- Children and teens simply may not understand the complexities of adult relationships.
- Listen to your children without becoming defensive, even if you want to correct their ideas, and focus on their emotions.
- Children need permission to love both parents, even imperfect parents.
The crisis of divorce brings many unexpected losses. One of the most painful is when your children blame you for the divorce.
My client Paul (not his real name) says, “My daughter, son, and I used to be so close. Now they refuse to even see me. I feel like I’ve lost them and don’t know what to do. They tell me I have ruined their lives by getting this divorce.”
Why children blame a parent for divorce:
- Children simply don’t understand the complexities of adult relationships. Teens often think they understand more than they really do. They don’t yet know what they don’t know!
- Children and teens are often black-and-white thinkers, and so they might settle on one parent as the victim and the other as the parent at fault, or the “bad parent.”
- They may perceive that one parent needs more support if that parent seems vulnerable, expresses a lot of emotion, or overshares, telling them the details of the divorce from their perspective.
- Often children blame the “safe” parent. Loyalty might be tested. When Nora blamed her husband for “destroying the family and abandoning us,” her children sensed that they had no choice but to align with their mother. They were dependent on her and knew that if they expressed any positive feelings about their father, Mom would see it as a breach of loyalty. Maggie, a 16-year-old, told me that she knew her mom would kick her out of the house if she made any effort to see her father. At the same time, she knew her father would not abandon her, so he was the “safer” parent. Two years later, Maggie moved out of Mom’s house, settled near her father, and reconnected with him. Her mother couldn’t forgive this disloyalty.
If your children blame you, what can you do?
- When your children tell you it’s your fault their world has been turned upside down, listen carefully.
- Listen without becoming defensive, even if you want to correct their ideas. This is hard to do when they have the facts wrong or are repeating the statements of their other parent. If you try to “set the facts straight” you are undermining the other parent, which is another trap for your children.
- Don’t blame your ex. That just traps your children in the middle. So listen carefully and focus on your children’s emotions, not the facts.
- Acknowledge their feelings, and let them know that you can see that they are suffering.
- Express regret that the divorce has caused them pain. Don’t overly focus on your own emotions, but you can say that divorce is hard for everyone. If you focus on your own feelings, your children will feel guilty and/or vindicated. As Nick told me, “My dad is selfish and only cares about his own feelings. I do feel guilty about not seeing him, but Mom’s right; we are better off without him.”
- Reassure them that things will get better.
If your children ask you to explain the divorce, what and how much should you tell them?
- When your kids have questions or accusations, you have the opportunity to give them a balanced “divorce story.”
- You might say that you and your ex weren’t happy together and that in a relationship it always “takes two to tango.” You might say that the arguing was causing everyone to be upset.
- You could say that you and your ex tried hard to save the relationship but sometimes it isn’t possible.
- Children don’t need “the truth” about the failings in the marriage. Many parents have told me, “I won’t lie to my children about what their mom/dad did.” Sadly, many adult children of divorce have told me that “the truth” caused more damage, and they wished they hadn’t been told.
- Sometimes a parent will tell their child that “Mom had an affair” or “Dad is a lazy drunk.” This is unfortunate for many reasons, even when the facts are accurate. With very rare exceptions (abuse, violence, etc.) children need permission to love both parents, even imperfect parents. And all parents are imperfect.
- When your children accuse you of something like an affair, if it is true, acknowledge your responsibility. But don’t give them more information that may be weaponized by your ex. Paul told his children, “Your mom is right; I did have an affair. It was a mistake I will always regret. People make mistakes in marriage, and sometimes there is more to the story, but you don’t need to know all that. You just need to know that I am sorry to have caused you and your mom so much pain.” In my office, Paul told me that his wife had also had an affair, with a woman, and that she had not been intimate with him for years. The children did not know these things, and Paul initially wanted to “set the record straight.” However, he saw that sharing this new information would further ensnare them in the parents’ marital problems.
- Work with your ex as best you can. If your ex is willing (and sadly many are not), suggest family therapy to help the children repair the relationship that has been damaged. This might happen after the divorce has been completed and emotions have cooled.
- Make amends. Maggie told her father, “You were never there for me! When I needed you, you were always too busy to show up. You traveled so much for work that you missed all my swim meets.” Maggie’s mother reinforced these resentments, but when Maggie told her father, he realized that there was some truth to her statements. He worked with his therapist to write a sincere, heartfelt letter of amends. Initially, Maggie dismissed his apology, but, over time, after she’d moved out of her mother’s home and through her work in counseling, she slowly accepted the letter’s sincerity.
- Most importantly: Be patient and don’t lose hope. When your kids refuse to see you, don’t give up. Keep reaching out in small ways, but without pressure. Your emails or texts might trigger guilt, stress, or sadness for them, so be gentle. “Good luck at your game today!” in a text message will let your child know that you are thinking about her. A text message once in a while saying, “I’m always here for you” is a reminder that you are a safe parent.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022