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Keeping Children Out of Adult Relationship Issues

Suggestions for Jenny Farley, Roger Matthews--and the Rest of Us!

Image Courtesy of Unsplash 

Jersey Shore Star, Jenny “JWoww” Farley and husband Roger Matthews filed for divorce in early September. According to an explanation a source at E! provided, they broke up because ‘They have not gotten along for a while. They argue a lot and Jenni was just tired of it. Yet, they plan to continue to make their children a priority.” Life is stressful, relationships are a challenge for us all and perhaps even more so for celebrities, given the pressures and exposure in their world.

People in relationships argue; we all know that, most of us are informed from our own experience. But as bad as it is, if making our children a priority, fighting is only a part of the story. The rest of the story is not as easily recognized and may be more devastating than chronic fighting and cold wars between parents. Sometimes parents don’t only fight in front of their children; they also pull their children into their adult fights, forcing the children to take sides or to choose one parent over the other.

When parents pull their child into the adult relationship in this type of destructive manner, they force the child to become a participant in issues that are really centered on the adults. The conflict has now expanded. It is no longer only between the two adults; it has formed a triangle with the mother, father, and child (or children) each representing one side. The child is torn between his or her loyalty to one parent or the other.

When Mom says, “I’m miserable with your father,” or Dad says, “Your mom won’t sleep with me anymore,” the child becomes an emotional depository, allowing the parents to relieve themselves of some of their discomfort without having to face the source of their problems. And sometimes the child is drawn into adult conflicts in a manner that seems innocent, as when one parent keeps secrets from the other about the child, or unilaterally undermines the other parent’s disciplinary measures.

Keeping children out of adult relationship issues is not optional, it is imperative. Here, some suggestions for protecting children from being drawn into adult relationship issues:

1. If you are having difficulty with a family member, direct your energy toward resolution with that family member. Avoid deflecting your focus to someone else within the family (particularly a child). If you are discouraged because you have tried settling things and all your efforts have been unsuccessful, talk to someone outside the immediate family who does not have a close relationship with the family member.

2. Honestly consider the patterns of interaction with your children. The power of awareness is often underestimated. Once we identify a pattern, we can change it. Merely identifying a pattern often involves a change of attitude—in order to see it, a parent has to open to the likelihood that he or she is a contributor. This admission may be difficult, but it is well worth it; attitudes and actions must change together to correct troublesome communication.

3. Do not promote or collaborate with family secrets. Secrets, whether they are subtly conveyed with a wink, or obvious and blatant, are a sure sign of a triangle. Those secrets that are agreed upon implicitly may take the form of simply not informing a spouse about something pertinent that occurred with a child. The child is aware that you are keeping information from the other parent but neither of you have explicitly agreed on the secret. In contrast, the obvious and blatant form occurs when either a child or a parent initiates the secret: “Don’t tell Dad I got suspended from school, he’ll just go ballistic and it will end up in a whole family mess.” Or, “I won’t tell your dad you were arrested for shoplifting, it would only break his heart, and then he’ll break your neck.”

4. Do not use a child (regardless of age) as a confidant. This is especially important when it comes to issues in the family. For example, trying to protect children by telling them what is wrong with the other parent may have good intentions but creates an alignment with the “good” parent and will likely alienate the “problem” parent. Telling a child your view of the problems in the marriage is definitely a poor idea. Putting children in the position of siding with your perspective of the other parent’s problems or the marital conflicts places an unfair burden on them. Children should not have to choose sides between their parents. They need to discover their own truths without your influence. That is part of family life. The only exception to this is the instance where a parent is a danger to a child who is too young to realize this.

5. Keep the lines of communication open in the family. While allying yourself with one of the children or talking to them about issues that should remain between spouses is off-limits, appropriate discussion is not. In fact, just the opposite is true. Children are very perceptive, and it would be a disservice to them to deny that anything is wrong. However, rather than casting blame on the other parent, a statement that validates the child’s perception without taking sides is warranted. For example, “It’s true, Dad and I are working out some differences and sometimes it is a little rough.” This states what is going on without casting blame. Of course, a parent may, at times, be “invited” to cast blame: “Mom, I think Dad is a real jerk for yelling at you. …” Although it is very tempting to go along with that type of statement, especially when you are feeling upset, it is not helpful to the child. An effective response puts the “invitation” back to the adults involved: “Honey, I am feeling upset with your father right now, but it is my job to work that out with him, not yours. Your job is to work out the best relationship with me and your dad that you can have.”

We’re all challenged with protecting our children from our adult relationship issues. As a stepchild twice, I can attest to that. However, celebrity relationships like that of Jenny Farley and Roger Matthews hit the media, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, in the privacy of their life, they and the rest of us, have the emotional reserve to keep our children out of our struggles.   

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