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Separated parents: Do You Spill Out Onto Your Kids?

February 19, 2015

Her friend only said, her son looked like his father. Unfortunately that was enough to create disdain. From then on, she treated him differently. She was unable to look at her son and not think of her former husband. Every time she looked at him, she was reminded of the abuse she endured at the hands of his father. Every misdeed by her son was taken as evidence of having his father’s personality. She grew cold and aloof and wanted to distance herself from him yet was unable to see him go live with his father. She still needed to protect her son from him. He is only three. Who protects him from her, his mother?

When he looked at his daughter, he saw her mother. At 14 she gained an interest in boys. She grew flirtatious and he was worried she was promiscuous. He knew his own influence upon her was tenuous, the likely outcome of having missed too many life events. With concern he blurted out, “You’re acting like a slut and that’s why I left your mother.” It didn’t matter what he meant to say, what he did say was more than enough. She broke curfew and their conflict escalated. She ran into the arms of yet another new boyfriend. Whatever influence he thought he had, evaporated. He intensified the very situation he was looking to resolve. Who protects her from him, her father?

Having a distressful separation and divorce whilst raising children, can create any number of challenges. Chief among those challenges is separating one’s issues with a former partner from those of our children. As much as some parents will complain about the behavior of the children being influenced by the other parent, it may very well be one’s own behavior that is creating or co-creating the troubles.

Parents may believe they are sheltering their children from untoward feelings about the other parent, but the truth is, we exude our feelings like a heavy dose of garlic after a good ethnic meal. The phone rings and we bristle. We see each other at exchanges and our shoulders meet our ears. We hear their voice and we grimace. We wear our emotions plainly, even when we think not. When we do, our children are there to observe and learn. Worst case scenario, we hold our children accountable for traits that remind us negatively of the other parent.

Our children are only looking to cope themselves. They are caught in a no man’s land seeking to survive the bombs going off overhead. Bombs that would have each parent destroy the other, the very people on whom the child rely for survival.

Your children still require your nurturing, guidance and love. It is never appropriate to advise a child of a negative trait akin to the other parent. Causing a child to feel bad about themselves for matters they may have no or little control over is demoralizing. This simply undermines self esteem – a necessary ingredient that protects against exploitation and facilitates the desire to accomplish great things.

Assuming you want your children to develop well, concentrate on their strengths. Listen non-judgmentally to their concerns. Facilitate accomplishments and celebrate them. Focus on your child’s achievements. Keep them out of the fray. Deal with matters concerning your former partner only when your children are not in your company, not in the home. After dealing with contentious issues, gain your composure before being in the company of your children. Let the smell of the garlic wear off, lest this off-putting perfume overwhelm your child.

Mostly, see your child as a unique human being whose only influence is your own. That way you concentrate on the only thing you may have control of: yourself.

(Download this article as a one-page handout)

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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