Spare Children From Parental Disputes

Psychology for Living
Gwen Randall-Young

One morning recently I awakened from a dream that left me feeling unsettled. In the dream, my Mother had invited me for lunch, and while making soup proceeded to go on about all of the things that irritated her about my Father. I became increasingly uncomfortable with what she was saying, and finally got angry, and told her that she was responsible for her life, and I was responsible for mine, and then I stormed out.
It was only a dream, but it made me think about how uncomfortable it is for children to hear one parent criticizing another, regardless of the child’s feelings for the other parent. It is never appropriate to do this. In most cases, the child loves both parents, and when one is putting the other down, the child feels extremely awkward. He may be torn between supporting the critic, or defending the accused. Often the whole thing backfires, and he ends up losing respect for the critic, and empathizing with the one being dumped on. Even if the child doesn’t particularly like the other parent, it is still inappropriate for a parent to vent his or her feelings about that parent to the child.
What this does is to give an adult problem to a child. It is making that child into a confidante, which is really abusing the parent/child relationship: using the child for comfort, rather than providing guidance to him or her. This is true, even if the child is an adult.
There are always two sides, and it is not fair to burden a child with your version. Nor should the child be put in the position of trying to understand both sides, because children should not have to mediate disputes between parents. If this happens, the child becomes the adult, and the adults become the children.
This is extremely confusing, and creates a crazy situation. Expounding on the faults of the other parent only models a victim stance for children. Better to say you are having difficulties, and the two of you will have to find the best way to sort out the problems. Or to say that things just haven’t worked out, and you have to be apart.
The child should be free to relate to both parents without feeling disloyal or guilty. Even if the daughter or son seems to listen sympathetically, that does not mean that they will be okay with it. Even adult children may wake up, sometime down the road, with bad dreams.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning Psychotherapist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books or cds, visit http://www.gwen.ca

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