Developing Empathy: The Impact of Negative Comments During Divorce - Collaborative Family Law Association of St. Louis

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Developing Empathy: The Impact of Negative Comments During Divorce

Nicole Pace

How do you manage your feelings toward your ex-spouse when you are around your children?

If you have children getting divorced does not end your relationship with your co-parent.  So how do you keep your negative thoughts and beliefs about your co-parent from your child?  It’s tricky and it’s important.

What is Your Message?

Children understand their parents are divorcing because they no longer love each other, if they've seen you fighting through your divorce, they know you may not care about each other any longer either.

When a child internalizes the message that “Even if my parents cannot be together they can still care for and about me together” it can help that child heal from the grief and pain of the divorce more quickly and support the rebuilding of their resiliency.

However, if the message becomes “my parents are not capable of getting along, even when it has to do with something that is important as me” it can send the message that the child is unable to bridge the gap of love between her parents.

Children need to see their parents through the eyes of a child, not through the lens of the divorce.

Comparing Your Child to Your Ex-Spouse

Your child is a part of you: They may have your nose or your chin, your sense of style or your interest in how things work.   Your child is a part of the other parent too:  They may have their enthusiasm, their sense of adventure, or their sense of humor.

In her life your child may have heard similar comparisons as those above and she probably felt pride and a connection to her parent because of it.

If those comparisons turn into insults it can intensify a child's sadness and confusion. If instead of hearing a positive connection to their parent "You have your dad’s sense of humor" it shifts to "You are so slow, just like your dad" a child can translate that into a message from you about your love for her. So when a parent tells a child they are "just like their father" when talking about a disliked habit or characteristic that child's gets a message loud and clear "You don't like dad, and since I'm like dad in this way, you must not like me either".

Maybe your ex-spouse is not a good person – and you want your child to know so you can keep them from experiencing the pain you have felt.  Children need to determine their own beliefs about that parent and they will get there in their own way, in their own time (with the obvious exception of abuse or neglect). Having you as a sounding board, without adding fuel to the fire, is the best way to help that child cope with the possibility of a difficult relationship with the other parent.  Or it may be that your negative experience of your ex will never be your child's experience, that’s okay too.

Helping Your Child Transition Through Divorce

Know that a child can transition more quickly through the grief and pain of a divorce when their parents are able to manage their co-parent relationship with low conflict.  The benefit is that a child will grow up feeling loved and committed to by both parents even when they are not in the same household.

Dealing with an ex-spouse is a life-long journey.  You voyage from marriage to divorce to co-parenting.  Finding a way to make peace, even if it’s only one sided, can reduce the emotional sting these travels can produce.

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