The Parent 'Hood: Should kids be the messengers between parents when they split?
Your ex delivers all messages through your kids, rather than talking to you. Is this OK?
Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors):
I suppose it depends on the message:
OK: “Mom said to remind you that the Montessori deposit has to be in by next Thursday.”
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Not OK: “Mom said to remind you and the ‘aerobics instructor’ to get the Montessori check in on time, for once in your life.”
— Phil Vettel
Well, no. It’s not OK at all, say the authors of “Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex” (St. Martin’s Press).
“It places too much responsibility on the shoulders of the child,” says co-author Julie A. Ross, executive director of Parenting Horizons, an organization devoted to educating parents. Children whose parents fight through them, she says, often take on the role of grown-up.
A healthy family — divorced or intact — looks like an inverted pyramid, Ross says: A parent on each top corner, children gathered at the bottom meeting point.
“The reason that’s a healthy configuration is (because) it puts the adults in the positions of authority as leaders in the family and allows children to feel safe and secure in their environment,” Ross says. “When the adults remain in charge, it frees the child to be a child and learn about the world in an experiential way without the burdens of adult-type worries.”
Turning them into messengers can also expose children to one parent’s emotional reaction to news that they don’t like.
“Often the don’t-kill-the-messenger-rule isn’t observed because there’s so much anger and bitterness in divorce relationships,” Ross says. “The parent explodes, and the child thinks, ‘I shouldn’t have said anything,’ and they internalize it as their parents’ being angry with them.”
Co-author Judy Corcoran says parents also set themselves up to be manipulated when giving kids too much authority.
“I had an experience where my daughter said to me, ‘Daddy says he can’t pick me up until 6 o’clock,’ ” Corcoran recalls. “He was planning to pick her up at 5, but it turned out she wanted to watch a TV show that didn’t end until 6.”
Better to leave the kids out of the logistical conversations altogether.
Ask your ex to stop treating your child as a go-between. If he or she persists, “teach your child to say things like, ‘Mommy, if you have something to say to Daddy, please speak to him directly,'” Corcoran says. “Rehearse it … so it’s almost like they’re reading a script.”
She also recommends setting up a Google or Outlook calendar that both parents can access online, which can greatly cut down on the miscommunication and mixed-up plans with minimal face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact.
“It depends on the situation, but if you’re angry at somebody, something as simple as ‘Here’s the book back that I borrowed’ can turn into ‘You couldn’t give this back to me last week?’ If there’s a lot of underlying anger, you might want to just stick to texting.”
And don’t ask your kid to read the texts to you.
Have a solution? Your 5-year-old is suddenly wetting the bed at night. Is this cause for concern? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.