought he was a bother and that she might not want to be with him so much.
He went back to Mom’s house and after a few days, when Mom was putting him to bed, he said, “Do you think I’m a bother?” Mom said, “Of course not! Why would you think that?” Tyler replied, “Dad told me.” Mom was furious that Dad would poison Tyler’s mind with no reason whatsoever. She didn’t say anything to Tyler, but he could tell how mad she was about what he said. He decided he really must be a bother and Mom was mad that he had found out the truth. After she left the room, he cried himself to sleep.
Mom phoned Dad, called him a few choice names and threatened to get his parenting time removed if he ever lied to Tyler like that again. Dad swore at her and yelled, “We’ll see who ends up with custody when we’re done. You’re too busy with your boyfriends to pay attention to our son!” After that, Mom and Dad didn’t talk to each other any more.
When Tyler went to Dad’s, he was excited about having gone to the circus with Mom and somebody named Paul, who had bought him cotton candy and stayed overnight at their house. (Tyler forgot to say that Mom’s college roommate had come to visit with her new husband and that Sara had been there, too.) Now Dad was really angry. Mom was corrupting Tyler’s morality. When Tyler was coming in from playing in the yard, he overheard Dad talking to his friend on the phone about “that b----“ and how he’d like to fix it so she’d never see Tyler again. That night, Tyler cried himself to sleep at Dad’s house.
It wasn’t long before Dad decided he really did need to seek custody of Tyler to protect him from the terrible treatment he was getting at Mom’s house. When Mom found out, she asked a friend who lived near Dad to watch what was going on when Tyler visited there. One day, Tyler was in the front yard, tripped on his shoelace and skinned his knee on the sidewalk. He started crying and sat down on the front steps to look at the damage as Mom’s friend drove by and saw him. Dad heard Tyler crying and came out to see what was wrong, but the friend had driven past by that time. Tyler came home with a Spiderman Band Aid on his knee that he said he had put on by himself. (He forgot to mention that Dad had administered first aid before that and Tyler had begged to be allowed to put on the Band Aid himself.) This was later described in court as “callous disregard for Tyler’s medical needs”.
The story goes on and on. This one is fictitious, but in my clinical practice, I hear about similar plots being acted out in children’s lives every day. When separated parents fail to communicate about their child, the hurt and anger of divorce contaminate the assumptions that are made in the absence of other information. Children often relate only the parts of a story that are significant to them and leave out other important details. Kids who know their parents are mad at each other often try to please the one they’re with by saying negative or distorted things about the other parent. Younger children, particularly, are very suggestible and can be led to say what they think you want to hear. Adolescents are not above manipulating parents with information taken out of context. Youngsters often blame parents for things that they themselves did wrong. Parents MUST check things out in a nonblaming way with the other parent and arrive at solutions to parenting problems together. Your wounds and your fury must be set aside when it comes to raising your innocent children. They didn’t ask for the divorce, and they still need both of you.
Thalia Ferenc, MSW, MA, CSW is a psychotherapist in Kentwood, MI. She is a Diplomate of Clinical Forensic Counseling and works on parenting plans and coordination, as well as child custody evaluations. See website.