(To protect confidentiality, names and details have been modified.)
I first met Becky, a 62-year-old grandmother, after spending a few sessions with her grandchildren, ages 8 and 10. She was a sweet southern woman who clearly loved her family and wasn’t sure why I wanted to see her. I asked her to come in for a session because I had some suspicions I wanted to check out about her grandkids, and she graciously agreed.
I was working with the kids in reunification therapy. They had not seen their father for about a year prior to starting the therapy and the court had asked our organization to get involved. When I met the mom, she seemed believable (as most parents do) and said she didn’t like how her kids felt about their dad. She could only surmise that something bad was happening at his house based on their extreme reactions to the visits. She adamantly denied talking badly about her ex to the kids.
When I met with dad, he was equally believable and said he had never done or said anything to the kids that would make them so angry with him. He was convinced that mom was the culprit and mentioned their evil grandmother in passing. Nana? Evil? Nah. When I first met the children, they had a lot of good things to say about living with their mom. When I asked about their dad, they were less enthusiastic. The ten-year-old was very protective of his little sister and wanted to talk for her. So, I separated them and spent some time with the younger one. I asked her why she didn’t want to see her dad anymore. She said because he didn’t care about her mom. I asked what made her feel that way and she said that if he did, he wouldn’t have ruined her credit. That was an unusual thing for an 8-year-old to say, so I probed a little more. Eventually, she told me that her dad’s car got “possessed.” I asked her what that meant (I wondered if it needed an exorcism) and she shrugged and said it meant that he might go to jail and only bad people go to jail. I told her I was sorry to hear that. I then asked her if he had ever done anything bad to her and she said not really, but her mom cried a lot after talking to her Nana and she didn’t want her mom to cry anymore. When I asked her how often her mom talked to Nana, she said every day — on the way to school and on the way home. Hmmmm….I wondered what the kids were overhearing.
Kids have sensitive ears and when parents begin to talk about the other parent, they pay particularly close attention to what is being said. Elementary school aged kids are especially sensitive because the only way they know to determine truth is to consider the facts that each parent reports and decide who is lying – not a comfortable exercise. Even when they hear bits and pieces, they put a lot of weight on the emotion that comes with them. This little girl couldn’t possibly know what was going on with her dad’s car or her mom’s credit. She only knew it upset her mom and that must mean dad was the bad guy. Mom was right. She wasn’t saying anything bad TO the kids. But she apparently blocked out their presence when talking with Nana.
In my session with Nana Becky, I told her that I knew she and her daughter talked every day while mom was transporting the kids to and from school. She acknowledged that to be true and seemed proud that she had such a close relationship with her daughter. “If only my grandkids could have that with their dad,” she said painfully. We then talked about how those conversations went and what the kids might be overhearing. Nana was mortified when I told her that the children were taking it all in and making negative inferences about dad. Nana admitted that she was not a fan of dad’s but that she wasn’t trying to cause any problems. I spent the session educating her about what kids of divorce need and asked her to do her best to not stimulate mom’s anger toward her ex. In fact, I asked her to end the call and ask her daughter to call her later when the kids were not around if the conversation drifted toward their father. I told her that keeping up that kind of anger is not going to help her daughter in the long run. She agreed, and through quivering tears, she said she was just trying to help. I told her as a fellow grandparent, I could totally understand. She left with some tools, and slowly things began to improve with the kids and their dad. Mom was able to explain to the kids that the issues they overheard her and Nana talking about were for the adults and that their dad was not a bad person. She was able to apologize to them for how she had handled things and they were more than happy to hear it. These kids were at the right age to accept and forgive when given the opportunity, but also at the perfect age to be turned against an enemy. Had they been teens, I would have had a much more complicated problem, but we were lucky this time to be able to intervene early.
Take this to heart. Speaking negatively about a child’s parent, especially when the child is in a stage of development in which that can take root and grow, is irresponsible and reckless. I’ve seen parents outwardly appear as if they’ve read every parenting blog possible but in secret they are destroying their child’s self-esteem with a few misguided and negative words. Take advice from your Nana – if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.