Whether parents are living together or not, in a two-parent family it’s likely that one (or both) has spoken critically of the other — in the presence of the children. You can be so stubborn! a frustrated mother says to father as the children sit nearby. You don’t listen when I talk to you, father blurts into the cellphone while the kids listen from the back seat. Often the co-parent isn’t even around when the children hear Dad sigh, Your mother can be so insensitive. It takes superhuman self-control to avoid moments like these entirely over the course of the child-rearing years.
High conflict couples may try to keep denigrating comments out of the kids’ earshot, but angry words can travel through walls and doors before the children have fallen off to sleep at night. Newly divorced couples, raw with hurt and anger, may have the hardest time of all containing their emotion in the presence of the kids.
Research published in 20141 found that parental denigration occurs infrequently, more often in divorced than intact families, is almost always practiced by both parents, and — here’s the surprising finding — is associated with a less close parent–child relationship between the child and the denigrator parent. Yes, contrary to the common assumption that unkind words will turn children against the target parent, there seems to be a boomerang effect at play. The denigrating parent more often damages his or her own relationship with the kids; unkind words seem to backfire.
The boomerang effect suggests that children don’t want to hear negative attributions about either of their parents. Whomever bad-mouths mom or dad (and that includes mom or dad) loses points with the youngsters.
These results challenge the long-held view that negative talk by one parent promotes “parental alienation” toward the other. Instead, the researchers hypothesized that when alienation occurs, it’s likely the result of some troubling behavior that the children have repeatedly witnessed — excessive substance use, uncontrolled mental illness, unreasonable child management — rather than denigrating comments from the other parent.
Let it be a warning to all moms and dads: speaking unkindly about your co-parent when the kids are around might come back to bite you.
- Rowen, Jenna and Robert Emery. “Examining parental denigration behaviors of co-parents as reported by young adults and their association with parent–child closeness.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 3(3), Sep 2014, 165-177.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000026.