November 2004 - Don’t
Kill the Messenger
Once you’re separated, one of your goals is probably
to have as little contact with your ex as possible. But, there are still things
you need to communicate about – when the child support is going to be paid,
what time you’ll be dropping the kids off, whether you can switch weekends,
and so on. It’s easy to see your child as a simple way to convey a message to
the other parent. After all, you’re thinking, if it helps me avoid a confrontation,
it’s got to be good, right?
Wrong. In my practice as a law guardian (an attorney representing children in
divorce and custody cases) the most common problem kids had after a divorce
was that their parents used them as messengers.
But it sounds harmless to ask your child, “Can you give this envelope to Mommy?”
or “Could you tell Dad I’ll be 15 minutes late tonight?” but when you do this
you place your child directly into the center of the conflict. Even when your
divorce is said and done, in your child’s mind the conflict is ongoing and is
a constant part of his or her life. The simple fact that you are unwilling to
talk to each other is a red flag that there is conflict. Every message you ask
your child to carry has some kind of emotional undertone to it and you’re asking
your child to be mature enough to handle that.
When you ask your child to be a messenger, you’re unwittingly asking him or
her to be the receptacle for emotional feedback from the other parent. When
you have your child tell the other parent you need to change the schedule or
remind him or her that the child support is due tomorrow, you’re asking your
child to send your message and then witness the other parent’s reaction. And
you know very well the other parent isn’t going to just smile and accept whatever
you’ve said. He or she is going to have some kind of reaction to it, no matter
how subtle. Your child will interpret that reaction as being directed at him
It doesn’t matter how old your child is or how smart she is. Children of divorce
and separation are highly attuned to their parents’ emotions. No matter how
many times you reassure them, a small part of them is always certain that somehow,
someway, it is his or her fault you got divorced. Because of this, the child
is going to interpret any negative reaction as being directed at him or her,
not at the other parent.
So how do you avoid the kill the messenger syndrome? Simply do not, ever, ask
your child to carry or convey a message to the other parent. Come to the door
or car yourself and talk to the other parent. Or call him or her later. Or if
you’re absolutely unable to do any of that, stick a note in the mailbox or send
an email. Adult communication has to happen between adults. And though it might
be easier for you to have your child convey a message, in the long run it will
do more harm than good. Do whatever you have to do to get your child out of
the line of fire.
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