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A good parent doesn’t criticize the other parent. Quite the opposite. They go out of their way to protect the child from feeling he needs to take sides or that there are sides.”

– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 44)

One of the most hurtful – and most common – consequences of divorce is that bitter parents continue to insult each other either in front of or through the children. Some parents may not realize the injury this may cause. Others may be too caught up in their own drama to control themselves. Either way, every divorcing parent should know the toll these parent-directed insults take on their child.

Injury by proxy: Why attacking your ex is attacking your child

Once there was a little girl in our preschool class who was adopted from China. She was an otherwise happy and well-adjusted little girl who was surrounded by love, but her adopted mother happened to be significantly overweight. Sometimes other kids would make errant remarks about this, most often without any intent to be mean. Yet such statements bothered her nonetheless.

Though an active, healthy and normal-weight child herself, “Sally” (not her real name) could be driven to tears by someone commenting on her mother’s weight. It got to be so bad that one night, her mother informed us, she cried uncontrollably for about half an hour after school when another child, though not intending to be hostile, commented: “Wow, Sally, your mom’s really fat” as her mother came to pick her up. It was the type of blatant honesty young kids are known for.

None of the kids were making fun of Sally, so why should this be so upsetting to her? Because she loved her mother, that’s why. She identified with her. When someone said something hurtful about her mother, it also stung her. Children feel this ‘hurt by association’ in the same way that it would be upsetting to a parent to have someone insult their own child in front of them. How would you feel if a nextdoor neighbor came over and said, “That kid of yours really is the ugliest and most vile thing I’ve ever seen, and dumb as a doorknob, too.” When you berate or attack a child’s parent, you’re also attacking the child themselves.

All divorcees need to take Sally’s example to heart. Verbal abuse directed at a parent or conflict with an ex will also sting the children, because chances are they happen to love that person you’re hurling insults at. They came into this world from that person, and identify strongly with them. They happen to love both of you, so any type of conflict or verbal abuse between each other will create stress and injury for them. One divorce researcher states, “To a child’s ears, any comment about his parent – positive or negative – is a judgment of him. Any critical barb about your ex goes right to your child’s heart.” (Newman, 1998, p. 202)

Even when the child’s relationship with the other parent isn’t the best, degrading your ex inevitably causes some type of pain for your kids. No child wants to be the son or daughter of a no-good, white trash, cheating, untrustworthy whore of a father, anymore than you’d want people to associate you as the parent of an ugly, ill-behaved, delinquent devil child.

Anything that damages the parent-child relationship damages the child, and any statement that directly or indirectly causes a child to think less about their parent is going to impact their self-identity and make them feel worse about their heritage. Thus any type of name-calling, negativity, or disrespect directed towards your ex is going to hurt your kids. It is verbal child abuse. So don’t do it.

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