Unfortunately, it happens all too often that children are exposed to things that are not healthy for them, and hearing negative comments about one parent from another parent is one of those times. Bad-mouthing can include name-calling, telling lies, blaming, and criticizing and they are all equally painful and unhealthy. How do you clear your name with your child without putting them even more in the middle of an adult situation?
Below I talk about the dos and don’ts of four common ways your ex can bad-mouth you in front of your kids and how to respond, but first, I want to mention some guidelines to keep in mind.
• Do not bad-mouth your ex in front of the kids, including name calling, blaming, telling lies, or telling "truths" when it is just to hurt your ex. This can be hard, but will only lead your child to feel defensive and placed in the middle of an adult situation.
• If you are feeling too angry to respond appropriately, there is nothing wrong with taking time out to cool off, away from the kids. Walk into another room, pace the room, and take some deep breaths before resuming your conversation with your kids.
• Empathize with your child's feelings. They are likely to feel hurt, angry, in the middle, and confused by hearing negative things about one of their parents. Let them know you want to understand how they are feeling and avoid turning the conversation into how you are feeling.
• Encourage your child to talk with the other parent about their feelings. If that is not appropriate, healthy, or useful, encourage them to talk with another trusted adult who may be able to intervene, such as a therapist or ad litem.
• Take comfort in knowing that your kids will eventually figure things out. They catch on to patterns of behavior very well, and over time they usually make an accurate judgment of a situation.
Bad-mouth scenario #1: The Ex calls you names around your kids.
Don't: Repeat the bad names or come up with your own counter punch.
Do: Tell the kids you are sorry they had to hear those terrible names being said about you. Empathize with how they must feel when that happens, and suggest they tell the other parent how they feel. If your child does not want to talk to the other parent, you can tell your ex yourself. Be careful with doing this though because they are likely going to be defensive. Unfortunately, sometimes the children are left in these difficult circumstances. If they have another adult who can help, such as an ad litem or therapist, encourage them to seek help in handling the situation.
Example: "Little Johnny, I am sorry you had to hear your mom say those terrible things about me. You must have felt very hurt and uncomfortable when that happened. I bet your mom would want to know how you feel when she says those things. Do you think you might want to talk with her about that?"
Bad-mouth scenario #2: The Ex isn't truthful about your attempts to be involved in their lives, including financial assistance and spending time with them.
Don't: Bad mouth your ex and call them a liar in front of the kids, or exhibit extreme anger (which you are likely to be feeling at the moment), such as yelling, getting on the phone to the ex, or any other behavior done out of solely anger.
Do: Take some time to calm down if needed. Tell your kids you are sorry they did not know you were making attempts to be a part of their lives. Empathize with how they may have been feeling. Encourage communication regularly and reassure them of your commitment in their lives.
Example: "Mary, I am so sorry you did not know I wanted to take you to the zoo this weekend, but I had the flu. You must have felt so angry and disappointed with me when your dad said I didn't even call. Anytime something like that happens in the future, please come talk to me and I promise to be truthful. I want you to know that you are the most important thing in my life and I want to spend time with you and be involved as much as possible."
Bad-mouth scenario #3: The Ex blames you or the kids for their poor choices or circumstances.
Don't: Blame back or call your ex names in front of the kids and do not tell the kids negative things about your ex.
Do: Tell the kids that sometimes people face difficult circumstances and may say things that they don't mean. Empathize with how they must have felt. Encourage them to talk with you if they are worried about their mother or father.
Example: "Jack, sometimes people go through difficult times, such as losing their job. When people feel bad, they can sometimes say things they don't mean, or they blame other people on what happened, even when it isn't true. You must have felt really bad when your dad blamed you for him yelling at work and getting fired. You are never to blame for things that happen to your father or I, and I'm sorry you had to hear that. I'm really glad you talked to me and I am here to listen anytime you hear something like that again."
Bad-mouth scenario #4: The Ex tells lies about you to the kids.
Don't: Say negative things about your ex or tell lies to get them back.
Do: Take a moment to calm yourself down if needed. Tell your child you are sorry they had to hear that about you, empathize with how they must have felt, and tell them the truth about your or the situation they heard.
Example: "Sammy, I am sorry you had to hear that about me. It must have felt really uncomfortable for you at that moment. I am not taking you to your grandmother's house on Saturday afternoons because I am going out with friends. Rather, I have a new job and must work late sometimes. Maybe I can bring you up to where I work soon and show you around. I am so glad you came to talk with me and I hope you come to me again if you are told anything about me. I promise to be honest with you.”
I shared these examples because I feel they are the most common types of bad-mouthing. If your specific circumstance is not listed, please use the guidelines I shared above. I also encourage you to seek professional help if you are still unsure how to handling a particular situation, or feel that you have difficulty controlling your emotions when it comes to your ex. Finally, remember that no parent is perfect. If you react in a way that you regret, you can apologize to your child and make a commitment to respond more appropriately the next time. If you respond in a loving and healthy way to these stressful moment, you can strengthen your relationship with your child and teach them important interpersonal skills in the process.