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I Know What's Wrong With Your Child: An Open Letter To Divorcing Parents

On an almost daily basis, our office is inundated with phone calls and emails from clients and potential clients reporting that they are seeing negative behavioral changes in their children as a result of their pending or (sometimes not so) recent divorce. Over and over again, our attorneys are asked if we can shed some light on why a child who never previously got into trouble at school is becoming a regular in morning detention, why the A student is slipping to Bs and Cs, or why a previously talkative child has become shy and withdrawn. From the hundreds of family court cases I have handled, I'm confident I know the answer to these questions, and more. I'm equally assured that the answer will not be popular.

YOU are what is wrong with your child.

I know what you're thinking. I don't know you. I don't know your child. And, most importantly, I don't know what a terrible insert expletive here your spouse or former spouse is. But you're wrong. And here's why.

Divorce Is An Adult Problem

Most parents wouldn't dream of telling their seven year old about adult problems. Almost everyone can agree that if an adult has, for example, financial struggles or substance abuse issues, it would be absolutely inappropriate to engage in detailed conversations about these problems with their young children. Yet, staggeringly, when it comes to subject of divorce, and the very real emotionally devastating effects divorce can have on an adult, parents seem all too interested in expressing that to their children. A child may be behind on schoolwork, and his father, instead of addressing the homework issues, will say "If your mother got you to bed earlier, you wouldn't be so tired that you can't keep up in school", because his ex-wife works a second shift job that leaves her putting the child to bed later than bedtime ideally would be. Another child might get into trouble for fighting. When his mother picks him up after a call from the principal, she says "Violence is never the answer. You must have learned that from your father", thinking about the history of domestic violence in the marriage. Parents will, in moments of frustration with their former spouse say things like "If your mother/father had just handled this properly, we wouldn't be in this predicament". These types of statements are lethal to your children's wellbeing for a number of reasons. First, they take responsibility away from the child's bad behavior, thus never effectively disciplining it, and second, they undermine the other parent's ability to be your ally in the parenting process by showing your child that you don't respect the other parent's authority and decisions, so implicitly, it is acceptable for the child to reject the authority and decisions of that parent as well. And you know what? The same exact thing is happening at your former spouse's home, so your child is left with the message that neither of you are worth respecting or listening to, and anything the child does will ultimately be blamed on the other parent, so the child is free to engage in whatever negative behavior he or she chooses to without any meaningful consequences. And children need consequences and authority. More than that, consequences, by their definition, respond to behaviors, not to the core character of the child. By attributing your former spouse's negative character traits onto your child's behavior, you're telling your child that they're of bad character because their actions are similar to (or caused by) their other parent, who you've already implied is not a person worthy of respect or love.

Your Child Notices Your Attitude - Even If You Don't

So now you're thinking - that might be some people, but not me! I don't ever say anything negative about my insert that expletive here again ex of mine! But you do. Your body language, tone, and demeanor convey your impressions of your former spouse to your children, as well. Even very young children know when a parent is angry. Older kids pick up even more subtle cues, but all children are almost surprisingly observant--they see the eye rolls, hear the sighs and the muffled, sharp tones from the next room, and see the crossed arms and clenched jaws. Children overhear conversations. You may think that you're talking to a friend in private about a court hearing, or sending an email that no one will see but you and the recipient, and yet, children find a way. They listen. They snoop. They learn these things.

But My Ex Is A Really Bad Person!

People do unspeakably terrible things to each other. It's unfair, but it's a fact of life. The statistics on domestic violence in America are staggering, and the subtle but extraordinarily damaging effects of emotional abuse are everywhere, even if they're difficult to quantify statistically. If you have been the victim of abuse, you should seek counseling, a restraining order, and a lot of support from your family and friends. Nothing I say is intended to minimize that. But just because your spouse was awful to you, that doesn't make him or her an awful parent. Your relationship with your spouse is not the same as your child's relationship with your spouse. Stop treating it that way.

Love Your Child More Than You Hate Your Former Spouse

When you had your children, you made them a promise. The very definition of "parent" is "protector or guardian". That promise - the promise to protect your children and guide them - did not end because your relationship did. You are responsible for their emotional well-being, and giving them every available tool to succeed, and that means allowing them access to their other protector, free from undermining or alienation. Period. You are the adult, and you must find a way to set aside the anger, hurt, depression, fear, and betrayal you may feel towards your co-parent. Even if that is hard. Even if that feels impossible. Especially if it feels impossible, because if it feels that way, it means that the conflict runs so deep, it is virtually certain to be visible to your child. Seek help with a qualified co-parenting coordinator or therapist if you need it. Establish parenting guidelines with your former spouse. Find the most effective way for the two of you to communicate that even though your relationship has ended, you are unwaveringly still a team when it comes to your children. When you go into an interaction with your former spouse that you're dreading, ask yourself: Is my anger worth harming my child today? If you can't answer that question with a 'yes', then find a way to let it go. That is what the oath of parenthood requires, and nothing less.

If you are currently divorcing or have post-judgment family court issues, contact a qualified Wisconsin Family Court Lawyer today.

3 Comments

My parents divorced in 2005 when I was 15. They had all of the above problems, including substance abuse, propensity towards violence, jobs that only offered poverty wages (mom was a waitress and dad was a mechanic), etc. I became sort of quiet and a homebody around this time, but it wasn't because of my parents' trash-talking each other or their communication of personal problems to me. It was because they actively wanted to avoid personal responsibility for taking care of me after the divorce settlement went through. When they were dealing with the lawyers and the courts, they wanted to screw each other over out of the assets (house, cars), and pawn off the liabilities (me) to the other person. Around that time, my parents made it clear to me that my existence was an accident, and that I was just another mouth to feed and a huge burden on both of them. The legal dissolution of their marriage seemed just like a game to them, whereby they tried to manipulate each others' assets/liabilities to make the other person's life miserable. And I, as a human child, just happened to be one of the liabilities that they tried to pawn off on the other person.

That's one line that parents cross that they can't come back from.
When you get tired of being forcefully involved in their games, you just stop caring about interacting with friends, and you end up wanting to do something else that's non-routine to get your mind off the BS. I stayed home, read books, and locked myself in my room because I wanted to get away from people in general.

Other comments.... In the settlement, it was agreed that if my mom got the house in the divorce, then she would "have to" provide care to me until at least I turned 18. I was 15 when the divorce was finalized and I couldn't stand my mom's attitude towards me at all. She resented my presence every day, like I was some constant reminder of her "failed marriage". I moved out of my mom's house when I turned 17. I'm 24 now. I don't talk to either parent anymore. Like I said, they crossed a line they can't come back from. And neither of them have wanted a relationship with me or attempted to salvage any sort of relationship with me after the divorce.

You said that "the promise to protect your children and guide them – did not end because your relationship did". But for my parents, that was never even a 'promise' to begin with.

What do you have to say about the parents who treat their unwanted children like liabilities during a divorce?

My response to what you've described? You got a seriously raw deal, and your parents should be ashamed of themselves. My heart goes out to you, and I hope that you've connected with a good therapist and a "family" of your choosing (friends, colleagues, romantic partners, etc) who treat you with the basic human kindness that all of us deserve.

I have some other questions and comments for you...

As a lawyer, what would you say to those parents if both parties do not want to take responsibility of the children after the divorce? How do you interact with parents who might have behavioral problems, substance abuse problems, or divorce game-playing problems during the course of their legal divorce that are affecting their children's behavior? Would your legal team ask the parents to seek counseling for themselves, or direct them to some other service? I really think a book needs to be written on that topic because I've known a LOT of other people my age who went through almost the same exact thing as I did about 10 years ago. I lived in central Illinois when I was in high school, by the way.

About half of my friends in high school (around 2002-2007) whose parents were getting divorced were in the same situation as I was. They were also unplanned children during the marriage whose parents could not afford or were not able to take care of them in some manner or another, and neither parent wanted to take care of them after the divorce was through. Most of the parents in these situations were married and had kids very young, from what I remember.

Most of the things about divorce and custody that I've read about involves both parents who WANT custody and who are fighting FOR custody for their children. There is almost nothing out there about both parents who DON'T WANT custody. I believe it's because the subject is too taboo, or maybe because a lot of sane people don't want to believe that a parent doesn't want their child or doesn't want or can't take care of a child. There's a lot of blame involved, and perhaps some people don't want to publicly admit that it happens. There is an absolute need for it to be addressed, though.

I feel like your blog post leaves out a lot of information. And it assumes that parents ideally should be or are rational, sane decision-makers over the course of their lives, and that they should know that their children should not be forcefully dragged into the game of divorce. And that they should automatically "know better". But parents who are divorcing don't all fit into this category, and a lot of them don't know better. They might randomly ask you, "Why is my kid acting up or behaving differently?" because they honestly don't know, or are in denial that their kid's behavior is due to getting dragged into the drama of the divorce, or because the kids become aware of the fact during the course of the divorce that neither parent wants to take responsibility of them. It's seriously such a huge problem that I feel no one has addressed. It should not be so taboo to talk about.

Maybe it made my parents' lawyers uncomfortable, so the legal team just actively repressed that my parents treated me as a pawn and as a liability during their divorce "game". No one spoke out about it. No one, to my knowledge, ever told my parents to seek counseling for their personal problems. No one on the legal team ever told them, to my knowledge, that perhaps they should seek an alternative living situation for me if neither party was willing to take care of me after the divorce. Instead, it was just decided that whoever got the house had to take care of me; it ended up being my mom, and she really treated me terribly because I was just 'foisted' upon her in the deal.

If no one speaks up, the kids are the one who suffer. Seriously. I am 24 years old and I still think about how traumatic it was for me to be dragged into that game a decade ago. No ever spoke out about my parents not wanting custody of me.

Divorce shouldn't be only about who wins the money, the house, or the cars in the end. The legal divorce process should also include steps on how to find an appropriate living environment for the children or how to find family counseling if neither party wants custody of the children.

I can't pick my parents, but I'm sure a legal team could have if they explored with my parents some alternative living options for me. Instead, they were probably busy thinking, "Oh my God, how horrible are these people for not wanting custody!" without ever thinking about what a good living environment for me would have been. I would have loved to have been adopted by a caring family who were interested in raising a child. I would have loved to attend counseling with my parents to make the situation better. But none of those things were ever discussed.

I just want things to change so that no other kid in the future has to go through what I (and several of my friends in high school) went through. It really, really sucks. And I still think about how awful my live was during the divorce even though it happened almost a decade ago. It really was not okay for me to be dragged into those games.

Ask the parents if they truly want custody and figure out with them if they are able to provide for their child's care properly. If they don't or can't, please help them figure out what's best for their child or direct them to someone who can!

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