Friday, June 13, 2008

Fun Times Damaging Kids

The following is an example of the behavior that I see all the time in the divorced parents that I teach. I call it "passive-aggressive" because it is a classic example of one person deliberately appearing to play the 'good guy', while setting up the other person to appear as the 'bad guy', no matter what course of action they choose. It is insidious. It goes on all the time "under the radar", thus twice victimizing the participants: once via the behavior itself, and second via the ongoing sense of invalidation and feeling off-balance.

Take a look:

As per most standard orders, the kids are with Mom during the month of June, with the exception of Father's Day weekend. According to the order, Dad picks up the kids from Mom's house at 6:00 p.m, on Friday and returns them at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Except of course, that on the day Dad is to pick up the kids, Mom has set it up to take the kids to the amusement park. The kids are all excited! They get to spend all day playing! The amusement park doesn't close until 11:00 p.m., so the kids won't get back to Mom's house till after midnight. Too late for Dad to get the kids, so they will not see him until Saturday. Oh, except that on Saturday, the kids will be all tired and worn out from their big day at the amusement park, so they will sleep in till late morning. Half the weekend is now gone.

And of course, Mom has the kids so wound up over the entire event that if Dad puts the brakes on it, he comes off as the 'bad guy'. But if he allows the kids to stay with Mom for the extra day, then she sells him off to the kids with "See there? I told you your Dad doesn't care about you. Look how he has abandoned you one more time. He doesn't even want to see you during 'his' time. Some father he is." Note that Mom doesn't have to actually state these exact words, she can convey the message in her tone of voice and in subtle little comments that she drops throughout the day.

Sometimes, the kids are wise enough to see through the manipulation and object to going, because they realize that it will cost them time with Dad. What happens then? Mom gets all
teary-eyed and puts a major guilt trip on the kids for being so unappreciative of her grand fun gesture.

Now, considering that there are 27 other days in June that the Mom could have picked to take the kids to the amusement park, choosing this particular day seems like a deliberate manipulative attempt to keep Dad away from the kids. Again. You see, for the Mom, it's not about how beneficial it would be for the children to have two parents. For the Mom, it's about her withholding "her" property (the kids) from someone she despises. Disguising it as a fun day at the amusement park is a great way to hide her own anger and hatred. And she gets away with it because it is such a perfect set-up on the Dad.

Of course, Mothers are not the only ones who play this game. Fathers do it too. Either parent can use the kids as a method to "get back" at their ex-spouse. Too bad they don't realize it's their kids who pay the price. The kids are the ones that get deprived of the love and support of having two parents in their lives. The kids are the ones that get put in the middle One More Time. The kids are the ones that get to learn at an early age that it's "normal" to lie, connive, manipulate, and get their own way by being passive-aggressive no matter who it hurts. The kids are the ones that live with near-constant instability.

Conventional wisdom says (and data support the idea) that the most significant factor for children of divorce to successfully heal from their wounds is the absence of conflict. This is the caveat I bring today: playing passive-aggressive games with kids in the name of amusement park fun is *not* the absence of conflict. It is still there, it is still real, and it is still damaging. It is the absence of drama, shouting, and arguing, yes. But it is not truly the absence of conflict.

Here is the bitter irony: when parents turn rearing their children in a "Disney-contest", it destroys the kids. The "Disney parent" is often motivated by a deep desire to make the children 'love' them more, and 'love' the other parent less... so that the "Disney parent" can win the prize of being "better" in some unspoken contest. The tragic irony is that this very behavior results in children who resent and often come to hate the "Disney parent". Everyone loses.

If you are co-parenting with an ex-spouse, I urge you to examine more than merely your outward gestures. Look at your motives. I guarantee your kids are picking those up too. They may be too young to use words, but they are not too young to feel feelings. Your greatest gift to them will be to not only control the outward conflicts, but to learn to shield them from the inner ones as well.

Imagine what it could have meant to those kids, if instead of sabotaging Dad with an amusement park day, Mom had gotten the kids excited about seeing their Dad. Suppose she had spent the time helping them shop for Father's Day gifts, and teaching the kids about honoring their Dad. Suppose she had quietly listened while the children talked about how important their Dad is to them. Suppose she had validated their feelings of love and respect, rather than attempting to make them feel the emotions of aggravation and hatred that she felt. The gift she could have given would far outweigh and outlast the few hours of fun at the amusement park.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT piece. I see this behavior almost daily. Thank you for the insight!