Teaching Kids to Be in Relationships

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Research indicates children who grow up with separated or divorced parents are more likely to have broken relationships themselves as adults. In fact, if one person in a marriage experienced divorce as a child, then a couple is twice as likely to divorce, according to a study by Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. If both people in a marriage experienced divorce, they are three times more likely to experience divorce.

Yet, the cycle of divorce can be broken, if parents are mindful not to model and teach kids poor relationship skills. Here are a few things separated and divorced parents can avoid in order to help nurture healthy relationship skills in their children.

1. DON’T unconsciously encourage kids to lie. Lying blows up a relationship more than anything, yet separated and divorced parents often put their kids in situations that give them no choice but to lie to survive. For instance, if divorced parents use their children to send messages back and forth because they don’t want to talk to one another, invariably, children learn to lie to avoid negative reactions to the message. If Dad says, “Tell your mom the child support check is going to be a week late,” it won’t take long before children learn their dad’s messages to mom are not well received. Children learn to say what the receiving parent wants to hear, which is a lie or nothing at all. Also, kids often lie when parents probe them for information about the other parent or other home. Such coping mechanisms work for them as children, but will hurt them greatly in their adult relationships.

Instead, teach kids it is never their job to broker the relationship between their parents or to manage the reactions of anyone they are in relationship with. It is their job only to be respectful and truthful about their feelings, so the reaction to their honesty is owned by the other person. Attempts to control others’ reactions by being deceitful or manipulative compromises their integrity and, consequently, gets them in trouble in relationships.

2. DON’T expect kids to be the parents. Too often in divorced situations, the children are forced to act like the adults, because the adults are the ones acting like the kids! This goes to the extreme when some parents actually expect their kids to be adults and put them in a position in which they are responsible for their parents’ feelings of well-being. For example, if a parent is constantly seeking nurturing or approval from a child (which is backward), the child learns to be the adult in the parent/child relationship.

The problem is that children may either choose a parental figure as a spouse later on (because they missed out on that in childhood), or they will think they must be a parent in order to have a successful relationship in the future. Neither works well in romantic situations. An additional hazard is that if children go into adulthood still thinking their parents’ emotional welfare is their concern, having a healthy romantic relationship will be difficult as it will be hard to position a new spouse as the first emotional priority.

3. DON’T shut down a child’s feeling mechanism. When divorced parents feel bad for their children’s experiences with the other parent or the divorce situation itself, they have a tendency to want to fix things or make it all better for them. When children have negative feelings, it’s best to let them know the feelings are normal, and not try to smooth it over. Saying, “I’m sorry your mom disappointed you. I would feel that way, too, if I were you,” goes a long way to let them know they are allowed to feel whatever they feel.

Children need to learn to trust their negative feelings, as well as the positive ones. If they are not acknowledged for their negative feelings, they won’t know what to do with them when a romantic partner begins to hurt or disappoint them. If they have been told to ignore negative and only think about positive, they will miss important cues that would otherwise warn them against a potential dysfunctional relationship.

Finally, remember that kids learn how to “do” relationship not only from their parents’ example, but also by what is punished and rewarded by their parents. Be careful not to reward dysfunctional behaviors without even knowing you are doing so, and help children learn healthy relationship skills that will carry them into adulthood.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a licensed marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator and parent educator in Atlanta. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families” (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter. Visit www.dianeshearer.com.