Children of Divorce – 5 Things Parents Should Never Say

Posted by: Shel 18 Comments

Child of DivorceListening to children about how they feel as their parents go through divorce – and afterward – is very important. We need to hear them. Not only their words, but read their demeanor. And we have to remember how well they can hear us. How they can read between the lines to what’s really being said. And we need to be aware of how hurtful it can be.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a parent say something like “they’re entitled to the truth” when confronted about talking to the child unnecessarily about the divorce process or speaking negatively about the other parent. First question: Whose truth? Second question: Aren’t they even more entitled to just be a child than they are to either parent’s version of what the truth is?

Here are 5 things a divorced/separated parent should never say to their child:

1. “Don’t tell your mom/dad . . . ” Unfair, people! Do not put the child in a position of having to keep a secret from the other parent. It’s incredibly stressful. Whether the parent doesn’t want the other parent to know what’s going on at his/her house or whether they’re just trying to be the cool parent by allowing something the other parent wouldn’t, requiring the child keep mum or lie about things creates a tense situation for your child that will eventually take its toll.

2. “Ask your mom/dad when they’re going to pay . . . ” Fill in the blank with all those things parents want paid for: child support, medical expenses, child care, extracurricular activities, etc. You think it’s unpleasant for you to ask your ex such a question? You don’t want to deal with an angered response to such a question? Why on earth would you put your precious child, who doesn’t have near the emotional strength you have, to be in that position?

3. ” I can’t afford it because your mom/dad won’t pay their child support.” And of course there is the flip side taboo: “I can’t afford it because I have to pay your mom/dad child support.” There’s nothing wrong with explaining to a child that some things are not affordable – it’s the laying a guilt trip on them because they need to be supported that’s objectionable.

4. “You’re just like your mother/father . . . ” said right before saying a very negative thing about the other parent. Who is really being criticized? Won’t it leave them wondering: “If I’m so much like him/her, maybe I should be over there more often”?

5. “Ask your mom/dad if you can come here (date during the other’s custodial period) so we can do (something incredibly fun).” A nasty strategy used in the hopes that the other parent won’t be willing to disappoint the child by saying ‘no’ to whatever adventure conniving parent has teased the child with. It’s win-win for conniving parent – either they get part of the other’s custodial period or they have shown what a bad guy the other is. It’s lose-lose for the child whose relationship with non-asking party may be undermined whatever the result.

Related articles you may find helpful: Divorce Through a Child’s Eyes;  5 Ways to Help Your Child Through Divorce


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  • crying little girl

    This is me right now..everytime I have to keep a secret is so painfull I that I just want to run away.
    every time I have to ask when someone is going to pay for something I get the answer to say to the other parent to do it.
    Every time I’m told I am like my mother/father I cry because I fell unwanted.
    so hard to live a life like this.
    but what scares me is to accept my life as it is..

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m so sorry you have to deal with this, R – it’s a tough place to be. If you are in school, please go talk to the school counselor about your situation – he or she should be able to plug you into some helpful resources (information, suggestions, support groups, reading material, etc). If you have a pastor/priest/rabbi or local clergy (even if you are not a regular church attendee) that might be another route to obtain some helpful resources locally. Please take that step and talk to somebody about this, R.

  • Another excellent post, Shel! For almost five years, I was a small group leader for the 6-week program called GROWING THROUGH DIVORCE. The first four examples of what NOT to say were very familiar, but the 5th wasn’t on our list…although it should be as that type of manipulating the child to change the schedule is very hurtful.
    I emailed the current director of the program and gave him the link to your excellent blog!

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks for sharing, Marylin! I’d like to know more about that program and the topics they covered. Is it still going on? Was it a local program or a chapter of a broader program?

  • Great post Shel, and boy, can I ever relate! My ex still tells my, now grown, kids ‘don’t tell your mom’. They tell me anyway but I hate the way he does that, putting them in a position of having divided loyalties. Just not right.
    As an aside, any joy with Google plus? I still haven’t figured out how to start a circle, but think I’m in one of yours? I think… 😉

    • Shel Harrington

      Good grief – somebody needs to sing him a “Let it Go, Already” song. Glad to hear the ‘kids’ don’t feel compelled to play the keeping-secrets game – stressful at any age!

      Haven’t figured out the Google+ code yet. Found an article on Pinterest that I pinned onto my “The Write Life” board, but apparently one has to actually read the article to learn from it. Ugh! You’re not in any of my circles yet, but if I can find you I’d love to add you. I keep hearing we’re suppose to ‘grow our circles,’ but I’m not sure what happens next!

  • Oh this just breaks my heart!! I realize we are all human and make mistakes, but THANK YOU again, for posting yet another imperative bit of info to hopefully help parents realize what they are doing to their kids when they act this way!!!

    • Shel Harrington

      Like you said before, Amy – if just one parent hears their own voice in those comments and gets it great success has been achieved and one more child may have a less difficult path.

    • Shel Harrington

      Those situations bring out the same primal response in me, Luanne – which ain’t pretty!

  • Gina

    So many kids go through this, and it’s so very senseless. It basically boils down to parents meeting their own needs, at a very high cost to their children. I suspect a direct correlation between this kind of behavior and childhood behavior problems.

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m with you on that, Gina – I see so many parents labeling their children with words like stubborn, irresponsible, obstinate, contrary, trouble-makers, attention-seeker during this process when I, as an outsider looking in, see a child reacting out of pain. The realization doesn’t make the behavior less difficult, but it sure could change the responses to it!

      • Gina

        And even worse is medicating them for ADHD. They live in chaos, and we wonder why their behavior is chaotic.

        • Shel Harrington

          I can’t imagine how much of that you see, Gina – and how frustrating it must be to deal with parents who refuse to see the connection. Hopefully there are also satisfying times when parents hear you, change up what they’re doing, and respond to the behavior in more productive ways.

  • Shel, these posts are so good. I can affirm everything you’ve said from a conversation I had this a.m. with a young woman whose parents were divorced many, many years ago. She has struggled with the emotional impact of the whole situation. Her mom died two years ago and last week she found and read a court transcript of the whys and wherefores of the father’s antics…and way over twenty years later all the trash talk is still impacting this young woman’s life. Keep up your good work.


    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, DiAne – I appreciate your encouragement. It’s so sad that young women ever had to see that transcript – unless, of course it helped her understand her mother in a more positive way. Which may have left her feeling guilty about her perceptions while she was still alive. Ugh! It’s such a complicated, messy, painful process! As you have said, the impact is more long-lasting than many contemplate or would like to believe.

  • Jerry H

    Another excellent post! People have daily afformations,goals and rules to live by..this post ( along with several others )have made my daily read.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Jerry – nobody really gets it quite like someone who has dealt with the reality of these challenges.

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