We all do it from time to time -- make a sarcastic comment about our ex, criticize something they did or didn't do, gesture or grimace our faces when referring to our former spouse. When we do it in front of, near or within hearing distance of our children, we set ourselves up for a hornet's nest of problems.
Sure, we all know this, but it's easy to forget or let slide. It hurts our children when they hear one of their parents put down the other. This is true even if your child does not say anything about it. With rare exceptions, children innately feel that they are part of both parents. They love them both, even when that love isn't returned to them in the same way.
When you put down their other parent, your children are likely to interpret it as a put-down of part of them. When both parents are guilty of this behavior, it can create a great confusion along with a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem. "Something's wrong with me" becomes the child's unconscious belief.
I know it's challenging sometimes not to criticize your ex, especially when you feel totally justified in doing so. Find a friend or therapist to vent to. Don't do it around your children. And, whenever possible, find some good things to say about their other parent -- or hold your tongue.
The lesson here is simple. Destructive comments about your ex can impact your children in many negative ways. It creates anxiety and insecurity. It raises their level of fear. It makes them question how much they can trust you and your opinions -- or trust themselves. And it adds a level of unhappiness into their lives that they do not need or deserve.
When you have a problem with your ex, take it directly to them -- and not to or through the children. Don't exploit a difficult relationship or difference of opinion with your ex by editorializing about him or her to the kids. It's easy to slip -- especially when your frustration level is mounting.
Listen to and monitor your comments to the children about their other parent. Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine whether you might be guilty of this:
•Are you hearing yourself say: "Sounds like you picked that up from your Dad/Mom."
•Do you make a negative retort about your child's behavior and end it with "just like your father/mother?"
•Do you frequently compare your ex with other divorced parents you know making sure the kids get the negative judgment?
•Do you counter every positive comment your child makes about your ex with, "Yeah, but ..." and finish it with a downer?
•Do you make your children feel guilty for having had fun visiting the other parent or liking something in their home?
•Do you throw around biting statements like "If Mom/Dad really loved you ..."
•Do you try to frighten or intimidate your kids during a disagreement by saying "If you don't like it here, then go live with your Mom/Dad?
It's easy to fall into these behavior patterns -- and they can effectively manipulate your children's behavior -- for the short-term. But in the long run, you will be slowly eroding your personal relationship with the children you love and alienating their affection. This will bite you back in the years to come, especially as your children move into and through their teens.
As a parent, you want to raise children with a healthy sense of self-worth. You want children who are trusting and trust-worthy -- who are open to creating loving relationships in their lives. It's not divorce per se that emotionally scars children. It's how you, as a parent, model your behavior before, during and after your divorce. If you model maturity, dignity and integrity whenever challenges occur, that's what your children will see and more likely the path they will take in their own relationships. You can't make life choices for them, but you sure can influence their choices and perceptions about the world when they are young and vulnerable!
Minding your tongue around your children can be one of the most difficult behaviors to master after a divorce. It is also one of the behaviors that will reap the greatest rewards in the well-being of your family. Don't let anger, bitterness and indiscriminate remarks affect and harm your children. Keep a "conscious" diligence on your commentary and your ex is more likely to follow suit as well. If he or she doesn't, your kids will naturally pick up on the different energy and gravitate toward the parent taking the high road. Ultimately that parent will win their respect and admiration. Shouldn't that parent be you?