During our online coaching session last night, Kate shared how angry she was at her ex. That morning at the breakfast table. Her daughter blurted out “Dad said you took all his Money and that is why he cannot take us on holiday anymore like he promised”. She wanted to say “Took all is money? We barely got enough to cover our basic needs. If your Dad is concerned about money then why is he spending it on a new car and on that dreadful woman”. Instead she vented about her ex in our private sessions, where we could discuss ways to de-stress and respond. Clearly that would be the wrong response for children, but what is the right response? Read suggestions at the end.
Omar had a similar situation, he found out that his former in- laws, his children’s grandparents, were bad-mouthing him. His son said to him “Grandma and Granddad said you deserted your family values and that you are a bad person”; “Mum and them also said you are killing yourself and others by smoking and smoking is evil.” Omar was more hurt than angry. He tried his best for years to make the marriage work, but it wasn’t meant to be, they just weren’t compatible. They knew he smoked before he got married and whilst he isn’t proud of it, he thought no child should hear about death. This ruined his mood for the week, as he simply couldn’t stop running it through his mind. Talking it out with me gave him the opportunity to get it off his chest and decide on his response to his ex and children. If this is happening to you right now, I encourage you to talk it through with a trusted friend, family member or coach. Below I address the 3 most frequently asked questions that come up in relation to this topic: Do I defend myself? Do I Confront My Ex? And, what do I say to my children? I hope these are helpful to you.
In high-conflict parenting relationships, you may find that you are the butt of jokes, or gossip by your ex, their partner or family. The hardest thing is not to react, when deep down you want to stand your ground, let them know that what they are saying is out of order, and more importantly hurting and confusing for the children. But if you do let it consume you, or spiral out of control into a shouting match, you will get drawn back into that abusive cycle from which you have rightly tried so hard to escape.
So what DO you say?
A good way to answer these hurtful comments is to acknowledge them, then address it without being defensive or attacking. Here are some examples I created with people on my stress-free co-parenting 6 month programs.
General lies or gossip:
“I am so sorry you had to hear that about your mother / father, it’s not true. I imagine that must have been difficult, uncomfortable and sad for you to hear bad things about me. Gossip and bad mouthing people is not a nice thing to do, so in this house we don’t say bad things about other people or talk about them when they are not here. When people at school or at other places talk badly about other people you just have to ignore it. If it is about me, you don’t have to defend me or stand up for me, as I can stand up for myself. So just let it go in one ear and out the other”
Adult Issues (money, affairs etc):
“I wish your dad / mum wouldn’t talk about adult issues with you in such a blaming and confusing way. It’s true that neither of us has as much money as we did before the divorce. For a while we won’t have as many extra treats, like holidays abroad, but we have all the things we need for you, your school and other things”
Habits or differences of opinion (smoking, eating, shopping etc):
“That must’ve been upsetting to hear. I don’t know why they said that. She and I see things differently. But I absolutely love you, and though your Mum / Dad and I are not together anymore – I will always be here for you.” This is what I suggested to Omar to say and he said it worked really well, his son gave him a big hug, then ran off to play in the park.
Do you defend yourself?
Even if you have sole custody of your children, you can’t fully protect them from what they or may not hear from your ex or their family. But should you defend yourself your Children?
It differs depending on the circumstances but generally I would say best not to. Don’t make this about you, your feelings or your ex. Best to end the conversation by acknowledging how children feel and making them have just enough of an answer to satisfy them, so they can go off and play. See examples below. The reason I say best not to, is because by doing so you are drawing in your children deeper. They may feel that they have to report back or defend you and share your comments back with your ex. Children should be playing, having fun or doing their homework instead of getting involved in parent disputes. Ideally as much as possible, children need to be shown their parents are a united front when it comes to parenting after divorce. Agreed parenting plans can be a great way to ensure that.
Do you confront your ex?
Only you can decide this, but I would really assess it on how well you get along with your ex and if they are genuinely unintentionally letting things slip or are maliciously saying things against you. Honestly, I believe in most situations it is best not to rise to the bait or confront them. If they are saying spiteful or derogatory things deliberately about you, the chances are they are trying to provoke a reaction and are clearly still bitter towards you. Perhaps your Ex wants the drama – wants the fight. Therefore showing them that they are getting to you, may be like adding fuel to their fire and it is likely that they will continue. This would be the worst possible scenario for your children, as children need to be protected from hearing bad things about their parents. Children need to know that both parents love them and are there for them.
When my parents divorced I was told that my dad didn’t love me and us children because he didn’t give enough money. I grew up with the belief that if a man spent money on you, it means they love you, and if they don’t then it means they don’t love you. This had a negative impact on my relationships in my early twenties, until a coach showed me that I was carrying this false belief. Once I realized where it came from, I could challenge and change it. This is why I find coaching so useful and still have a coach myself. Having someone that stands for you and is your thought partner throughout challenges you may face is extremely beneficial, so whether it is a coach, friend, partner or family member, do get some support.
The good news is children of divorce only need to have one parent provide a safe and supportive environment for them to flourish. One where they don’t have to get involved in arguments, conflict or take sides – according to US studies. You cannot control your ex or anyone else for that matter. But you providing this environment can make all the difference for your children and is something totally within your power. The best you can do is make your household a safe, fun, nurturing and loving place to grow. Stop the badmouthing before it has the chance to infect your home and your children will love you for it. They will love your home because they are not made to feel awkward or in the middle, instead they live in a positive happy environment.
And finally, if lies are being spread regularly about you, just trust that your children love you and will see the truth. Defending is often not necessary, because as children get older they can see the truth and can see through lies. I have seen this many times, including through my own personal experience.