Watching my kids balance two houses and four parents has really kept my attention. I’m always watching and worried to make sure they are happy, safe, healthy, and growing.
There is one common thing I’ve noticed for the last six years. What the kids share about their other home or other parents is always downplayed or secret.
Let me start with something important. Our kids are happy, safe, healthy, and growing in both of their homes. The kids aren’t keeping anything from any parent because another parent told them to.
So why the secrecy?
I’m going to tell you why I think kids downplay or don’t share what happens with their other parent. And then, I’m going to tell you how I think this can be changed.
Why Kids Downplay What Happens
Consider that you are dealing with children. They have the perspective of children and do not have the experience of adults. Whether or not it is constituted, kids fear that if they share something about one home, parents at the other home might be mad. Consequently, a child might believe they will lose the time they have to visit their parent.
Trying to make sense of two households (especially if they differ in values or parenting-styles) is really hard! Adults would have a hard time figuring out how to go back and forth. Now, consider a child, who is always developing, trying to figure it out. When one parent does something that is unlike their other parent, I think they naturally want to protect them. A child’s mind can’t take into account much more than what they can see with their eyes and but have a great imagination at thinking what a consequence might be.
Depending on the how the adults choose to act in front of their kids is going to teach their kids that it may not always be safe to share information about one parent with the other. How do you behave while you switch kids for visits? How do speak to the other parent? What is your body language? What do you say about the other parent in earshot of your kids? How to do you speak to the other parent within earshot of your kids? What about how your friends and family talk about the other parent? Your behavior may be the biggest contributor to whether or not your kids are comfortable talking about their visits at their other home.
How to Overcome This Barrier
Change Your Behavior
Before you can help your child learn to comfortably talk to you, you need to evaluate your own behavior. Make sure your kids witness you being an example of respect, making responsible, adult choices. “Do as I say, not as I do” will NEVER work in this situation. Choose to model adult behaviors for your kids to learn from. Kids can trust what they can see.
When your kids return from a visit, ask open-ended questions. Show interest by paying attention. Be enthusiastic about their responses.
Once in a while, your child is going to tell you something that may need follow up. Maybe they learned a new word or said something happened that causes concern. Keep your attitude in check and remember you are dealing with a child. Carefully, and casually, ask more questions. I know you love, trust, and want to protect your child but you’ve got to keep it together. Understand that there may be more to this story or a whole different story. Don’t grill your child or make them anxious about what you’re going to do with the information.
Then, communicate appropriately with the other parent. Don’t let emotions play a part in this “discovery” mode. Be ready to listen. I bet it’s not crazy to say that a lot of the time, you can give the other parent the benefit of the doubt. Even if they taught your child a new four-letter word, we’re all adults. We’re human. We make mistakes. We can do better.
Knowledge is power. Communication is key. And every other mantra that works here. They’re all true.
If you find there is a serious reason to be concerned for the safety and well-being of your child, do what you need to do to resolve the situation.
Let me share a personal story.
Our daughter has had to work hard her whole life to use her words. Language has not been a natural strength for her. But, she’s found her voice and has started to share more of her thoughts and feelings with us. When she finally gathers the courage to open up, she has to know that you are a safe place, a safe person to share with. She has to trust that you aren’t going to use the information against her, or against her other parent. She really just needs a chance to verbalize what she is experiencing so she can either find a solution or move on. Some of the things she has shared have left a little sting. That’s when it has proven really important to allow her to speak without reacting negatively.
The great thing about this is watching her grow into herself and build her confidence by using her words. It’s amazing the girl she is today compared to where she was (or what was predicted) just five years ago. A major contributor to her progress is the trust she is able to feel in all of her parents, in both of her homes.
Let the Kids Be Kids
You be the adult. Let your kids, and encourage them, to be kids. They don’t have to know or understand everything. Keep information age appropriate. Don’t let them carry the burden of your failed relationship with their other parent. Let them see their parents be the parents. Teach your kids how to be happy and healthy by being a happy and healthy adult.
How do you build trust with your kids?