During stressful divorces, parents can unintentionally put children into very difficult situations, by using them as messengers, spies, or secret keepers.
Adult children of divorce often complain bitterly about their parents having forced them to deliver, retrieve, or hide information. These situations force a child into a no-win situation in which any action he chooses leads to a parent possibly feeling angry, hurt, or betrayed.
First, Do No Harm:
It is very damaging for a child to act as a messenger between two loved parents. Not only do children often get these messages wrong, they feel extremely anxious about acting in this role. They correctly assume that their parents are too angry with one another to be able to communicate effectively, and this is very stressful for a child to contemplate. Children also understand the subtext of messages, which means that they understand that one parent is often judging the other’s behavior.
If a child is asked to secretly get information, e.g., to look for evidence of a new partner staying overnight in a parent,s home, this makes the child feel like a double agent. There is no way for him to win: either he disappoints the parent who asked for the information, or he is duplicitous toward the parent on whom he is spying.
It is also cruel to pump your child for information about your co-parent upon the child’s return to your home, or to manipulate him into telling you information that your co-parent would not want you to know.
This information can include intimate details of a new relationship, specifics of meals or activities that you can then use against your co-parent (e.g., by saying he does not feed your child healthy foods), or financial information about your co-parent. If a child realizes that he has unwittingly been duped into “telling on” his other parent, he will feel guilty, ashamed, and probably very angry and resentful towards you, particularly later in life.
Don’t Take Advantage Of Little Eyes And Ears:
Sometimes a parent will entreat a child not to tell a co-parent about something he has witnessed or experienced, e.g. that Mommy has a boyfriend, or that Dad bought a new car. This is just as unfair and anxiety-provoking as when a child is asked to spy.
A child knows that omitting certain information would be perceived by his co-parent as lying, so this is asking your child to be dishonest and to treat one parent with more respect than he treats the other. Any situation where a child is explicitly asked to lie or withhold information from a parent, or to be more open with one parent than with another, is emotionally abusive.
These no-win situations plunge children into serious psychological discomfort that is generally resolved by the child deciding to emotionally withdraw from one or both parents.
Your Feelings Aren’t Your Child’s Responsibility:
Another issue with using children as messengers is that, often, parents get distressed at the content of the message, and this is evidenced by their reaction. When a child delivers a message, he is often shocked when a parent’s face changes, expressing sadness, anger, or derision, which the child interprets as directed at him instead of directed at the other parent.
A child then feels duped by one parent into making the other parent angry with him. He feels betrayed and exposed and is much less likely to communicate openly with either parent in the future, having seen that communication can easily turn into something inexplicably dangerous. This also teaches a child to be wary of communication within intimate relationships as an adult.
Do Some Face Time With Your Co-Parent:
If you have been delivering or receiving messages or requests to or from your co-parent through your child, try to change this dynamic. Immediately contact your co-parent to schedule a face-to-face or phone meeting about the issue of using kids as messengers. Without blaming your co-parent, and with accepting responsibility for your part in this dynamic, explain that you’re concerned about the effects on the child in the role of go-between.
During your meeting, try to come up with a way to communicate without involving your child. Email and texts are preferred to phone calls, because each parent has a written record of what transpired, which can be referred to in terms of remembering times and dates, financial agreements, issues with the children, and other things that may come up.
If you’ve previously been difficult to get ahold of, due to negative feelings that arise when you interact with your co-parent, admit this and commit to being more available for discussion in the future. This will help ensure that the children do not have to be involved in the communication process anymore. Freeing your children from a messenger or spy role will protect their mental and emotional health, and allow them to maintain loving and close relationships with both co-parents after divorce.
This article was excerpted from Dr. Rodman’s new book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
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