Hearing from a father whose ex-wife recently discussed her bitterness about their divorce, sharing this and how she feels about her ex-husband with their 7-year-old daughter, compelled me to address this subject again. I’ve shared some of his conversation below. Any child carrying the pressure of choosing loyalties between her parents needs permission to release that burden. The heavy weight on her shoulders, the knot in her stomach, the tightness in her chest — are manifesting from the emotional and psychological burdens that come from the worries, confusion, fears and wounds of her parents’ bad divorce.

The father told his 7-year-old daughter at bedtime: “You never have to choose or take sides. You can love Mommy, Daddy, and Susan. Some day Mommy will probably have someone special in her life, and you can love him too, if it feels right. Your feelings belong to you. It’s always better to choose love rather than hate.” Having just returned from her mom’s house, where she and her younger brother spend half their time, the other half with their dad, the girl was clearly distraught, relating that her mom had told her that Susan (Dad’s new girlfriend) was the cause of their divorce. She added that her mom often said disparaging things about both her dad and Susan, which made her feel bad for loving Susan.

The father was wading into uncomfortable territory, unsure of what was the right thing to say, wanting to protect and comfort his daughter. He had started dating Susan, a woman with whom he became acquainted during the separation from his wife. The divorce process was a protracted ordeal, during which both spouses agreed they could date others. They crafted a parenting schedule of 50/50 time with their two children, dividing the week and alternating weekends with each parent. While the wife didn’t date anyone else during their separation, she also continued hinting she’d consider a reconciliation. Once her estranged husband had met someone new (Susan), the divorce became significantly more contentious. Now, over a year after that has been finalized, not only is this mom very bitter about her ex-spouse’s relationship, she speaks negatively about the couple to her children.

As children shuttle back and forth between households, they often carry much more than just their backpacks. Sometimes they’re responsible to carry messages, child support checks, and sometimes they’re expected to be spies, or loyal allies. “Tell your mother she gets more than enough money from me and she will just have to learn how to budget more carefully to make it last.” “Be sure to let your father know I need more money and he has to stop being late on his support payments.” “Tell your father I don’t have the money for your music lessons because he keeps it all for himself.” “Tell your mother she needs to drop you off Saturday before noon so we can go to the neighborhood cookout. I don’t get as much time with you as she does.” And on it goes, with children caught in a volley of messages that are the responsibility of the parents to communicate directly, keeping their children out of the middle, to feel safe, protected, loved, and supported by their divorced parents.

Children have a basic need to belong, thus they will do almost anything to ensure they are loved and cared for, sometimes even at their own expense. Children will often do or say what they believe their parents need to hear and see. The fear for them is if Dad left Mom, couldn’t he also decide to abandon them? The insecurity can only be effectively addressed with a solid co-parenting relationship that continues supporting the children, communicating the strong message: “Nothing changes that we are always your parents and we will raise you together. It’s not your job to take care of us; it’s always our job to take care of you.”

When a parent manipulates a child to choose sides during and/or after the divorce, identifying the bad parent and the victim, it’s important to have a conversation with your child, relieving her of any responsibility, saying something like this: “Whenever any of us adults might say or do something that makes you sad, or uncomfortable, confused, or angry, it’s time to tell us that it bothers you and you’d like us to stop. Whenever you hear anything that might upset you, it’s good to let us know how it makes you feel. You are brave and strong and can use that brave, strong voice to say ‘Please stop. I don’t like hearing that.’”

Sadly, when a parent hasn’t recovered from a divorce, possibly holding anger and bitterness, the children sometimes become the confidantes, loyal companions with whom the parent can vent her/his wrath. It’s easy enough to discredit the other parent as irresponsible: “You’re hungry?! Doesn’t your father ever feed you?!” or “He lets you stay up so late, you’re always exhausted when you’re with me. He never knew how to be a responsible parent and make sure you got enough sleep!” What’s also disturbing is a parent who claims the other parent is self-centered and never truly loved his/her family, proven by her/his need to leave the marriage. This implies to the children that they’re not important or loved by that parent, a very damaging message to convey.

Tell your child: “I understand how hard it must be to hear bad things about the people you love. You shouldn’t ever have to worry about any of this adult stuff. You’re a child and your only job is to be a kid. People make mistakes all the time. I made mistakes as a husband/wife, I make mistakes as a boyfriend/girlfriend, and I even make mistakes as a daddy/mommy. We all make mistakes and we just try to learn and grow, to not make the same mistakes over and over again. That said, you should never have heard your mom say those things. You shouldn’t ever have to hear that stuff. You shouldn’t have to hear anything even remotely close to that, actually, so I’m sorry it happened.”

Finally, for the parent to the child: “So I want you to try to let go of anything and everything adult-related for tonight/today ... even longer, if you can. Your mom can take care of herself and doesn’t need you to protect her or stand up for her. The same is true for Susan and the same is true for me. We’re all adults. You and your brother are children and this is not your responsibility. What IS your responsibility is to be strong and courageous, so you can tell any one of us to stop if we’re saying things or talking about adult things that hurt or scare you. That’s because you have a right to a childhood.”

“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.” — Fred Rogers

Please send me your questions.