My 14-year-old son only turned in half his assignments in Science and Math this semester, and because his mother has custody, I wasn't informed. When I contacted their kids' teachers to see how they were doing, I found out about the missing homework. My son said the teachers were making it up and that he had just missed one or two assignments. His mom actually backed up his lie! Another time, she told our daughter to hide the fact that she had set her up with a Facebook page. (She was only 11.) How can I parent when my ex-wife encourages my kids to hide the truth from me? I live in another city and only see them one long weekend a month and vacations.
Many unhappily married people imagine that divorce will finally put them out of their misery. But the fact is, children deserve to have two caring parents, which means you are still going to have to work on creating a respectful relationship with your former spouse, even if her values and priorities differ from your own.
It is in your children's best interest for their mother to keep you involved and informed about what is going on in their lives. But you are going to have to start with things as they are. If you attempt to change your former wife into being someone she isn't (in this case, a forthright and honest person) you are only likely to create more alienation.
• Manage your reactions. Limited space prevents me from speculating on why your children's mother routinely hides the truth from you about your children's challenges, but chances are it has something to do with wanting to avoid your reactions. My first piece of advice is to work on making it safe for your kids and their mother to tell you the truth. If you shout, threaten or accuse her of being an unfit mother when you find out about problems, she will naturally paint a rosy picture about how your children are doing.
• Set realistic goals. Ask your ex-wife if she would be willing to have a weekly check in about how each of your children doing, either by phone or email. And be sure that if she does reveal things that aren't going well, you refrain from being critical or disapproving. If you want to establish a new pattern of honest communication, you will have to make it feel safe for her to tell you the truth.
• Change the pH of the relationship. Regardless of the things you don't like about your former wife, there must be something you do appreciate about her. Let her know. Even if you parted angrily, consider the ways your kids would benefit if you took the leap to change the nature of your relationship with their mother. Send her a note of appreciation. Acknowledge things she does for the kids that you feel are positive. The more you infuse your interactions with kindness and respect, the easier it will be for her to do the same. Take the first step.
• Manage your expectations. While I have shared a few ideas for potentially shifting the relationship you have with your children's mother to one that is more mutually respectful, don't set yourself up for disappointment by expecting change to happen overnight. These suggestions may help you two gradually shift your relationship to one that is more honest and open, but if you have a pattern of hiding, deceiving, judging and criticizing each other, it will take a while before trust is established. Even if there is so much history that it proves impossible to create a consistently positive relationship, you have nothing to lose by trying.
If you can manage your interactions with your former wife with integrity and honor -- regardless of how she behaves -- you and your children will benefit enormously.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in an upcoming blog post.