One of the most destructive behaviors we see from divorced or divorcing parents is telling the child that he or she must keep secrets from the other parent. Sometimes it is done in an effort to conceal objectionable behavior ("I don't want Mom to know that I let you stay up until midnight") and other times, it is a misguided attempt to maintain privacy ("She doesn't need to know what we do when you're here"). Regardless of the reason, asking a child to keep secrets places stress on the child and sends the message that the child is teaming up with one parent against the other. Sometimes the offended parent even storms to his/her lawyer's office and demands that the lawyer "tell the judge make him stop telling the child to keep secrets." To be fair, we see this type of behaviors from both mothers and fathers; however, this article, which could also be titled Co-parenting Through Conflict - Doing it the Right Way!, focuses on a situation where Dad, for whatever reason, had asked his young son to keep a secret from Mom.
Rather than storming to her lawyer with demands for justice or making threats to the other parent, Mom chose to respond to Dad directly (excerpt shared with Mom's consent):
Per our conversation this morning, I am not okay with you encouraging [Son] to keep secrets from me. Yesterday after your visit with him he was very tearful, crying, and experiencing a lot of stress stating over and over, "I can't tell you mom because dad will find out" and "It's just between me and dad."
Asking [Son] to keep secrets from his mom is not healthy. As a 10 year old it has obviously caused him stress, in addition to his parents getting divorced, starting a new school, and having to deal with a parental visitation schedule. We should not be adding the handling of adult issues to his plate. [Son] is free to talk about the things that happen at my house because it's his life and I want him to be able to share his life events with whomever he chooses.
As we move forward it is important that we take [Son's] thoughts and feelings into consideration.
Mom's message was thoughtful and promoted focusing on the child's needs during an already stressful life change. And how did Dad respond to this email from Mom? Apparently, not by becoming defensive or confrontational. Here is Mom's second email to Dad:
After your follow-up with [Son] this evening he appears to be feeling much better. Thank you.
Dad took Mom's words to heart and spoke to the child again. And Mom simply thanked him. While there was probably more to this situation behind the scenes, at the end of the day both parents handled themselves in a dignified way, designed to reduce their conflict and more importantly, to put the child's needs above all else.
Looks like they have a pretty good start on learning how to be effective co-parents.
For additional suggestions about how to keep the focus on your children rather than on your conflict with your former partner, please contact us for a free initial consultation.