My last post about slamming the ex generated some juicy discussions and those prompted me to write a follow up. It seems several people try very hard to watch their words, speak positively in their children’s presence and convey confidence in their ex-partner, only to have him or her do just the opposite. The questions were posed: Aren’t their limits to non-disparagement? Don’t both sides have to play by the same rules? What do you do if you’re doing your best, only to have your ex spew vitriol? What happens when the kids return from their other parent’s home and start calling you out on bad behaviors you may or may not actually exhibit? Isn’t it time to step in and fight fire with fire?
Tough call. You’ve probably already attempted the obvious first step: addressing the issue directly with the ex and explaining the importance of fire-walling the children from your fighting. Sadly, this approach has limits. If we were able to change our ex-partner’s behavior simply by talking, we’d probably still be with that person. So our next step is often to encourage outsiders- therapists, family members, mediators, friends- to reinforce that message. And still the problem continues.
Once again, we want to take our conflict to the judge. We want someone to put a restraining order on our former partner’s mouth, (and ideally give us some sort of punitive damages for the hardship.) If nothing else, we want to level the playing field. If that person is fighting with brass knuckles, we’re tempted to pull out our own. Surely, we have a long laundry list of complaints about the ex we’d be happy to share.
Instead, I’ll remind you of the lesson I emphasized in the last post: our children are smarter than we think. They may be confused and frightened by the transition of the separation, but ultimately, they figure out who they can trust and believe in based on our behaviors. If we stoop to the name-calling level, they find themselves torn between two childish parents. If we handle the situation with dignity, honesty and compassion, they learn to trust us.
The first step is to encourage them to talk. Tempting as it is to shut our children down when they bring up unpleasant things about us, it’s imperative that they feel assured of our love and openness when they’re confused. This doesn’t mean that you should allow them to disrespect you or call you names. But allowing them to fact check the stories they’re hearing fosters their trust in you. This is also an opportunity to explain that there is always more than one side to any conflict- a valuable life lesson.
Sometimes kids side with one parent because s/he seems more vulnerable and less able to handle the break-up. In those cases, respectfully explain that even adults sometimes go through hard times. Mom or Dad will come through it. They don’t need to be the one to solve the problem. It’s the parent’s job to take care of the children, not the other way around.
The good news is that this phase rarely lasts long. Generally, it shifts quickly when only one parent plays dirty. And I’ve yet to see a case in which the children were unable to reason it out and resume appropriate respect for their parents. But how we handle these situations is critical. Our children are watching us carefully and our actions speak much louder than our ex’s words.