My current guest, Molly works hard at seeing the good in her ex even when her first reaction is to be mad with him. That helps her keep and further develop their peaceful co-parenting relationship. Another way she practices this, is to look at her ex through the eyes of her kids, seeing him the way they see him. Here’s Molly:
I think there’s nothing worse than when you bad-mouth your ex to your kids. That was one of the first pieces of advice that I got when we were breaking up. I didn’t really even know anyone who was divorced and I called an old friend of mine in California and she gave me some great advice. One was,
“Don’t make yourself a victim.”
“Make your kids feel like their dad is the best dad in the world.”
The third was,
“Continue to make your kids feel like they’ve got a family, that the family hasn’t ‘broken.’”
Every so often I’ll find myself getting frustrated and the kids will pick up on it. They’ll call me out on it and we’ll talk about it.
I look for opportunities to praise him as opposed to bad-mouthing him to the kids, and the kids have a really great relationship with him. Seeing him through the kids’ eyes, too, helps me because they love him so much and have such a great time with him, so we help each other.
They help remind me to see him in a positive light and then I also try to reinforce that as much as possible. The last thing we want is for there to be a sense of rupture and them having to take sides and feeling torn between their parents.
When we first broke up, I was so scared of what divorce was going to do to my family? Was I ruining my family somehow? That was one of the reasons why I clung so hard to keeping the marriage together. I’ve been very pleased to find ways to preserve our family unity, not just in spite of the split, but almost because of the split, because he and I are able to get along so much better now that we’re not living together. I believe we have a better family dynamic now than we did before when we were all living together.
Every so often the children will question why we’re divorced but two things. One is he has a girlfriend that has just recently moved in with him. Even though it just got serious not that long ago, they’ve been seeing each other for a couple years and I think her presence always made it feel like he’s got someone else. The other is we still have moments of angry reactivity towards each other and when those moments happen I say,
“This is why we can’t live together. I know you probably don’t remember the fights we had, but this is the kind of fights that we used to have.”
The Divorce Coach Says
Children know they are part mom, part dad. It’s intrinsic to who they are. So when they hear criticism of one of their parents, they take it to heart, they hear that criticism as criticism against them and it puts them on the defensive. Molly is right – if your children think their dad is the best in the world, do nothing to burst that bubble. Even if he’s not, the kids will realize that for themselves in their own time without your help and he will always be their father.
I also think that when you bad-mouth your ex to your kids, they develop a sense that if they say something positive about that parent, it might upset you and then they feel like they’re taking sides or they have to be quiet.
So how do you put this into practice? For starters, your children do not need to know the details behind your divorce. Vivianne left an abusive marriage after 48 hours of terror. Afterward she shielded her children from the reality. Debbie discovered her husband was a pedophile. How do you tell your young son his dad is a sex offender? And April has struggled with how much to tell her children about her sometimes present, mostly absence ex who struggles with drug addiction and has served time for drug-related offenses.
It’s a bit like telling your children about sex – it comes down to what is age-appropriate. It also comes down to being honest. The experts tell us not to lie about sex-related questions from our children and the same applies here. You can keep your answers simple and honest without being judgmental. You can also empathize with your child when he is upset with something your ex has done. That means saying you’re sorry your child is upset, that you can understand why he would be upset. It doesn’t mean telling your child you’re not surprised because your ex always did that to you.
Remember, not all questions have to be answered immediately. If your child puts you on the spot and you don’t know how to answer the question without being negative, then buy yourself some time and enlist the help of a trusted friend to role-play with you.
Photo credit: MyEyeSees