Shut your mouth! But, for real. Zip it.
Even in the most amicable situations, divorce is tough. Emotions can run high and your whole world might feel upended. If your divorce wasn’t so friendly, you might also find yourself harboring some very angry and resentful feelings toward your ex.
Whether or not these feelings are justified, if you’re like most of us who have gone through a divorce, the temptation to try to get the kids on “your side” can be intense. But regardless of the drama that has gone on between you and your ex, it is crucial that you do NOT attempt to get your kids to pick sides.
This is such an important topic and one that I will probably bring up frequently in blogs and on our Everything Always Podcast.
Also known as denigration, this is such a serious issue that some family courts and support services have called it a form of child abuse.
Clearly, it’s not a matter that the courts take lightly. What’s sad is that it is so common. The fact is, while the parents are trying to hurt each other, it’s really the kids that are getting hurt the most.
As parents, I don’t think any of us want to do anything to our child that is going to make them feel unloved, insecure, or neglected. Yet that this exactly what happens when we start badmouthing the ex in front of the children.
Here’s what it can look like. One parent gets fired up because the other parent didn’t do something the way they wanted:
You didn’t pack lunch the right way!
You were late to the basketball game!
You have a nicer car than me!
How dare you introduce my kids to her!
You’re a terrible dad!
Your dad makes a lot of money but he wants to keep it to himself. He won’t give me more money because you aren’t important to him.
Your mom likes to spend all her money on clothes and looking good and doesn’t want to pay for your camp.
Obviously, he cares more about his new wife than he cares about you.
Your mom is just mean and OCD and that’s why she makes you do dishes.
It might make you feel good in the moment to get that stab in, but it’s at the expense of making your children feel as if their other parent doesn’t care about them.
Parental alienation can also ensue when one parent gets upset and takes measures to prevent the other parent from speaking to the kids. This looks like blocking parents contact information on the child’s phone or purposely not allowing the child to speak to the other parent.
Creating a fabrication of stories designed to make you look like a superhero while painting your ex—but more importantly, your children’s other parent—as the villain is not setting a good example.
Unfortunately, I see this happen a lot, and it makes me want to scream because it’s so obvious how detrimental this is for the kids. What you’ve got to remember is, no matter what happened to end your marriage or what you currently disagree on, is between you and your ex. That turmoil is of no concern to your children and you shouldn’t burden them with it. This includes indirect communication, too. Do your kids conveniently happen to overhear you on the phone with a friend, bashing your ex? Are the kids in the next room—or maybe even the same room—while you dish to a friend about the latest awful thing you think your ex has done?
I was lucky enough to have an amazing therapist and mentors after I got divorced and one thing they enforced over and over again was to not speak negatively about the other parent. My children’s father and I made a promise that we would never do this and we never have. If he has a point of view that is different than mine, I will honor it. If the kids don’t like how he disciplines, I’ll tell them straight up, “We might do things differently and each of us are doing what we believe is best and out of love. When you become an adult, you can decide what that is for you.”
You are bound to show love differently. One might be on time more than the other. One might show up to performances and games more than the other. One volunteers; one doesn’t. One thinks making your bed daily is important, the other doesn’t find it necessary. One might have a messy home and the other completely tidy. One might have a curfew at their house and the other none. One makes kale and chicken for dinner, the other has Pizza Hut on speed dial.
Parents will do things differently and believe their way is the right way for them. It does not matter! It’s wonderful if you can be on the same page. Chances are you are different enough that you’re not.
Regardless, please hear this: None of these differences are just cause to put down the other parent. Not to the children and really not even to each other. I witnessed a daughter borrow her father’s phone to text her mom from his phone and she saw some harsh messages that the mother sent to the father. The daughter’s demeanor completely changed and her eyes filled with tears. She was crushed. She couldn’t imagine her mother that was so loving to her was being so mean to her father. She felt awful knowing that her dad—whom she adored—was being talked to that way.
Try to put yourself in your kids’ shoes for a minute—your children, who love both you and your ex, who consider both of you to be parents. Though my own parents never got divorced, I remember how much I hated if they argued, and how it would often make me feel bad if I overheard one of them say something negative about the other.
Children are easily influenced, particularly by the important adults in their lives. Negative talk about the other parent might win your child’s allegiance now, but don’t be surprised if, when they’re grown, your child looks back and feels robbed of a relationship with their other parent. I have seen the extreme difference in mental health and well-being of kids, later turned adults, who were raised with parents that exercised the emotional intelligence to deal with that stuff separately and withheld those emotions from the kids and those that struggled with needing to involve their kids.
Here’s what else I’ve realized: Parents aren’t perfect. One father might work so much he barely gets time with his kids during his time. One mother might introduce her kids to a new boyfriend every other month. Another might always be late to everything and can’t seem to keep up with schedules. It can be oh-so-tempting to get a little dig in:
Your mom’s working all the time and never home because she doesn’t love you as much as I do.
If your dad really cared about you, he wouldn’t miss your basketball game.
Let’s say your ex isn’t supportive of your child doing a certain sport and won’t pay for it. Let your child form his or her own opinion on that. If one parent does work a lot and can’t make it to everything, let your child express their feelings about it. You don’t need to add Well, he just doesn’t care about you as much as I do. Can you imagine how that would make you feel?
Or maybe you really disagree with your ex having so many relationships since you got divorced. Let the kids tell him or her how they feel about it. You don’t need to spell out your opinion because your opinion doesn’t matter here—it’s none of your business and you can’t control it.
Look, people get pissed! Whatever it is, it feels real and those feelings are not wrong on either side. But—BIG BUT—you’ve got to remember that it is not fair to put that stress on children. Don’t they have enough going?
Here’s my advice based on what I have seen from others, learned from the experts, and have experienced.
If you are being talked about in a negative way to your children, accept that it will feel frustrating to hear things being repeated back to you that frame you as the bad guy. You actually have zero control over it and thinking that you do is a waste of time and energy. Doesn’t sound very fair, does it? It’s not, but the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can channel that time and energy into things you CAN control, like when it’s your time with your child. You cannot change anyone else—you can only change how you react.
Let’s see how that might work in a real situation. You find out your ex is saying this to your child: “Your dad just bought a new car instead of giving me more money because you aren’t important to him.”
First, take a minute to imagine how crushing that is for a child to hear. I’m not important?
Your initial reaction might be something along the lines of: “That’s a lie! She’s just saying that because she’s unhappy with her own life and jealous of mine!” Equally crushing and totally immature.
A more constructive and empathetic reaction: “That probably feels really confusing, right? Would you like to hear what I give to your mom to help her take care of you when you’re not with me and how we arrived at that number?”
Another example: “Dad says you like to spend all your money on your clothes and looking good and that’s why you can’t afford to pay for my camp.”
Your knee-jerk reaction: “Well, that’s interesting, because your dad’s house is way nicer than mine and he drives a better car than me, so obviously he can afford to pay for all of it!”
A better way to respond: “Well what’s your opinion on that?” Open up the conversation so that your children can feel heard and have an opinion on the matter instead of being told what they should think.
Your most important job as a parent is to make sure your kids feels safe. Nothing throws this into disarray more than hearing Mom and Dad trash talking each other. This next piece of advice is a favorite of mine: Instead of reacting, respond creatively. Reacting quickly will most likely come from ego and the desire to defend yourself. To be clear, I’m not saying you should not feel upset if you learn your ex is saying bad things about you or if you are unhappy about the way your ex has handled something—but you should make every effort to temper your reaction so you are coming from a place of love and support for your child rather than wanting to manipulate their feelings. Responding with no judgment allows your child to feel safe and secure with their feelings, while at the same time, forming their own opinions. It’s also being a great role model in terms of how they handle similar situations in their life.
It’s not always easy, I know. But it’s doing what’s best for your kids, which truly is the most important.
We’ll be talking about this on the podcast in a little more depth, so if this is a sensitive subject to you, you’ll want to listen in.