DEAR CAROLYN: It turns out I didn't shield my son from the fallout from my marriage as well as I thought. Even though he was only 6 at the time, he picked up on the fact that when his father came back into our lives, I was fearful of him and our dog hated him. My son never asked me but always wondered and worried about this. There were a lot of things both children never felt they could ask me. I wanted to protect them from the ugliness, but I guess I made them think it was all a big secret. We're talking openly now and it's helping all of us.
MOM: I'm so glad you're getting to these important truths, and it's helping.
Note: This is a follow-up to a previous column (bit.ly/NotSorry2019), not a question. I've adapted it for the power of its message and the reader responses:
— This needs to be a public service announcement to all spouses struggling to keep a marriage together for the sake of the children.
— I'm a survivor of an abusive family, and the truest truth for me has been the message in "Big Little Lies": Kids see everything. A parent who acts as if nothing happened, "to protect the kids," just exacerbates the situation. A neighbor once saw me crying in my backyard after my parents loudly fought. The neighbor asked if I was hurt; I wasn't and replied thus. That was the whole encounter, but I felt seen and cared about for the first and only time. It was comforting. No one in my family has ever discussed the constant fighting. Not one single time, even after half a century has passed.
— I'm a family therapist, and if I had a dollar for every parent's eureka moment of "It turns out I didn't shield my [child] as well as I thought," I'd be a retired family therapist. Kids might not know every detail, but they know something is wrong. Talk to them.
— It is human nature to try to find reasons for things, and kids have only their own experiences and emotional maturity to work with in the absence of better information. Kids tend to think things are about them that aren't, for instance. Or they might assume that if daddy is mad all the time, mommy must be at fault, or any number of other things. Meanwhile, they're alone with their anxiety and fear. What they come up with to explain the family dysfunction won't be as useful to them as something that bears more resemblance to reality.
— As someone whose mother told her almost everything about the problems with her father, I say be cautious about what you reveal and make sure the kids know it is not their problem to solve. My mother took it way too far and I am still struggling with the consequences.
— "Kids are keen observers but poor interpreters." I can't remember where I read that — PEP [Parent Encouragement Program] materials, maybe? — but it has stuck with me. They see more than we think they do, but they can't interpret it unless we help them.
CH: It's attributed to psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs. But yes to the PEP, pepparent.org as a resource, especially if family therapy is inaccessible or cost-prohibitive.