The One Thing You Shouldn’t Say When Your Kids Cry for the Other Parent

Image Source: Serge Bielanko

I’m ashamed of how I responded to my crying son. Even now, I cringe remembering the parenting blunder. I knew I was wrong the instant the words flew out of my mouth. There is no excuse. I simply lost my cool.

We had a successful, divorced-family 4th of July together that stretched through the weekend and into the work week. The kids spent the days swimming and fishing with their dad at a postcard-worthy lake tucked into the Pennsylvania countryside, while I worked in the city and joined them for evening barbecues, s’mores, and fireworks.

After days of nonstop excitement with Dad, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my 6-year-old boy’s tears when it came time to drive home to Mom’s house. He cried the entire way home and fell into exhausted sleep. The next morning, he woke up disappointed to be with me. I told him I was sorry he missed Dad, that we had lots of fun stuff planned for the day, and we’d see Dad later. I managed to keep my parenting game face securely in place until that evening, when he began to cry again.

“I miss Dad. I want to be at Dad’s.”

Usually, when my kids miss their dad, I tell them it’s okay to be sad and ask them if they want to FaceTime my former husband who, it should be noted, only lives three houses away.

But this was day three of my son telling me he didn’t want to be with me. I’d been working hard to contribute to the festivities with friends and family — in between going to work each day, and buying fireworks, barbecue items, and supplies for homemade ice cream and s’mores — all while keeping our 3-year-old with me as much as possible so their dad could take the older two to the lake. I was exhausted and my feelings were hurt. Dad was Mr. Fun and Mom was Stressed Out Tired Lady who, in my son’s mind, wasn’t at the forefront of the exciting days of holiday summer fun. Instead of responding with love and patience, I snapped.

“Henry, you’re making me feel bad. Don’t you want to be with me?”

Mistake. I knew it as I was saying it but I couldn’t stop myself.

I’ve been divorced for three years. At 6, my son was just 3 and barely remembers us living under the same roof, so our current living arrangement is not a recent adjustment for him. But, as I’m continually reminded, the fallout from divorce is neverending. Just when you (and your children) have adjusted to one monumental assault on the heart, something else punches you in the face and brings you to your knees.

I know it has nothing to do with their love for me or how good of a mom I am. But even after all this time, I still feel badly whenever it happens …
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I’ve finally accepted that divorce means spending half my life without my children — but now I’m getting the wind knocked out of me when, despite exhausting efforts to be the best mom possible, one of my kids tells me they’d rather be with Dad. Intellectually, I know it has nothing to do with their love for me or how good of a mom I am. But even after all this time, I still feel badly whenever it happens and often end up crying in the bathroom where no one can see me.

“I’m sorry you feel bad, do you want to FaceTime dad?” I asked my son in an attempt to mitigate my initial, terrible response.

Henry spent the next 10 minutes in happy conversation with his dad, who promised to take him fishing the next day.

When he handed me back the phone, I let my emotions get the better of me again and vented to my former husband. Serge apologized and said he’d talk to Henry about it.

“No!” I said. “You can’t instruct your kid to want to be with Mom. His feelings are his feelings and we just have to validate them.”

Yet another incorrect response of mine: Taking out my hurt feelings on my ex-husband. At least my sentiment regarding our child was correct: talking to Henry about his natural feelings would make him feel guilty for wanting to be with his dad, and that’s not acceptable. While I can’t yet control my impulse to feel hurt when my kids choose their dad over me, I should NEVER make them feel bad about wanting to be with their dad.

Whether married or divorced, selflessness is the name of the parenting game and it is never more important than when situations like this arise. The first response, as divorce coach Christina McGhee says, is to acknowledge that your child is upset, and then validate and normalize their feelings: “I’m sorry you’re upset. I can tell you really miss Dad. When parents are divorced, lots of kids miss the parent they aren’t with.”

It’s only going to get more difficult as my children get older. Right now they are 8, 6, and 3 and follow a schedule dictated by us. Eventually, they’ll have more of a say in where they want to sleep. If I can learn to handle my response now and not take it personally, I’ll be far more prepared to respond effectively when my 14-year old daughter says she wishes she could stay at her Dad’s house, not mine.

The importance of a parent’s response cannot be overstated. Kids will feel guilty about wanting to spend time with one parent and will even worry if the alone parent is okay. I’m a child of divorce and distinctly remember worrying about my dad and feeling bad about leaving him after staying at his house for several weeks in the summer. It’s our job as parents not to let that happen! We need to continually reassure our children we are okay and we’re so glad they get to spend time with the other parent.

In an article for Huffington Post, Jacki Pilossoph offers some excellent tips on how to deal with a child who misses their other parent. Here are my favorite ones:

  • Don’t take it personally! It’s not about you.
  • Don’t make your child feel bad about sharing their feelings or their desire to be with the other parent.
  • Constantly reassure your kids that both parents love them and they are welcome in both homes whenever they choose.
  • Don’t take it out on your ex. Kids go through phases of being closer to one parent over the other. It’s completely natural for my 6-year-old son to want to be with his dad right now. My 8-year-old daughter is vocalizing a desire to stay with me when I tell her it’s time to head over to Dad’s house. My former husband and I work hard at honoring our kids’ requests while trying not to be pushovers if we’ve discerned a child isn’t necessarily missing a parent but wants to be in that home because that parent is more lenient about snacks, TV time, or bedtime. It happens! Kids are sneaky little buggers!

Most importantly, keep your cool. Walk away and take a few deep breaths if you feel a lump forming in your throat and you aren’t able to respond effectively. Take it from me — I’ll be regretting those words I uttered to my sweet little boy for a long time to come.

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