But I Don’t Badmouth Their Dad: The Importance of Positive Internalization

“I know my mom loves me and I know my dad loves me,” Rodrigo shared with me during a recent session. Rodrigo’s parents have gone out of their way to make sure the kids felt loved, valued, and not at fault for the recent divorce. “How awesome that you’re so popular!” I teased. Rodrigo gave me a big grin and went back to showing me his lego collection. “Rodrigo, is there anything that’s worrying you?” I asked. He’d been struggling with anxiety, but we couldn’t figure out why. “My nose looks like my dad’s; it’s big and ugly.” “Oh no!” I exclaimed. “Where did you get that idea from?” (I phrased it this way on purpose. Children rarely inherently dislike parts of themselves; it usually comes from some external experience.) “Well, ever since I was little, I’ve always had a nose like my dad. My mom used to say I was dad’s twin.” “Ok…” I used what’s called a ‘verbal encourager,’ and waited to see what else Rodrigo would share. “Mom’s always talking about not having enough money, and I know it’s because dad left. She’s always unhappy and stressed out.” “That sounds hard and scary for sure Rodrigo,” I reflected. “But I’m confused what this has to do with your nose?” (I may think I know the answer, but it’s important for him to say out loud the anxious thoughts he’s been thinking in his head.) He looks right into the Zoom screen and with tears in his eyes says, “Because I look like him, I reminder her of him all the time. I make her life harder. I wish I didn’t look like him at all.”

Tonya was planning her wedding and, due to COVID-19, could only invite a few of her family members and closest friends. We were discussing the guest list and working on her communication skills, as she would soon need to explain to people why they were or were not invited. “I don’t know what to do with my parents,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. I knew her parents were divorced, but I thought they worked well as co-parents throughout Tonya’s childhood, even participating in joint birthday celebrations when the kids were little. “Well, my mother’s husband goes out of his way to make sure we all know he’s not a ‘step-father.’ He avoids family gatherings, got offended when we used to give him Christmas gifts, and rarely communicates with us. According to him, he’s ‘just being honest.'” “Did your mom marry him later in life when y’all were grown?” I wondered out loud. (Tonya is comfortable enough in herself to accept or reject my idea. For clients who struggle with people-pleasing, I’m very cautious about suggesting anything until the client is certain on their own.) “Oh no. We were teens when mom got married. I guess we just weren’t part of the deal. I don’t know why he doesn’t like us. We seem like nice kids to me.” In that moment, Tonya looked like a sad, confused little girl.

Children, even adult children, internalize how parents and step-parents treat them and the other parents involved. This internalization can be negative, as in these two examples, or positive. If children of all ages are going to internalize how their parents and step-parents act let’s go above and beyond to create healthy, positive examples for them to emulate!