When one coParent badmouths the other to their child, one may overreact with extreme behavior.
Many of my clients who were the rejected parent have said the following at some point: “I might as well give up. This is parental alienation. Maybe I should just stop trying to see my child. Or maybe I should move across country.” These are extreme behaviors in response to extreme behaviors by the other parent or child. I talk them out of that approach by explaining that it teaches the child the wrong message – it’s a tempting solution, but it’s an “all-or-nothing” solution.
While I can certainly understand the feelings underneath those ideas, I instead encourage the parent to act confidently and moderately for the child’s benefit. The message to convey is that it is not reasonable for a child to reject a parent and that this parent will make appropriate efforts to maintain contact – for the child’s benefit, painful as it is for the parent to keep feeling rejected.
In short, children learn more from what we do than what we say. They will mirror the behavior of everyone around them in their brains. But teaching them skills for managing their own behavior will help them build resilience for the rest of their lives. The way they see their parents resolve their separation and divorce will lay the groundwork for how they manage conflicts in their own marriages, jobs and communities.
Children need to learn that they can respond moderately to the most absurd behaviors of others. It’s not today’s decisions that matter most to children. It’s the skills they learn for a lifetime about the behaviors that their parents used in making these decisions.