As a child psychotherapist, I hear from many parents about their concerns for their child when there is a divorce. A divorce is a stressful event on the entire family including the children. However, there are ways parents can reduce the stress, but they do not. The most common mistake I see is using the child as a messenger.
Many divorces are hostile and neither parent wants to speak to the other one. However, when you have children, you must speak to each other. You need to co-parent which means communicating with the other parent. You do not have to talk about your lives or even be friends. However, you must communicate with the other parent about issues involving your children. You need to provide each other with information about school, your child’s health, if they have an activity coming up, etc. Basically, anything that involves your child.
However, I see many parents choose to use the child as the message carrier. They tell the child do not forget to tell your father to look at your homework or tell your mother to look at the note regarding your school conference. Many of these children are 10 years old so they forget or get the message wrong and then there is a big fight. The child blames themselves because if they did not forget, there would be no fight.
This is a great deal of responsibility to put on any child at any age. When parents use their child as a messenger, at times children feel they have to take sides or protect a parent. They know mom and dad do not get along and they will do anything to decrease the fighting. So if they have a message that might upset dad, they will worry about it and try to solve the issue so they do not have to give dad the message. The children I see in this situation are very anxious and resentful. They are mad that mom and dad got a divorce and now they feel they have to keep the peace between their parents.
When children are older such as 12 or 13 years old, they may start to act out. They may start using marijuana or alcohol as a way to escape. They also may start to make parenting decisions on their own. They feel if I have to carry the information back and forth, I might as well decide for myself. This can really hurt the relationship that a child has with one parent or both.
What is the solution? Parents, you need to communicate with each other directly and not use your child. The two of you divorced not your child. No one asked them and they should not have to take responsibility for any divorce issues. Also you really cannot get mad at the child for make parenting decisions, if you are putting them in the middle. You can go to co-parenting classes or co-parenting therapy to help the two of you with communication issues. You can also use email. Many Court systems have an email service you can subscribe to so you know messages are delivered. In Contra Costa County they call it the family wizard.
The main point is you can stop being married but you cannot stop being parents. It is important to remember this fact and set up a co-parenting plan during the divorce process not after. Trust me your children will thank you for it.
Dr. Michael Rubino specializes in treating children and teenagers and in high conflict divorces. He has over 20 years experience. For more information about Dr. Rubino’s work or private practice visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com.