Over the years I have fielded countless concerns from my clients regarding their child’s perception of them. These concerns are particularly in light of the other parent, or adults in the child’s life, making derogatory comments about my client to or in front of their children.
Sadly, I have heard everything from reports of the other parent referring to my client and her family as ‘hillbillies’ to stories of parents literally waving court orders and child support checks prior to mailing in children’s faces. Clients who have raised these concerns always seem so worried about the child ‘believing’ or ‘being brainwashed’ by such trash-talking.
My advice is always the same on this subject: they always grow up. By that, I mean that the children, not necessarily the offending adult, always grow up!
I believe that every child, regardless of their tender years, innately knows that they are one half of each parent even from the very earliest stages of life. I also believe that children subjected to such inappropriate and damaging behavior grow up to make up their own mind about the their parents and the speaker who makes such statements.
When a child hears anyone making negative comments regarding a parent, particularly when the speaker is a parent or relative from whom the child seeks love and acceptance, it hurts the child because they internalize every comment as somehow pertaining to them. I sincerely believe that every negative statement made about a child’s parent, to or in front of the child, whether the speaker believes the statement as the truth or not, is literally an all out assault on the child’s self esteem and ultimately their self-image.
In fact, studies show that children cognitively come from their own first-person perspective for the majority of their growing years. Their prospective is the only frame of reference they have. For this reason, children internalize negative comments and process them through the only filter they know, that being their first-person prospective. Therefore, the child is left to reach the only conclusion that can come from such a situation: that the speaker must feel the same about the child as what the speaker conveyed in the negative statement about the child’s parent.
In my experience, it never fails. At some point during their maturity, children figure out that the offending speaker cannot be trusted. Sooner or later, the verbal assaults meant for child’s parents (and internalized by the child) only ever result in resentment for the speaker lobbing such negativity and not for whom the verbal warfare was intended for in the first place.
I have even found that, no matter how unhealthy a parent is for the child, children figure out that some – if not most – of the negative statements were not completely accurate. When children figure out that even a single negative statement was not completely true from their matured perspective, then they not only resent the speaker for hurting them, but they also conclude that the speaker is untrustworthy. Most often, though, children realize that their own largely objective assessment of each parent, taking into consideration both positive and negative attributes of each, is the only assessment they can trust. When children mature to that stage, they conclude that the speaker who attempted to skew their view of a parent is nothing short of a manipulating liar.
For these reasons, I believe putting down a child’s parent, whether the comment comes from another parent or anyone else, hurts the child long after the statement is made by damaging their self esteem, self worth and ultimately their self image. However, the damage does not stop there because children always grow up.
Rather, the child becomes distanced from the speaker who made the negative comments to begin with. Children eventually figure out that the vast majority of negative comments that were made turned out to be, at the very least, a negatively skewed view of the parent who was the subject of the comments. More often, I have seen the matured child conclude that the trash-talking speaker is the one who not only hurt him or her, but is the one that is toxic and not the person that the child wants to spend time with later in life.
I can honestly say that I have never encountered this situation resulting in anything but ultimately alienating the child from the speaker – not from the parent that was put down repeatedly over the years. In fact, the oldest ‘child’, that I served through a family suit, was 24 years old when he figured it out. It was one of the saddest cases in my career because the ‘child’, as an adult, experienced major depression due to his guilt for having believed his father over the years about his mother and his anger that led to his emotionally ‘disowning’ his father altogether.
Therefore, when my clients raise concerns about their child’s perspective of them being molded by negative speakers in the child’s life, I always advise that children always grow up. I explain that, through the maturity process, children mentally and emotionally mature to figure out that what they possibly once believed – a negative statement about my client – was likely a skewed opinion by the speaker to begin with.
The process of figuring out that the negative comments made about my client only ever result in children experiencing damage to their self-esteem, mistrust, and resentment for the trash- talking speaker. This is true whether the speaker is the other parent or any other. After all, they always grow up.