By Bridget G. Edwards
Bad-Mouthing Your Ex: The Long-Term Effects on Children
Let’s begin by acknowledging that bad-mouthing a co-parent is not appropriate behavior whether married, separated, unmarried or divorced. Saying mean things to your children about the other parent – even true things – is hurtful to the other party, but mostly to the children. And in all cases, this is a no-no.
Most of the way we behave and respond to situations stems from what we learned from the adults in our lives when we were children. Our childhood experiences and behavior modeled by our parents teach us how to interact, trust and develop relationships with those we love. If bad-mouthing the other parent was the environment in which you grew up, its effects are evident today.
It doesn’t seem to make sense, but psychosociological studies have shown that we tend to seek out partners with whom we can play out our unresolved childhood experiences. And that, at times, we try to reenact our childhoods and heal from the experiences we had as children. After all, we were impacted as kids by what our parents said and modeled for us – the good and the bad. During divorce proceedings, the attorney and judge usually stress the impact that negative comments about your ex-partner will have on the children, and strongly urge against engaging in this behavior.
Marina Sbrochi, author of the book “Nasty Divorce: a Kid’s Eye View,” provides real-life case studies of two adults, Mike and Kate, in her Huffington Post article “The Lasting Effects of Talking Nasty About Your Ex.”
Mike, in his mid-forties, states that he still remembers his mother referring to his father as a loser after the divorce. Mike still cringes whenever he hears someone called a loser! And it has taken him many years to view his father differently from the story his mother told him. To date, Mike says he finds himself constantly trying to achieve so that his mother won’t think he’s a loser.
Kate no longer talks to her father, who bad-mouthed her mother while she was growing up. He had full custody of her, and from age 9 on, Kate only heard name-calling and blame and how horrible her mother was. Whenever Kate tried to defend her mother, he would shout, “You don’t know anything! You’re CRAZY, just like your mother!” Kate actually knew quite a bit about her parents’ marital problems, however, and was aware of what had happened. Her mother had always been available and kind, and never uttered a bad word about her father.
In another instance, a young man we’ll call Eddie, in his early 20s, says, “Moms and dads shouldn’t say bad things about each other because it makes them look like the lesser person.” His parents divorced when he was 10. “They should just keep it to themselves,” he says. “And instead, just say, we’re not right for each other and we’re not happy. And the kids will figure it out.”
Indeed, we can be sure that kids will figure things out and make their own decisions based on their own observations, including which parent is “right.” Bad-mouthing the ex will ultimately backfire.
Catherine Gaw, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, agrees that approaching kids with honesty and grace – without name-calling and blame – is, in fact, the healthiest way to guide children through divorce. “It is not harmful for parents to admit that they do not get along. It is not harmful for parents to admit to having different rules and/or priorities,” she says. “But it is extremely harmful to children when their parents are judgmental of each other and create a belief that one is good, and the other is bad.”
Granted, it may sometimes feel impossible. But navigating through differences and conflicts can teach skills to children. Working through difficulties provides opportunities to develop flexibility, adaptability and healthy lifelong coping skills for children.
It is important to remember that when Mom insults Dad, even behind his back, it may be an insult to the children. Children inherently view themselves as part of both parents. When one parent disrespects the other, the message the child receives is that part of themselves is also unacceptable.
Another major point to remember and internalize is that children are not our friends or confidants. Information that should remain confidential includes detailed reasons for the divorce, identifying one parent as responsible for the divorce, child support (especially when it is not being paid), financial statements, details of the ex-spouse’s new partner’s personal information and the divorce paperwork. That’s “grown folks’” business. Children should not be burdened with these details.
In the 2012 HBO documentary titled “Don’t Divorce Me,” kids 5-9 years old shared their heart-wrenching experiences along with some positive outcomes, and created Kid’s
Rules for Divorce:
What stands out in the rules above is that most of us were taught many of these rules by our parents at home, school and church. The children in the documentary are essentially teaching parents, from their points of view, what they must do to avoid negative emotional effects of bad-mouthing the ex in the future. That speaks volumes! Tips for reducing the emotional impact of divorce on children
The best behavior in a divorce is simple. Tina M. Scibona, an attorney with Kurt Law Office, says, “Think of the saying, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’” She goes on to say, “Don’t be insincere about the other parent, because children can see through that. A parent does not have to spout the praises of the other parent, but be cognizant that what you say, or don’t say, can still affect your relationship with your children.” And their relationships with their future partners later in life.
This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.
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