A crash course for helping every kid who thinks your relationship success or failure might be their fault.
The Blame Game. It’s all your fault. It’s all his fault. It’s all her fault. Pointing fingers.
It is possible that there has been a lot of this going on in your household behind closed doors or even out in the open as your marriage has ended.
Quite honestly, there may have been a lot of it going on even just within the marital struggle itself for years.
What I am wondering today though is this: Are your children playing those same games behind closed doors but not telling you?
This is so common in a family. When tensions get high, everyone is under stress. Oftentimes then, when everyone is under stress, each individual is looking for who is to blame. Sometimes even unconsciously.
For instance, your son or daughter may not be at a higher level cognitive stage to sit down and literally say: “Hmm. I wonder if this is his fault or her fault or even perhaps my fault.”
Instead it may be something much more primitive like, “Mommy and Daddy have been fighting a lot. When they are fighting, sometimes they are yelling about me. This is my fault.”
The reality is that is the furthest from the truth. It was never your child’s job to hold your family together or make your marriage work. You know that. Your spouse knows that. We all know that. Except maaaaybe not your child.
It sounds ridiculous to you in some ways. Why on earth would they think this is their fault? You’ve never told them that. You’ve never even hinted at that. And yet.. Many kids still do.
It makes sense when you boil it down. Parents are mad and fighting over kids. Kids hear it and assume because the fight is ABOUT them, it is BECAUSE of them.
So what do we do about it? How can you help your children process the divorce and feel secure knowing that they are not responsible for carrying this load or blame?
We are going to look into that today. There are a few key components necessary for you to be building in yourself, in your relationship with your child’s other parent, and in your child themself. We will talk through those as gently as possible, and I hope you will follow up with any questions you have along the way!
First off is a heavy hitter: Humility.
This one is just for you. You are responsible for coming to your children with an attitude of humility. I mean this in a few different ways.
Humility meaning: Don’t assume your child definitely does not struggle with this. Be humble and open enough to realize you may not know how your child is carrying this weight.
Humility meaning: You may have to work through some places where you are quick to cast blame yourself to slow down their quick to cast blame themselves game too.
I understand that the majority of the issues coming out of your marriage may have to do with your spouse and not you, it seems. But even just the observation of pointing fingers can be teaching your child to do the same about himself or herself.
This space may take a little work. Being able to come to our children open, humble, and present is not easy for anyone, especially in the midst of an emotional or relational crisis. And yet, our children still need it from us.
For me, it takes good therapy, good community, and space to process to come to my children open and humble. I don’t know what it takes for you, but there is no time like the present to learn!
Next, is the work necessary with your ex-spouse or child’s other parent.
What is required here? Good communication, level headedness, and some reframing. Especially around your children.
In most divorces it is likely that you and your spouse may fight OVER your children but that is still not the kids’ faults. This may need to be explained to them. When you’re calm. Reframe it for them (AND YOURSELF).
You and your spouse are fighting about the kids because nothing in the world is as important to each of you as your children and their is no one you love more.
Hopefully your children never hear these heated conversations or all out fights, but let’s be honest – it happens sometimes. All of the worst fights I remember my parents having were about my brother and I, where we were going to be and with who. The truth is that they both wanted to see us or be with us. I know that now. At age 5? I did not have a clue.
So, what do you do if that does happen and the kids do hear the fighting over them now that you know it could cause them to think thoughts like “This is all my fault”? Come into that humble space enough to go back and admit when you were wrong or overheated and make it right! Is there a better way to teach our children about grace and making mistakes right than by modeling it TO them?
Finally, what are the practical pieces you are building with and in your children to cast fault and blame far out into the sea?
This is where it is important for you to find out what is going on for them and help them tell and process their divorce story – the one where they are NOT at fault.
One way we suggest you begin this process is by having your children tell you in their framework what they think is going on, why their parents are getting a divorce. A six year old and a sixteen year old will have very different perspectives here.
This could go lots of ways! They might repeat your words right back to you. They might tell you something they have observed but you have never said. They might tell you a completely made up story from their own brains.
You get to help build this scaffolding for their story. What a beautiful, important responsibility.
Now, it is important to note that there could be roadblocks here. If there are other people loving your children, they may be telling different renditions of the story than you or may be helping your children cast blame or accept fault in ways you do not agree with. Find out what scaffolding other loving others in their lives are helping build or notice when you hear it. The other parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. Children are listening all.the.time. They will adopt some of these stories into their own as well.
Next, it is important for you to watch what you are projecting onto your child.
I had a therapy client once, an elementary aged boy, whose mom would badmouth him in front of him. His belief was likely that he was innately bad and it was his fault, the divorce, her level of unhappiness, all of it, and there was no one who could change that story for him except his mom. She wanted me to fix him, but it was no wonder he was so angry!
It’s natural for children to try to want to see their parents happy. Some children are more natural nurturers as well. Step back and observe your child. When you are down, do you have the type of child who tries to crawl in your lap and hug on you? When you’re angry or upset, do they try to make you laugh?
It seems sweet, initially. Intuitive children are precious souls. They can also become overly responsible for your feelings without you realizing it.
So, if you’re spending a lot of time upset (as predictably and understandably happens as a marriage is in crisis or ends!) and your child is continually trying to make you feel better all the time, it isn’t too much of a surprise that they would adapt the story to think that not only can they not “help” you feel better, but maybe they caused it in the first place.
It is highly important for your children to know that they are not responsible for you or your feelings. This goes for the divorce time, yes, but it’s also a life-rule too. They were not and are not responsible for holding together your relationship or family or yourself. This has to be explained explicitly and demonstrated in action as well.
Children are naturally egocentric creatures. By this I mean, they come out as infants thinking the world revolves around them – and it kind of does! Young children are naturally egocentric, but really when you think about it – so are teenagers! No one believes the world revolves around them more than a teenager! So, it’s not super surprising that any age child would think they are the center of the divorce story as well.
It is my belief that your children are lucky to have you, their parent, involved and aware enough to be seeking help, reading these resources, and scaffolding stories for them that paint them as loved, enough, and not at fault.
I am thankful to be a part of aiding you in the process as I am doing similar work within my own office and home.
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