Recently, a client (a distraught, divorced mother of two) told me the following:
"This morning at breakfast my son blurted out, 'Dad says you took all his money in the divorce, so it's your fault he can't take us to Disney World like he promised!'"
"I didn't know how to respond," she continued, her voice shaking. "Money is tighter now. I try not to discuss finances or other grown-up stuff with the kids. But my ex is furious at me for leaving, and tells them horrible lies about me all the time. I worry he'll turn them against me, but I don't want to stick them in the middle by fighting back. Am I just supposed to suck it up and let them think I'm the bad guy?"
Hearing the distorted accusations of your bitter ex-spouse from the mouth of your own child is painful and terrifying.
Even in a well-handled divorce, nobody's perfect. I don't know one divorced parent who hasn't broken The Golden Rule of Divorce ("thou shalt not disparage thy ex in the presence of thy child") by, say, muttering "would it kill your mother to read you a book?" in response to their kids' report of having spent a full Saturday at mom's house watching cartoons. It's OK: We learn to apologize (or at least resolve to do better) and move on.
And let's not forget, kids can stir up trouble. For a variety of reasons (none malicious), children sometimes distort, misremember, or fabricate. If your daughter eagerly reports that your usually reasonable ex "called you mean and ugly," take a breath and consider the source.
But what if your former spouse isn't "usually reasonable?" What if your child's horrifying reports are accurate? What if your ex isn't so much breaking The Golden Rule as launching an all-out offensive?
If, in the presence of your child, your ex hurls vicious, exaggerated, or false allegations, unfairly paints you as incompetent or indifferent, or tries to undermine your son or daughter's relationship with you -- your ex is committing emotional child abuse.
An attack on you is an attack on your offspring. It's your job to protect them.
It takes practice, but you can learn to address misinformation about you (and redress the emotional damage it causes) without resorting to counterattacks or pulling your kids into an alliance against their other parent.
Here are some dos and don'ts for responding when your child tells you that your ex has been running you down:
Do stay calm and empathize with how hard it is to hear bad things about one parent from the other.
Don't raise your voice or display outward anger at your ex.
Do gently correct the misinformation
Don't angrily contradict your ex's comments or become defensive
Do offer reassurance and an invitation to come to you with future worries
Don't minimize the impact of your ex's behavior on your child
This is tough stuff. Parents who struggle to get it right usually err in one of two directions:
Mistake #1 The Weak Response
The maligned parent minimizes the significance of what's happened, thus failing to address their child's concerns. If you are conflict-averse, watch out for this.
Mistake #2 The Retaliatory Response
The maligned parent adds insult to injury by getting down in the mud with the maligning parent. If you're hot tempered and/or still hurt and angry, you might lean this way.
What we're aiming for is (drum roll):
#3 The Protective Response
The maligned parent (with the above Dos in mind) offers a calm, empathic response that addresses misinformation without resorting to mud-slinging.
To help you get the idea, here are some examples of provocative statements from kids followed by Weak, Retaliatory, and (finally) Protective Responses:
"Mom says you don't love us anymore. That's why you left."
The Weak Response: "That's silly. Of course I love you."
The Retaliatory Response: "Your mother is losing it. Too bad she has to drag you down with her!"
The Protective Response: "That must've been upsetting to hear. I don't know why mom said that. She and I see things differently. But I absolutely love you, and though I'm not with your mom anymore I'll always be here for you."
"Dad says you have a bad temper, and if we're ever scared at your house we should call him and he'll pick us up right away!"
The Weak Response: "Your Dad loves you very much. I guess he wants you to be safe."
The Retaliatory Response: "That's ridiculous! If there's anyone to be scared of here, it's your dad!"
The Protective Response: "That must've been scary and confusing to hear, since you love both of us. I don't want to keep you from communicating with dad, but your time with me is your time with me. Everyone gets mad sometimes. Do you ever feel frightened or worried when I get angry?"
Example #3 (This one's for the client I described whose ex accused her of standing between their kids and a ride on Space Mountain!)
"Dad says you took all his money in the divorce, so it's your fault he can't take us to Disney World like he promised!"
The Weak Response: "Well, hopefully he can take you next year."
The Retaliatory Response: "Your dad is full of it. Ask him why he has money to buy his girlfriend diamond earrings but not to take his own children on vacation!"
The Protective Response: "I wish your dad 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 extras, like big trips. But we're OK -- we have all the important things we need to take good care of you."
It's a hard truth: Even if you have sole custody of your children, you can't fully protect them from the destructive aspects of their other parent's character.
Now, some good news: Having even one parent who provides a safe and supportive emotional environment -- one in which they're never forced to choose sides or used as weapons of psychological warfare -- can make all the difference for your kids.
The next time your ex feeds damaging misinformation about you to your son or daughter, remember: By sticking to the Protective Response you're not only helping your child to navigate thorny family dynamics now, but teaching them skills they'll need to form healthy relationships in the future.
To read more about marriage, divorce, parenting, therapy, and other things Kate thinks about, visit her blog at www.katescharff.com.