Is Honesty with Children always the Best Policy?

Is Honesty with Children always the Best Policy?

Many parents believe that honesty is the best policy when it comes to communicating with their children. But can honesty be detrimental to children?

Consider these situations:

  • After a separation or divorce, your child asks why you and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. Are you supposed to give all the sordid details of why the breakup occurred? Especially, if, indeed, there are circumstances, such as an affair, which led to the end of the relationship?
  • Your child asks for a new winter jacket, but you say you can’t get one for her. She asks why. Are you supposed to say that you don’t get any child support from your co-parent and you’re struggling financially to provide the bare necessities?
  • Your former spouse has seen your children consistently, but recently because of a criminal offense, they are trying to evade the police as there is a warrant for their arrest. You both agree that if your ex-spouse takes the children there could be a situation where the police stop them and they are arrested and taken away in handcuffs in front of the kids. So, you both agree it is better the other parent not take the children right now to avoid that kind of circumstance. What do you say to the children as to why their other parent isn’t coming to see them anymore?

These three scenarios are rather common, but they present dilemmas for one or both parents in trying to anticipate and answer children’s questions or explain why there may be changes in the family life. Are you supposed to be honest and “tell the truth,” or is it better to withhold information or tell a white lie in order to protect either the children or one (or both) parents?

There are no hard and fast rules about this, but there are factors that must be taken into consideration in order to make decisions as to what you share with your children.

One factor that must be considered is the age of the child. Young children, although this can apply to adolescents as well, just do not have the maturity or the life experiences to adequately understand some matters. For instance, sharing details about an affair, sexual difficulties, or domestic violence may be seen by a child in a black-and-white way without being able to see various aspects of the situation.

Another factor is the closeness that the child enjoys with the parent whom you may disparage with negative information. If the child loves the other parent, enjoys a special bond with that parent, or even idolizes him or her, being told something negative (albeit, true) about that parent may be accepted without question, be denied, or may lead to feeling caught in the middle. Young children generally should have not their idealized image of a parent smashed so early.

A third factor is what giving true — but critical information — about the other parent will do to the child’s relationship with you. Being told something negative about their other parent is likely to place them in the middle of the situation. We typically say that a child is “stuck in the middle.” In more psychological terms, being in the middle and feeling pulled in two different directions creates a loyalty bind for most children.

In a loyalty bind, the child must find a way of trying to reconcile what they feel (love towards the other parent) versus what they’ve been told (negative feedback about that parent). Who are they to believe? Which parent should they be loyal to? What should they say or do with each parent – particularly when they are with each parent?

This is such a difficult situation for most kids, that they often become alienated from one or both parents, lie to maintain a sense of loyalty to each parent, or develop hostile and angry feelings to one or both of their parents. Either way, there is nothing about being told the truth about one of their parents that brings, joy, good feeling, or a more tranquil sense of peace.

When faced with this kind of dilemma, you must carefully weigh these factors before giving too much information or before being absolutely honest.

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Helping Your Child Cope When Your Co-parent has Mental Health Problems

Helping Your Child Cope When Your Co-parent has Mental Health Problems

What if your co-parent is mentally ill? Or has mental health problem? Or is very depressed?

That’s an issue for Clarice, whose former husband is very depressed. She said that he has been diagnosed with severe depression and is taking medication as well as seeing a therapist.

The problem, Clarice said, is that he cannot hide his symptoms when he comes to visit their four-year-old daughter each week. “During his visits with our daughter, he is extremely depressed and at times doesn’t even talk to or interact with our daughter,” she  said.

“Our daughter loves him and looks forward to his visits,” Clarice said, “but he is anything but the kind of warm, loving father that I would like him to be.”

John, on the other hand, has a co-parent who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. His former wife, Lynn, is frequently depressed and lethargic, so when Lynn visits with their five-year-old son, John tries to plan things he knows his son will enjoy, such as going for ice cream, playing at the park, or going to a swimming pool.

“I give them a certain amount of alone time,” John said, “because I want them to learn to get along with each other and to have fun. Although I know Lynn loves our son, she looks and acts depressed and sometimes cries during the visits for no particular reason.”

Both John and Clarice feel badly for their children who do not understand why their other parent is sad and withdrawn. But both also indicate they are unsure how to handle their child’s confusion about why their parent is sad. And both Clarice and John worry about the impact of the depression and constant sadness on their young child.

John has dealt with it by telling his son that “Mommy’s sad because she misses you when she leaves.” Clarice has told her daughter that “Daddy doesn’t like to be sad, but he can’t help it.”

Both wonder if there are better explanations or different things they can say to their child to help them understand their parent’s emotions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about nine percent of adults in this country are depressed, with about three to four percent seriously depressed. That suggests that many co-parents and their children have to cope with a depressed mom or dad.

When it is the non-custodial parent who is depressed and that depressed person only sees the child for a few hours a week or a month, the parental depression is unlikely to have a major impact on the child’s adjustment. The basic reason for this is that living with a healthy, non-depressed parent serves as a counter-balance to the depressed parent.

However, a parent’s depression or other mental health symptoms may mean that he or she is unable to plan and carry out the kinds of parenting time visits either they – or you—would like them to have with your child. It may be very much in your child’s best interest to do what John does and that is to plan activities for their co-parent’s parenting time.

Although you may want to provide your child with an explanation for their symptoms, that poses some problems when your child is four or five or younger. It is important to keep in mind that young children tend to see themselves as responsible for what goes on around them, therefore, he or she may blame themselves for a parent’s depression or withdrawal.

Whatever explanation you offer to your child, it must use language that is age-appropriate. For instance, you could say to a four-year-old: “Mommy gets sad a lot and nobody causes it. That is the way she is, but she is talking to a special person about trying to not be so sad.”

Also, you should not place your child in the position of being responsible for cheering their parent up. But you can speak for both of you in talking about the other parent: “We both feel sorry that daddy is so sad and we hope he will not be so sad in the future, don’t we?”

As the healthy parent, you can keep in mind the good things about your child’s other parent. That is that he or she loves your child, that despite mental health problems, they still come to visit, and that, to the best of their ability, they do try to make the visits pleasant.

What to do if you and Your Co-parent Disagree about Parenting

What to do if you and Your Co-parent Disagree about Parenting 

Paul, the father of two teenage sons, was talking about an argument he had had recently with his wife.

“It all started over Matt’s grades,” Paul said, referring to his 17-year-old son. “We just learned that he has failed to turn in several homework assignments and I was mad about it.”

The argument with his wife, he said, began after Paul confronted Matt and expressed his concern about whether Matt would pass his classes and be able to go to college in the fall. Paul’s wife thought he was too angry and insulting in expressing himself to Matt.

When it was suggested that often parents approach these kinds of problems differently, Paul readily agreed.

“You’ve got that right,” Paul said. “I admit I approach things like I’m driving a bulldozer. I go right after the problem. My wife is more laid back about things that make me crazy. I just don’t think you should ignore problems with kids.”

Paul is the type of parent who I characterize as an active intervener. That is, he believes every problem or concern needs to be addressed and dealt with openly and immediately. His wife is more easy-going. She believes that sometimes the best approach is to let children work out their own problems.

There’s no question that married couples frequently have different parenting styles. While couples when dating may discuss whether they will have children, how many children they would like, or their hopes or dreams for their children, rarely do they discuss their parenting philosophies or styles. I suspect that even if they tried to talk about how they would individually approach discipline problems, they may not even know how they would handle things or how they would describe their styles. Parenting styles tend to evolve as your children grow. Parenting approaches, too, are related to a number of factors, including your personality, your temperament, and how you were raised as a child.               There has been considerable research over the past several decades on parenting styles and which ones are more likely to produce healthy and well-developed children. Yet, different children respond differently to parental styles and children often seem to become well adjusted despite the way they were raised.

The more critical concern, perhaps, is how you and your spouse or you and your co-parent handle your differences. Granted that you can’t always view child problems in the same way or that you will always be on the same page in terms of how you handle discipline issues, what happens when you don’t agree? Do your disagreements result in intense family conflict? Do they lead to your child playing you against each other? Or have you learned to work with each other despite your differences?

There are several things that you can do as co-parents to minimize the negative effects of parenting disagreements.

● It is important to be supportive of each other in front of your children. You can disagree privately or even have an argument at another place and time, but in front of your child you should present a united front.

● You can reduce the chances of your child playing you against each other by avoiding conflict in front of your child. Children may take sides with one of you if the fight is in their presence, but they will be trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage.

● Inter-parental conflict is ultimately harmful to your child. It causes anxiety, depression, interferes with both physical and psychological development, and may affect their school performance. A good rule of thumb is to avoid fighting as long as your child is within 500 feet of your argument.

● While some arguments in front of your child are inevitable, any disagreements that you have in front of him or her, should not be about how to discipline or guide them. And if a conflict does take place in your child’s presence, make sure that you make it a productive conflict by resolving it so that you are modeling conflict resolution skills for your child.

● Finally, keep your differing parenting styles in perspective for yourself and for your child. Having disagreements over parenting approaches doesn’t mean you don’t love each other, nor do they mean that either one of you is always right or always wrong. Differences of opinions and diverse parenting philosophies just mean that sometimes you see things differently; that you are two individuals with sometimes very different ideas about dealing with your child.