My topic this week is prompted by an issue that has come up in my own life, and I see come up over and over with clients – what to do with negative or concerning information said by the children regarding their other parent or other parent’s home.
All of us want nothing more than to protect our children and to make sure they are safe and happy, and one of the biggest challenges after divorce is coming to terms with the children having a separate life at their other parent’s home and limited access to knowing exactly what happens during this time. After divorce, the other parent’s private life is not information that they must share with you, and this is a big adjustment for almost all of us.
To make the situation even more challenging, it is extremely common for kids to come back to the other parent’s home and say things that are concerning. This is a situation that newly divorced couples are just starting to navigate, and it can be tough to know how to react.
It is very important when this happens to step back and remind yourself that the words spoken by children need to be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not that children are liars or that there is never a reason for serious concern. However, there are a number of reasons why the exact words a child says should not be immediately taken as gospel and some thought must go into choosing how to react:
- Remember the game of telephone we played as a child? Information told by a child regarding something the other parent said or did is the same exact thing. Even if the child is trying their best to pass along accurate information, the facts very often get turned around.
- Children have active imaginations and sometimes say things not with the intent of lying, but to test out their imagination and storytelling. A five-year-old child once told me that for Thanksgiving she ate people, and another time claimed that her mother pinches her eyelids as punishment. The first example is one that is clearly a tale, and the second is very unlikely given the father’s knowledge of the mother and how she parents.
- Children often interpret situations different than adults. My boyfriend and I were once teasing one another, completely with good nature, but his oldest child interpreted it as an argument. She got angry and felt the need to stand up for her dad. I have no idea if she spoke with her mom about the incident but would not be surprised if she told her mother that my boyfriend and I were fighting or that I am mean to her father. While this was her perception and what she truly believed, it does not accurately describe what happened.
- This one is the hardest to hear and accept. Sometimes children say something to see how it will affect their parent or will say what they believe the parent wants to hear. For example, if the kids picked up on the fact that mom really doesn’t like dad’s girlfriend, they might tell mom things that they think mom will want to hear, such as the girlfriend is mean to them, yells at them, etc. This might be showing solidarity and a way of saying, “Don’t worry, Mom, if you don’t like her, we won’t like her, either.” If the kids heard that dad worries about mom feeding them junk food, they might tattle on mom and even embellish a story about how much candy or soda they get at mom’s just to see how dad will react. Once my son said that his step-mom told him I don’t take very good care of him. My gut reaction was anger. How dare she!! However, you have to put aside this knee jerk reaction especially in front of the children, because they might be testing you to see how you react. I did call my ex and asked about it, and he assured me that this wasn’t true. My son is not a liar or a bad child. In fact, my ex and I have one of the best co-parenting relationships and well-adjusted children after divorce that I’ve ever seen, but even in this situation we must be careful about how things he says are interpreted. This situation is even more common and frequent if you had a contentious divorce or strained co-parenting relationship.
Now that we’ve established why every single word a child says might not be accurate, the next question is what do you do with the information? You still must protect your children, and of course there are also situations like physical or sexual abuse and you don’t want to ignore any red flags. Here are some tips on what to do if you are concerned about information shared by the children.
- Stay calm. I can’t think of a situation where a knee jerk reaction and showing anger would be good for the child. Depending on the type of comment made, having an emotional reaction might make the child feel like they did something wrong and shouldn’t have told you, or might show them that a certain topic will create a reaction and cause the child to try to test this out some more.
- Do not say anything negative in response. Even if the information was mean spirited and a direct attack on you, it is always best to take the high road and never say anything negative to the child about the other parent or person in the other parent’s life. When my son said that his step-mom says I don’t take very good care of him, my response was, “I would feel sad if she thought that, because nothing is more important to me than taking good care of you.” Often the best response is along the lines of, “I’m sorry to hear she feels that way.” Taking the high road is hard but doing otherwise is harmful to the children.
- Do not interrogate. Asking questions to find out what happens in the other home is harmful to children and makes them uncomfortable. Also, interviewing a child without the proper training to do so is very unlikely to get to the bottom of what happened as the way we ask the questions can affect the way a child answers. Limit your question to asking, “What do you mean by that?” and then casually listen to the answer. From there, decide what to do with the information, if anything.
- Reflect on your ex’s character. Take a moment and put aside any of the anger or hurt regarding the divorce and ask yourself some honest questions about the likelihood that your ex would do or allow what the child is saying. If your ex was always a loving and dedicated parent during the marriage, chances are he or she is not doing something harmful to the kids that seems out of character. If your ex has a history of violence, substance abuse, serious mental health issues, etc., then the children’s complaints might be more likely.
- Report complaints of physical or sexual abuse. If your child says they were touched inappropriately or were physically harmed in a way that is beyond permitted corporal punishment (which is a topic for another day, but is legal), then the allegation is serious enough that it’s better to be safe than sorry and get professionals involved. If the allegations are said clearly and are very serious then make a police report, and the child will likely be taken for a forensic interview. It is so important in this situation to not question the child yourself. This could muddle the child’s memory and create a lot of unnecessary stress and drama for the child by making it harder for the professionals to figure out what happened. The child will be taken to professionals who are specially trained to ask the right questions of children to determine what, if anything, actually happened. The other option if you feel a police report would be an over-reaction is to take the child quickly to a child therapist and see if the therapist has any concerns. Know that therapists are mandatory reporters, and if they believe that abuse may have happened, they will notify DFCS. It is quite common for children to make incorrect allegations regarding abuse, and it’s for all of the reasons listed above. This is why there are specially trained interviewers for children, as children do not pass along information as reliably as adults. I have seen a number of forensic reports come back concluding that abuse did not happen. However, plenty of reports come back confirming the abuse, and because of the seriousness of the matter, it is best to bring in a professional any time these serious allegations are made by a child.
- Pick up the phone. Instead of getting mad and shooting off an angry email or saying something to the child, pick up the phone and call your ex. In a way that is calm and does not accuse, let them know the words said by the child (not in your own words or words you suggested to the child!) and ask them if they know why the child might say this. If you stay amicable with your ex and don’t accuse them, it is very likely you will be able to compare stories when this comes up and figure out what actually happened. This cooperation also shows a child that the parents are still a team, parent together, and cannot be played against one another.
- Take the child to a therapist who specializes in working with children. If the concerns do not rise to the level of illegal physical contact with the child, but you believe the comments might be true and it gives you concern about the child’s well-being, then seek the help of a therapist. Unless a parent has a degree and experience related to child psychology, they are simply not qualified to know with certainty what comments or behaviors are red flags and what is not cause for concern, and also how to address the issues. Additionally, sometimes a child needs a neutral party to talk to so they don’t feel worried about hurting a parent’s feelings. Be sure to use a therapist who specializes in working with children, as they are best qualified to spot and address problems.