Psychological Effects of Parental Bad-Mouthing in a Divorce

by Becky Swain

    Loving parents worry about the effects of divorce on their children. Most parents understand the role that bad-mouthing plays in complicating an already stressful time for their children. Refraining from speaking critically about your ex does not eliminate all the sources of anxiety associated with divorce, but it does provide children with a head start that leads to coping and adjustment.

    Bad-Mouthing and Long-Range Adjustment

    Resisting the temptation to say unkind things about your ex in the presence of your children is not easy, but it is necessary. Researchers at the Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics report that excessive levels of parental conflict negatively influence a child’s long-range emotional adjustment to divorce. Kids Health reports that banning name-calling and angry tirades is a loving strategy that parents adopt to assist their children in weathering the unsettling transitions that accompany divorce.

    Bad-Mouthing and Choosing Sides

    The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that parents who demonstrate amicable cooperation help their child cope with the divorce experience. Your polite interaction with your ex provides a positive model for your children, who continue to look to you for social cues in troubled waters. Conversely, exposure to parental conflict causes feelings of guilt and self-blame for the divorce, or even an unwelcome obligation to choose sides in the controversy when children find themselves in the middle of a war zone.

    When to Seek Help

    Even if you and your ex have taken care to demonstrate an amicable pattern of communication, your child may need additional sources of support to transition through the divorce process. HelpGuide.org reminds parents that although each child requires varying periods of time to adjust, most children eventually exhibit progress. Warning signs that your child needs help to deal with anger, depression or anxiety include self-injury, uncontrolled tantrums, social withdrawal, academic failure and disrupted sleep. Your child’s doctor may provide a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in children’s adjustment challenges.

    Alternatives to Bad-Mouthing

    The stress and psychological trauma associated with divorce are less detrimental for children when parents deliberately plan to make their child’s emotional health a priority, and practice the plan consistently. Granted -- this goal is not simplistic in theory or practice. Still, aim to take a proactive stance when engaged in a face-to-face or telephone interaction with your ex. Discontinue conversations that become heated, or take them elsewhere. In addition to monitoring verbal interactions, ensure that your children do not have access to written or electronic communications that detail conflict between you and your ex.

    About the Author

    Becky Swain's first publication appeared in the "Journal of Personality Assessment" in 1984. Her articles have also appeared on various websites. She is an adjunct college instructor, licensed school psychologist and educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science in clinical psychology and a Doctor of Philosophy in educational psychology, both from Mississippi State University.

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