Protecting Kids from a Disappointing Parent


exEXPERTS hosts many educational events with a variety of amazing guest speakers. One such speaker, Christina McGhee, was asked by an attendee at a past event about “protecting” your kids when going through a divorce and serving as a buffer between them and your ex (or, soon-to-be ex).

As a coach specializing in difficult divorce situations, Christina had a lot to say. Christina joined T.H. and Jessica on the Divorce etc… podcast to dig deeper into protecting kids from the conflict that can build between you and your ex. Here she talks about some of the most common mistakes we make as parents when protecting kids from high conflict.

  1. Overcompensating

Jessica’s ex was always flaky when it came to attending their kids’ activities. No matter the activity, Jessica would know he wasn’t planning on showing up. Her kids would be disappointed, and she’d always try to protect them from knowing he just didn’t want to come, telling them, “He really wanted to be here. He’s going to be so proud of you.” 

Christina sees this kind of overcompensation all the time. “Parents tend to fall in extremes in these situations,” she finds. “They either want to throw the parent completely under the bus, or they’ll overcompensate. In some ways, they gaslight their kids.”

What happens when your kids find out the truth, that their other parent just couldn’t be bothered to show all those years? “When kids figure out what’s really going on,” Christina explains, “you can compromise your credibility with them.” When your kids finally figure out that their other parent just didn’t want to come to support them, they’ll find you responsible for them always thinking that their other parent wanted to be engaged in their lives when the truth is the opposite. 

“Your co-parent is always going to be your children’s parent,” says Christina. “And so in some way, shape, or form, they are going to need to come to terms with what kind of parent they are.” 

  1. Focusing On the Person, Not the Problem

What if your ex lies about why he’s not around? If you know it’s a lie, you obviously don’t want to repeat their lies to your kids, but how do you explain to them that he’s not the parent they want him to be?

Focus on the problem, not the person. Instead of bad-mouthing your ex, or getting into who your ex is or isn’t, when kids come to you with issues about your co-parent, validate them. 

Let’s say your kid comes up to you and complains about how your ex always takes the other sibling’s side. Rather than agreeing and bad-mouthing that parent, you could instead approach it in a way where your child is given a chance to explain their frustrations and feelings. “Gosh, that’s got to be really hard. It’s difficult when you feel like you’re not being treated fairly. Can you tell me more about that?” is going to be a much healthier approach than dissing your ex in front of the kids. 

  1. Validating Invalid Issues

Jessica remembers one particular conversation her kids had with her, where her daughter was complaining that her brother was the favorite since Jessica always took his side; meanwhile, her son had recently told Jessica that he felt his sister was the favorite. “There was a part of me in my head that was like, ‘I guess I’m doing an okay job if they both think the other one is the favorite,’” Jessica laughs. 

But in all seriousness, your kids are going to come back to you and complain about something you know isn’t factually correct. They’ll say things like “It’s always my fault, meanwhile they’re doing X, Y, Z,” and your instinct is going to be to respond by saying, “That must be really hard” – essentially, agreeing with them. Sure, you want to validate their feelings, but at the same time, you don’t want to be validating invalid things. 

No matter the issue, whether it’s a bad grade, an emotionally unavailable co-parent, or favoritism, once you have a grasp of the situation and their feelings, ask, “how does this make you feel?” or say, “that must be really difficult” – only after that should you go into problem-solving mode.

It’s especially vital to keep this in mind when the complaint is about a co-parent. “The temptation is to jump right on that bandwagon and talk about how the other parent’s rules totally suck,” Christina says. “That’s not going to help your kids.”

“You need to put your energy into focusing on what you can control, which is your house, your rules, how you process with the kids, and how you respond to your kids.”

  1. Trying to Protect Your Kids from Every Difficult Person

In all these situations we’ve listed so far, your gut instinct is going to be to protect your kids from as much of the bad as possible. 

Here’s the hard truth: your ex is probably not going to be the only difficult person your child is going to encounter in their lives. Our job as parents isn’t to remove the problems in their lives, but rather, to help empower our kids to learn to cope and deal with the various obstacles they’ll face. 

“When a parent doesn’t show up for a kid, it’s normal for kids to internalize that as something bad about themselves,” Christina explains. “It’s important to help kids adjust their expectations.” Help them understand that they are not at fault for their parent’s actions, and to set their expectations realistically when it comes to your co-parent.

T.H. feels this struggle even as her kids have now grown into young adults. No matter their age, it pains us to know our kids are hurting, but our goal as parents is to teach them to advocate for themselves. At some point, they are going to need to be the ones to stand up for themselves. 

  1. Not Having the Right Support System

When you’re dealing with these tough situations, it’s hard to identify where you stop and where your kids start, in terms of the emotions you’re all going through. The first step is making sure you’re taking care of yourself and have a support system to process how you’re feeling and what’s going on. This can come in the form of a coach, a therapist, or a support group you can go to and get perspective about your situation. 

You also need to cut yourself some slack. No parent is flawless, and sometimes we forget that we’re allowed to make mistakes. Give yourself some grace when it comes to navigating these difficult situations, because as you’re trying to support your kids, you’re also trying to find your own way.

We can’t always be there to protect our kids, but when it comes to giving them the right tools to protect themselves, we can pause and remember Christina’s advice, and understand that this is all part of growing up and teaching them to be their own best advocate.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.