Supporting Our Kids When Our Ex's Behavior Hurts Them
One of the hardest realizations people come to after separation/divorce is the lack of control over who and what their ex-partner might bring into their child’s life. And, if the break-up has been especially contentious, having any influence with an angry ex-partner is almost impossible - they aren’t overly receptive to parenting advice from the person they perceive as causing them pain.
When it’s more about you than your child…
I believe there is truly an art to co-parenting. One part of this is picking your battles. In my own case, after my divorce there were things I decided to be OK with that I never thought (in a million years) I could be. For instance, my son would show up to school from my ex-husband’s house with hair standing straight up, a less than clean uniform, and maybe a little tired from being up too late the night before. It was all I could do not to lay into his father. But later I realized my anger was more about my parenting agenda than my son really being harmed. I wanted him to show up to school all bright and shiny and clean because I worried what teachers would think of me as a parent. If I would have started a conflict with his father over my own insecurities, that only hurts my son because conflict between ex-partners creates anxiety in kids. And, picking every small battle decreases our leverage when we need to influence our ex about something significant that may truly impact our child in a negative way.
With that being said, if you notice something about your ex-partner’s behavior that concerns you, and they're typically receptive to your thoughts, by all means let them know in the nicest way possible what you're worried about as it relates to your kids. (This is not an opportunity to tell your ex how much you disapprove of how they’re conducting their personal life.) If they’re not usually receptive to your feedback, unless you believe the behavior is truly damaging to your child, it's better to let it go. Remember, the best thing you can do for your child is to keep a low-conflict relationship with your ex.
So how do we support our kids when we don’t have influence with our ex?
At this point, many clients will say, “Then how do I help my child when my hands are tied this way?” We can't fix everything for our kids. But what we can do is “be in it with them” so they aren’t shouldering whatever they are experiencing with their other parent on their own. We do this by asking them about their experience, how it makes them feel, and validate their feelings. And, if appropriate, you can help them find the words to advocate for themselves with their other parent. Most importantly, we should try not to throw our ex under the bus - no matter how much we want to. Offering a judgment about their other parent can be hurtful to your child. An example of a supportive conversation might look like this…
Parent: I heard mom broke up with Dave and he's moving out. I know you really liked him. This happened last summer with John – I know you liked him, too. What's it like for you when people you start to like disappear from your life?
Child: I get sad and I miss them. And then I get mad at mom.
Parent: That makes sense to me that you would be sad and then angry because you really had fun with Dave and now you don't see him at all.
Another example might be…
Parent: Your dad told me he has to move again. What’s it like for you to leave your house? I know you like your room there.
Child: It’s fine, I’m used to it by now. I just wish sometimes we could stay in one place.
Parent: I get it. It makes sense that you might feel tired of moving. What’s the hardest part for you?
My feelings are normal and I’m not alone.
These conversations accomplished 2 important things – First, you validated your child's feelings so they can trust their gut (my feelings make sense and are valid) and assuage any guilt they are experiencing for being angry at their other parent. Second, they are no longer alone in their experience – they have you in it with them.
This approach is helpful when you have a hunch your child might be troubled but hasn't mentioned anything, as well as when they bring it up in conversation. If your child tells you something that's bothering them about their other parent in confidence, unless they are describing any type of abuse, it's usually better to respect their wishes and keep quiet. (This is especially important if your ex will be angry at your child for telling you.)
While we don’t have control over our ex-partner’s personal lives, values, or parenting styles, we do have control over how we respond to our own concerns. This includes differentiating between what is actually harmful to our child and what may not be in their best interest but not worthy of starting a conflict. What we DO have control over is how we respond to our kids so they know they are not alone in their struggle and their experience is understood.