It’s Super Subtle, But Psychologists Really Want Divorced Parents to Stop Saying *This* to Their Children

Illustration of cartoon characters depicting parents arguing with child between them.
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Your ex might be a dream co-parent, maybe even better than when you were together. Or maybe you’re not on speaking terms, communicating only through legal counsel. Or, maybe, the two of you are somewhere in between. Wherever you land on the divorced-parents-relationship spectrum, one slight turn of phrase could have big repercussions for your kids—and your future parenting—and that, according to clinical psychologist and family therapist Dr. Lauren Cook, is referring to your co-parent as “your mom” or “your dad.”

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Lauren Cook is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and her Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy. Dr. Lauren appears frequently in the media to provide commentary while also working with adults, couples, families and teens.

Why is “your mom” or “your dad” so bad? It’s accurate, isn’t it?

When you were together and referring to your partner to your kids, you probably called them “Mom” or “Dad.” But the addition of the word "your" immediately creates an otherness in the family. Says Dr. Cook: “The child is now hearing a separateness in who they're connecting with. While it is true that the divorce does in fact create changes in the family dynamic, honoring how the child sees the parent can help keep a sense of cohesion.”

Again, it’s one word. But divorce is complicated, and Dr. Cook explains that your child may pick up if there's a sense of hostility or cutting-off from another parent. Ultimately, she shares, that by maintaining how your child refers to each parent, you're showing that you honor how they see each relationship with each of you. Even though you may no longer live together or be married, it's still healthy for your kiddo to see that you can work effectively and be a team-player with your ex.

What should you say instead?

Simply try to nix the “your.” We know, it might feel like a blow, but swallow your pride (and anything else that is rightfully pissing you off about your ex).

But what if your co-parent still uses “your mom” or “your dad”?

From Dr. Cook’s experience, your best bet is to talk with them about how you can be a united front. “Typically, most parents want to do what is going to be most supportive for the children, so if you can frame how being intentional with how you refer to one another is ultimately going to be in the best interest of the child, your co-parent can usually get on board.” And if they can’t, you can still be deliberate in how you want to parent.

What about grandparents, extended family or other caregivers? How do you get them on board?

“People can cooperate better with your wishes if they understand the ‘why’ behind the request,” says Dr. Cook. Try to explain that by still referring to parents as "mom" or "dad" the kids’ larger support system is acknowledging that there can still be respect for all parties involved, instead of splitting off further. Of course, if there's pushback, again, go back to your shared goal of wanting to help the child adjust as effectively as possible.

Is there a benefit to the co-parents involved?

Actually…yes. This isn’t just about the kids. It’s about the family unit. “The more you antagonize and ‘other’ your spouse, the harder it will be for you to co-parent and support your child in having a relationship with your ex-partner (so long as it is safe for your child to do so),” shares Dr. Cook. Ultimately, even if you literally never want to see your ex again, this tiny syntantical alteration could impact your mindset and maybe even bring about more future peace (and we know you deserve that).

What if you've already been saying “your”? Can you backpedal?

It depends, says Dr. Cook. “If your child is at an age where they can make their own decision, broach it with them.” For example, you could ask them how they'd like you to refer to your co-parent. This gives them some empowerment in a situation that may feel powerless to them. “If your child is too young to notice the difference, feel free to take back out the ‘your’ and move right along with going straight to ‘mom’ or ‘dad.’” And if your kiddo picks up on the change and wants to know if this means you're getting back together, Dr. Cook advises that you explain that truth: you're looking to be as supportive as possible and realized you'd like to refer to the other co-parent as your child does.

Been Through It/Going Through It: Divorce


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