Children Parenting their Parents
– a Dangerous Consequence of Divorce
By Rosalind Sedacca, CCT
Divorce is tough enough. When children try to protect their parents from its
consequences, the parenting is moving backwards and the results are devastating.
Always be careful of what you share with your children regarding your own
emotional state during and after your divorce. It can create enormous confusion
for your children, along with guilt, frustration and despair.
Children who experience their parents divorce are helpless to change the circumstances.
But they often try. They want to do something to “fix” the situation,
but they haven’t a clue how. Sometimes they create solutions that make
sense in their young minds, but actually cause greater complications. That’s
why it‘s so important for parents to take the emotional burden off of
the shoulders of their children. Reassure them that Mom and Dad are still their
parents and will continue to be there for them with compassion and love. Tell
them they need not worry … and remind them that none of this is in any
way their fault or responsibility.
Children can be very resourceful in how they behave when they sense either
one of their parents is vulnerable or hurting. Often they will side with one
parent over the other as a means of support. They may fear that expressing happiness
about time spent with one parent can seem like a betrayal of the other. They
worry about hurting the feelings of the emotionally weaker parent – or
experiencing the disapproval of the emotionally stronger parent. Either way,
it’s a lose/lose situation for the child who feels caught in the middle.
Parents are not always aware of how children interpret their comments or emotional
displays. If a parent confides to a child that they are very lonely when he
or she is with their other parent, it frequently creates a need to “protect”
the sad parent. So the child may elaborate on the truth by telling you what
they think you want to hear. “I miss you too. I wish I could always be
with you. If I didn’t have to stay with Mom/Dad I’d never be there.”
These small white lies can grow into larger stories – even outrageous
lies – with the intent of protecting one or both parents. It can also
become a vehicle for pitting both parents against one another. Children easily
sense when they can manipulate their circumstances – and their emotionally
vulnerable parents. This becomes even easier and more tempting when the parents
are not speaking to one another or co-parenting cooperatively. The result can
be devastating for everyone in the family – each pointing the finger at
the other in blame.
When parents are too caught up in their own self-righteous dramas to put their
children’s needs first, those children have little recourse but to start
parenting themselves. The consequences for the children can take many directions:
a sense of mistrust of adults, guilt about knowing they are exploiting their
circumstances and deep insecurity because their world is no longer safely guided
by parental boundaries. The responsibility here must always fall upon the parents
– not the innocent children who are trying to cope with an adult-made
situation beyond their control.
Communication is the key to avoiding these complex backward parenting situations.
Talk to your children about divorce-related issues as a parent, not a confident.
Remember that your former spouse is also a parent that your children love. If
your communication with that parent is poor or limited, you are setting your
children up for compensating in any way they can – with guilt, frustration,
confusion, shame, anger – even revenge -- as the motive.
When you accept responsibility for creating a Child-Centered Divorce and co-parent
in the best way for your children’s well-being, they will feel more secure,
stable, loved, protected and supported. That gives them permission to continue
being children without bearing the burden of having to parent their parents
Do you want your divorce to rob your children of their right to enjoy their
childhood? Of course not! Then understand the serious consequences of backward
parenting and communicate mindfully and responsibly when discussing divorce
or related family issues with the children you love.