I often see parents going through acrimonious divorces struggling to help maintain their children’s relationship with their soon to be ex-spouse, despite some pretty lousy behaviour on that spouse’s part. It can obviously occur with either sex, but I tend to see it mostly with mums (perhaps simply because women are far more likely to open up and share).
I take my hat of to these parents – who work so hard to not let their own emotions and resentments influence their children and poison their relationship with the other parent.
There’s Katie*, who moved out of her home to get away from her abusive husband who then flaunted a financial windfall buying new cars, playstations and holidays for the kids (whilst simultaneously turning his bullying on the children as she was no longer available).
There’s Emma, whose husband decided to move to the other side of the world for business and gave the kids the choice whether to come with him or stay back with mum and who has no time for the kids when they do visit.
Marcie lives abroad in a misogynistic culture. Her ex is trying to force her to leave and lies to the children, turning them against her.
Gemma’s husband has left her financially destitute and on the brink of eviction.
And Janet ex’s new girlfriend demands his complete attention and limits his time and availability for the kids.
The list goes on.
Each of these remarkable ladies are fully aware of how unreasonable their husbands are being. Each can see the effect on their kids and in some cases, the effect that it is having on their own relationship with their children – as dad has no hesitation in poisoning the kids’ minds against their mothers. Each of them has tried to speak with their husband and to ask them to be more considerate of the children, but with very little (or no) success. Each has taken the view that they will not show the children their own upset and anger at their partner, and work very hard not to swear about or insult the dads in front of the kids.
It’s all very laudable.
But I don’t believe it’s healthy.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not for one minute advocating that kids should be subjected to a barrage of anger, vitriol and abuse about one of their parents or that they should be used as pawns in divorce proceedings. Absolutely not.
But pretending that things are ok; that this type of behaviour is fine – is not helpful.
Our kids look to us for guidance all the time. We are their barometer as to what is and what is not acceptable.
And they are highly intuitive. (If a kid says they don’t like someone – listen to them – they’re generally right).
So they know when things are wrong. They know that mum is upset. They are hurt when dad decides that time with his new girlfriend is more important than being with them or decides to move to the other side of the world “for the sake of his career”. Pretending that things are ok when every part of them cries out that it is not – simply teaches them to stop relying on their own intuition.
And when Mum allows herself to be put down, for bad things to be said about her without standing up and refuting them – well what does that teach her sons and daughters about how women should be treated by their husbands?
Let me be clear, it is not about blaming or insulting the dads. It is about being able to say “I’m really sorry that your dad isn’t making time for you right now. I know he loves you in his own way, but sometimes adults can’t give us the things that we want or need from them – but don’t worry, I am here and I will do all I can to support you.” Or “I am sorry that dad has said these things about me. He is in a bad place right now and hurting and sometimes when people are in that situation, they lash out at people close to them and say things that are hurtful and not true”.
In a similar vein, someone asked me recently for advice about how to deal with the fact that their dyslexic son was badly let down by their school in being made to do a maths exams without the proper support. Her understandable instinct was to shy away from going through the exam with him as he had been traumatised by the entire procedure.
My advice was different. It’s not about hiding from the truth or pretending that something hasn’t happened– it’s about re-framing experiences. I suggested she explain to her son that this was not his fault, but to sit with him and tackle the paper together to see what his real score would have been if he had been provided with the help he needed to read and understand the questions. Don’t pretend it doesn’t matter – it already matters to him. Denying it is confusing and makes it worse. Tackle it and use the opportunity to boost his confidence.
Our kids have enough to deal with. Let’s not lie to them as well. When we can honestly explain things in a gentle, age appropriate fashion, then we open a dialogue. In doing so, we implicitly tell them that we trust them, that there is nothing that they cannot talk about with us and that whatever is going on in their worlds, we will cope with it together.
We all have plenty of challenges in our lives. Let’s use them as an opportunity to teach resilience and to bring us closer together.