Tuesday, February 16, 2016


When children align with one parent and unreasonably reject the other, observers often assume that the favored parent is badmouthing—saying negative things about the rejected parent to the children. When asked, however, favored parents often protest that they don’t speak critically of the other parent, that the assumption they are badmouthing is flat out wrong.  In many instances the children confirm that the favored parent is not badmouthing – and assert that they have reached their negative conclusions about the rejected parent on their own.   So what’s going on here?   The children’s negative attitudes typically mirror the favored parent’s – but there is no evidence that the favored parent is conveying such directly.

Recent speeches and debate statements by presidential candidates may offer an insight.  With a few exceptions, the current candidates frequently make remarks that include half-finished sentences, vague words instead of precise ones, and pregnant pauses.  This speech style is not evidence of fuzzy thinking. Rather, the candidates are using a powerful rhetorical device known as an enthymemes

One candidate speaking about immigration, for example, said “we have to have a temporary something, because there’s something going on that’s not good.”  Huh? 

The listener is left to interpret what the candidate meant by this statement.  And in practice, listeners are likely to interpret the candidate’s “something” as consistent with their own beliefs.  Furthermore, the vagueness deflects criticism – the candidate didn’t express any real position here.  Is the candidate saying too many immigrants are arriving?  Or too few?   The listener is left to fill in the gap with their own assumptions about the candidate’s position—but the candidate is free to say later on:  “That’s not what I said and that’s not what I meant.”  Who can argue with that?

It’s easy to imagine a favored parent using an enthymeme to similar effect:  “Well, you know how your father is.”   “Something is sure going on with your mother.”  “Maybe something happened to your father [mother] when they were your age.”  Without overtly badmouthing the other parent, such statements leave it to the child to fill in the gap and reach their own conclusions about what that parent means – exactly what the children say they have done when asked about their negative attitudes.    

Enthymemes come in various forms. In addition to the vagueness of “something,” speakers may use half-finished sentences, silence, or dramatic pauses for similar effect.  Consider these responses to a child reporting excitedly about the other parent’s new partner:  “Well, hmm…..”    “Let’s just wait and see if.....”   “I suppose it could be…[sigh]……maybe, a good thing.”

In each instance, the child must fill in the gap as to what the parent meant, the parent can deny badmouthing, and the child can claim the conclusion as their own, since they indeed filled in the gap with their own biases or conclusions. 

The lesson here is simple:  what isn’t said can be just as powerful as what is said.  Evaluators and therapists should listen carefully for and point out such devices when parents use them and parents should be careful about relying upon them as cover for negative attitudes. 

 Because, you know, something bad could happen if we don’t do something about it.  

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