Separation or divorce is hard on parents. It’s a stressful time filled with anger, frustration and likely some resentment for your ex-partner. You’re separating for a reason after all. Your ex may have done something terrible to you like cheated on you, or gambled away all your money, and you’re rightfully pissed.
But before you go spouting off a bunch of nasty comments in front of your child, stop to think about what damage you may cause.
When you speak negatively about your ex, it could cause your child some very real psychological damage. According to Dr. Adaobi Anjeji, PhD, of The Blue Clinic, in Los Angeles, children handle negative comments in many different ways. Children may take sides, or express hostility towards the other parent, in an effort to care for the parent expressing the negativity (often perceived as the “wounded parent”). Children might also become angry with the parent speaking negatively, and “act out.”
In the worst case scenario, children may internalize what is being said because they love and identify with the parent being denigrated. In other words, when a dad says “Your mother is a money-grubbing so-and-so,” or a mom says “Your dad is a no-good so-and-so,” what the child hears and internalizes is that half of who they are is money-grubbing or no-good. The effects can be long term and significant—contributing to depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems.
Few parents set out to intentionally hurt their child. According to Anne P. Mitchell, attorney and author of They’re Your Kids Too, there are three things that primarily lead a parent to speak negatively of the other parent to their kids. One is the desire to get the kid on their side, the second is to turn the kid against the other parent, and the third, which underlies the first two, is anger or rage at the other parent.
Mitchell stresses the importance of dealing with the hurt, anger and fallout from the divorce or disuniting of the family, as these feelings are very important to properly process. But, she recommends speaking with a sympathetic friend or a counsellor, and keeping all of it out of earshot of the kids.
Speaking negatively about a former spouse in front of the children can destroy their own sense of self and worth. It puts them right in the middle, and it often, even subtly, can force them to feel as if they have to choose between parents.
The Other Side
Dr. John Mayer offers another facet to this complex issue. While many experts stress always speaking kindly about your ex, what about the equally damaging habit of talking positively about an abuser or criminal? Mayer observes that children do know when a parent really is unfit, so when you talk positively about them you are being dishonest. Lying about something so blatantly obvious can cause your children to distrust you, as well as their own instincts. Mayer advises being honest with kids in this situation, as kids are great lie detectors, and will likely see through any sugar-coating.
The Grey Area
Then there’s that grey area where the other parent isn’t abusive, but you may not agree with his or her parenting style. Perhaps they are harsher disciplinarians than you are. Perhaps they lose their temper more often than you do. Perhaps your kids even come home complaining about mom or dad’s temper. Monique Prince, Clinical Social Worker and Parenting Coach at www.tameyourwildchild.net, suggests that kids aren’t always the most reliable narrators, so, unless you see it firsthand, you shouldn’t get involved. Instead, you might say, “I’m sorry that Mom/Dad yelled at you that way, you don’t deserve that” Or, “I see you think that it’s unfair. I feel bad that it’s this way.” “Maybe Mom/Dad was having a bad day and didn’t realize they were hurting your feelings or scaring you. I know she/he loves you very much.” Additionally, encourage your children to advocate for themselves, by helping them find words to communicate their feelings to the other parent on their own. This will bolster their self-esteem, and provide them with one of the most useful tools needed in life.
Children need to know that it’s okay to still love and have a relationship with the other parent. They need to be encouraged, not discouraged, to love and communicate with both parents, and should never be forced to choose one relationship over the other. They need to know that one parent will not feel hurt or betrayed if they also love and have a relationship with the other parent.
Whatever your feelings about your ex, try to keep a clear head and an objective viewpoint when discussing him or her with your children. Allow them to have the relationship they need to have with their other parent, unless it is truly dangerous for them. In the long run, your children will thank you, and you will feel much better about yourself.