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morning detention, why the A student is slipping to Bs and Cs, or why a previously talkative child has become shy and withdrawn.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.