It’s really easy when you hear your children parroting their other parent’s twisted truth or lies to defend yourself against accusations and set the record straight.
Research shows that the one thing children, adolescents and young people dislike the most about their divorced situation is when they’re put in the middle. There’s lots of different ways this happens, but today I’ll address this one – lies and mis-information.
In order to trust and respect our parents, we need to be able to see them being honest. We need to be able to rely on our parents to look after us – feed and clothe and love us – basic needs. Above this, we need stability and certainty from our parents – boundaries, rules, consequences. Children see holes in the fences separated parents create and they are masters at manipulating those holes if given the opportunity. If you and their other parent are not on the same page when it comes to discipline, children will find those weak spots eventually (adolescence if not before) and poke them. More than that, if you set up situations where your children cannot tell who is right, they will decide you’re both wrong.
Let me give you and example. Mum says it is pouring with rain. Your child comes home and says, “Dad, Mum said that it poured with rain yesterday!”. Dad, with his own values, experiences and perceptions, turns around and says “What? Yesterday? No it didn’t, the sky was blue, not a drop of rain in sight!!”. Where does this leave your child? Mum said one thing, Dad said another. Who does your child believe? Over time, your child will decide you’re both wrong and make up their own mind. Without any guidance, they will disrespect you and rebel. Delinquency is a common outcome for children who are regularly placed between their parents.
So what to do differently?
The first thing, is to guide your child to trust themselves – their experience, their gut, their knowledge.
What do we know about the weather? When the sky is dark and black, and water falls to the ground, that is called rain. When the sky is bright and blue and sunny, that isn’t rain. What did YOU see yesterday? And leave it at that – no commentary, no advice. We guide our children to discover their own truth about yesterday without it becoming about Mum being wrong. It’s simply about what our child knows, and how they can come to understand their experience of yesterday’s weather.
The second thing, is to skip straight over the ‘information’ contained in this conversation.
Don’t address the details at all – simply focus on how the child felt. “So, how did you feel when Mum said that about the rain yesterday?”. Then, be lead by their response. If they say it was confusing, acknowledge that – “so you were confused because you didn’t understand why Mum thought it was raining when you didn’t see any rain.” If they say they don’t know how they felt, that’s okay. Ask another question – “What do you think was going on for Mum that she would say that?”; “what was going on for you when Mum said that?”; “how do you think Mum came to that conclusion?” “wow, that must have been hard for you to hear Mum say.”. If it’s unclear to you, how your child felt, pick any feeling – it will help them identify ‘feelings’ and lead them closer to how they DID feel. They’ll tell you if you’re too far off track – “no way, I wasn’t angry, why would you think I was angry?!” and if they’re defensive of their Mum you might even get “I’m so tired of you always assuming negative things about Mum!”. This is a great insight into how they perceive your attitude toward their other parent. Right or wrong doesn’t matter – it’s their perception. This is an opportunity for you to delve deeper – explore these feelings! Just don’t defend, explain or justify. Keep talking about their feelings – “I can see it would be hard for you to hear me say things like that”. Or go one step further – apologise! “I didn’t realise I did that, I’m sorry I’ve made you feel like I attack your Mum”. Let this be an opportunity for you to become closer, without ever setting up a situation where one parent is right and the other parent is wrong. You don’t need to defend facts – connect emotionally, create self awareness in your child and guide them to trust what they KNOW.
This is not a short term fix. This is a big change in how you communicate and will take time to develop and time to create differences. You won’t do it well every time you have the opportunity. And you will disintegrate into defending and explaining many times before you figure out ‘your way’ of using this skill. How you use it will also be different with each of your children. As I always say, this co-parenting stuff is HARD! We don’t need to be perfect. When we know better though, we should do better.
If you’d like an opportunity to learn more about this form of communication, and practice it in a supportive environment, I’m going to be running a workshop early 2017.