Monday, October 24, 2016

Children talk about trash-talk

Psychologists have given considerable thought as to how to persuade angry divorcing parents not to trash talk the other parent to the children.  The primary tool is education: backing up the assertion that “children need two parents” with research studies and first person accounts from adults who endured and were damaged by their parents’ negative attitudes.   It’s not clear, however, how effective these programs are. And when persuasion doesn’t work and the trash-talking continues, the family is labeled “high conflict” and often written off as intractable to anything but aggressive legal remedies. 

I think many psychologists, however, underestimate how frequently parents self-correct through the influence of their children rather than through educational, legal, or therapeutic interventions.   A divorced colleague was caught up short by her teenage daughter who responded to her complaints about the father by saying: “It’s not fair of you to put that on me, knock it off.”   My colleague agreed, it wasn’t fair, and she knocked it off.   An 11 year old boy and his divorced father crossed paths with his mother at the local grocery store.  After a brief exchange during which the father made a few unnecessarily nasty comments to the mother, his son said simply: “Get a life, Dad.”   Taken aback, the father realized his son was right, it was time to move on and get a life.   An eight year old girl endured her father’s trash-talking and criticisms of the mother on the car ride home after every weekend visit.   She finally spoke up: “Why do you talk like that about Mom? She never talks like that about you!”  His badmouthing never recurred. As an adult, she realized the father assumed that his ex was badmouthing him and that he had to counter with criticisms of her (think Donald and Hillary).  His young daughter’s spontaneous outburst helped him realize that his assumption was wrong. A particularly clever 9th grader, tired of her parents’ mutual bad-mouthing, unobtrusively and without comment left out promotional materials about boarding schools at each parents’ home.   They got the message and quieted down.  And in one remarkable instance, a resilient 12 year old boy said to a therapist in his divorcing parents’ presence: “They are great parents, but about each other they are just being what they are, idiots, and I don’t pay either one of them any mind.”  Taken aback by their son’s superior maturity to their own and concerned that they were only earning his contempt, they apologized and took a more positive direction in their divorce.

Recognizing that children’s voices can have an effect, educational specialists have created video documentaries for parents of children speaking out (see:   These videos are likely helpful to alerting many parents’ to the importance of not trash-talking.  But consistent with my observation that the family’s own children often have the influence that other well-intentioned adults do not, I have found these videos most effective when shown to the children as well as the parents and then used to help family members identify how the children have already been saying these things – but the parents simply haven’t heard yet.   

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