It’s 10 pm on Sunday in the Pediatric Emergency Room. I walk into room #8 and repeat the same conversation I have had thousands of times over the 15 years I have been a pediatrician, “What brings you in tonight?” Sitting in the room are a mom and her child and sometimes a few siblings. The conversation continues and I learn that the child is ill or having an asthma flair and has just returned from “Dad’s House” for the weekend. Mom goes on to tell a story where “Dad” is definitely not the hero. He didn’t communicate about the illness, didn’t appropriately respond to the child’s illness clues, didn’t feed the child appropriately and in general is just a screw up. This narrative is told without tempering or consideration about the ears of the children in the room. The faces of the kids tell the story. They either look uncomfortable or try to act as if they aren’t hearing dad made out as a complete failure. Often, they have a look that says this sort of commentary happens frequently and they are trying to just tune it out.
As a doctor who needs to make a diagnosis and treatment plan, I tease out the reality from mom’s hurt and anger, the true medical history from the emotional overlay. I try to ignore the negative adjectives given dad and just take in the important parts of the clinical history. But inside, my heart is breaking for the children in the room. We see this scenario play out over and over in the ER. I wonder, do the moms know? Do they know their words about the father are hurting their children far more than the asthma flair, the vomiting or the rash he missed? Children are sponges of information. Listen to them recite a commercial from TV verbatim and you have all the proof you need. Children’s emotional health is a direct reflection of the world’s opinion of their parents, BOTH of their parents.
Lest you think I’m in my ivory tower looking down, clueless about the reality of single parenting and the emotions of divorce, a bit of full disclosure: I’m a single mom to 3. I know to the heart of my being how hard it is to keep the frustrations of single parenting to myself and the true challenge amongst the craziness of single parenting to say positive things about a person for which there are often few remaining positive emotions.
But here’s the mental trick I use and a few facts: your children internalize what you say about their other parent as a reflection of themselves. So, when a mom says, “He’s so lazy, he doesn’t even give her the medicine she needs,” the child hears “You’re lazy.” Or “His stupid father, he can’t even tell when a cough is his asthma and even then, is more worried about his girlfriend than caring for his son.” Her son hears “You’re stupid and you’re less important than your dad’s girlfriend.” On their very worst day, do we want our kids to feel that is how they are seen? Would we ever directly say those words to them? And yet, when we talk about their father negatively, we are doing exactly that to our children’s emotional health. The damage words make is difficult to erase. Kids are resilient, but they aren’t made of Teflon or steel. They need us to help them build that inner core of emotional strength.
This idea, that kids see the world’s view of their parents as a reflection of themselves isn’t new nor is it a single study. With 50% of Americans divorcing and a good portion having kids, we have had ample opportunity to study the impact of divorce on kids. We know, not just guess or assume, but truly know, that children are impacted negatively by divorce. But, it is not the divorce itself that causes the damage. It is the behavior of the parents that impacts the children. Do the children get less parental attention after divorce? Do they have a disrupted routine? Do the parenting “rules” change drastically between mom’s and dad’s homes? And very, very most importantly, do the parents talk badly about each other or even worse, put the children in a position of having to chose who they love most? These are the factors that directly impact how children fare after divorce. If we, the adults, realize how much control we have over how our children adjust, we can make the ending of the story so much better. We can choose to tell our friends of our hurts and frustrations with our former spouse and work hard to tell our children about the good in their other parent. We can give the benefit of the doubt (at least verbally if not whole-heartedly inside) in regard to what Dad did or did not do. We can work very hard to make Dad out to be the good guy and on our best days, to be the hero. Not if or because he deserves it (and he might), but because our children deserve to see themselves in their best light, to go forward in the world feeling like they are successful, loving and responsible and not all the negatives moms often assign to their ex-husbands.
Back to the scenario in the ER: If there is truly an issue with the care dad gives your child, tell me about it, or tell your pediatrician. But, do it outside the room where little ears can’t hear and absorb all the hurt of your words. Know that we are always here to listen and help so that the story can have a happy ending.