Dear Marsha: Children Receiving Mixed Messages

In our Dear Marsha blog series, Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett answers questions submitted by parents like you on all matters related to shared parenting. 


A mother and her daughter have a talk while lying next to each other on a bed with white sheets.

How can I protect my kids from the inappropriate things my emotionally-abusive co-parent tells them during their time together? I have chosen to take the high road for my kids and never speak poorly of him to my kids, but I also don’t lie to them about why we no longer together. Will it hurt them long term to hear such different messages from their parents?

It is a good strategy to take the high road and to protect the children from exposure to conflict by limiting the number of negative messages about one or both of their parents. Hearing negative messages about a parent can be confusing and hurtful for children. By protecting children against the negative messages, you will be able to buffer them against negative consequences of conflict and divorce later in life. 

You can talk to your children, for example, about how people may say mean things when they are angry and hurting, and how important it is for them not to engage in such behaviors. This type of messaging teaches them why a parent may be saying negative things and the importance of not acting out in negative ways when they are angry, sad, confused, or lonely.

Long term, they will figure out that they feel less angry themselves when they are not exposed to such negativity. Recent research even suggests that over time, there is a boomerang effect such that children report feeling less close to the parent who is doing the put-downs.  



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Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett

About Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett

Marsha Kline Pruett is the Maconda Brown O’Connor Professor at Smith College School for Social Work. She has a Ph.D. in Clinical/Community Psychology, and masters’ degrees in psychological services in education and in legal studies, and she is a Board Diplomate in Couples and Family Psychology.

She has 30 years of practice experience, specializing in couples counseling and co-parenting consultation as well as intervention design and evaluation. She has published extensively for professional and lay audiences, including two books (Your Divorce Advisor and Partnership Parenting). Her research and writings center on couple relationships before and after divorce; coparenting; father involvement; and family conflict.

She is involved in consulting and research projects spanning supporting father involvement interventions; the evaluation of online parenting programs; and model alternative dispute resolution programs that help families resolve disputes outside of the adversarial system.

Dr. Kline Pruett consults on national boards and Task Forces and provides training nationally and abroad to mental health and legal professionals. She is Past President for the Association of Family and Conciliation Court Professionals (AFCC) and Social Science Editor for Family Court Review.