Doing Further Damage

Author: Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski ’85

According to researchers, one of the best predictors of children’s psychological functioning after divorce is the psychological adjustment of the residential parent and the quality of parenting provided by that parent. Many separated or divorced parents, however, often feel powerless when it comes to parenting effectively. They may be stunned by their own grief or overwhelmed by the difficulty of raising children or raising them without the cooperation of the other parent.

Sadly, such realities can easily influence separated or divorced parents to resort to strategies that cause further damage to their children. In my family counseling work, I have witnessed four common ones.

Perhaps the most challenging tactic to avoid is silencing a child’s expression of grief. Parents can do this in a number of ways: by criticizing or reprimanding a child for negative feelings, reminding the child that “others have it worse than you do” or simply by ignoring expressions of sadness. When restraining or minimizing a child’s pain, a parent sends the message that feelings such as sadness or anger are “bad” and the child is flawed for having them. All too often this encourages a child to send such feelings underground, which hinders the healing process.

Two more damaging tactics that often occur together are criticizing the other parent and telling a child either intimate or too many details about what went wrong in the marriage. Even if a parent has good intentions in criticizing the other parent—perhaps to try and protect a child from getting hurt further—such censure can make a son or daughter feel undermined and rejected in the process. After all, the child remains a product of both parents. Once bad-mouthing starts, a slippery slope often occurs in which the critic goes too far in telling a child details about the marital breakdown, either as a way of using a child to vent anger or because that parent feels the need to justify their position in the separation or divorce.

In such cases, boys have been found to suffer more negative consequences than girls because they’re more likely to hear hostile or derogatory comments about their father from their mother. This can weaken the father/son bond.

Richard Warshak, a psychologist and author of Custody Revolution, says, “A mother’s negative opinion of her former spouse, if conveyed to her son, can do more harm to his gender identification and his self-esteem than can the lack of contact with his father. Rarely does a boy hold a negative opinion of his father without holding the same opinion of himself.”

Other parents may assume a defensive, overly protective role of “rescuer.” These parents may try to compensate for the other parent’s shoddy behavior by sugarcoating or making excuses for it. They also may become lax with discipline or shower their children with gifts in a misguided attempt to make life easier for them. As a result, these young people fail to learn how to embrace their difficulties and take responsibility for them. Equally harmful, they can develop the expectation that the world will cut them similar breaks.