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May 2010 - 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 have after a divorce is that their parents use them as messengers.

The Effects
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 absorb it and handle it.

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 or her.

Age Doesn’t Matter
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. Asking your child to convey a message simply reinforces the conflict within the family and asks your child to play a role in it. You might think your teen is old enough not to be affected, but teens in fact are often on emotional red alert simply because of the hormonal changes they are personally going through.

Prevent the Problem
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 or text. Adult communication has to happen between adults. Relationship conflict should be born by the people who were in the relationship, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. 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.