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PEP Blog

10|03

Bad-Mouthing Your Ex: The Long-Term Effects on Children

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.

Think about this.

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.

Refrain from insults

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.

Avoid the Blame Game

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.

Children are not our friends or confidants

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.

Kids’ rules for divorce

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:

  • “No fighting”
  • “Don’t use me as a spy”
  • “Learn to get along”
  • “Don’t make each other cry”
  • “Don’t put me in the middle”
  • “Don’t take your anger out on me”
  • “Don’t talk about money”
  • “Don’t say bad things about the other parent”
  • “Be honest”

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

  1. Don’t bad-mouth the other parent in front of your kids when they spend time with your ex. It’s not necessary to compliment your ex, but it is important to support your child by validating their feelings and being positive about their time together and the activities they enjoyed.
  2. Do your best to support your child when they want contact with your ex. Let them call the other parent if they miss them. Don’t punish them for missing the other parent. Kids need to feel safe and secure and know that you both are there for them even if you are no longer married or physically in the same place. It may be hard not to compete with the other parent. But please try not to give in to the temptation to compete. Children can detect when parents are trying to outdo each other, and it can lead to manipulating behaviors that take root and become a part of your child’s pattern of interacting with others, even as adults.
  3. Don’t bad-mouth on the phone when your children are home. Even if they are not in the same room, children have big ears. They are listening when you least expect it. Remember, they are sponges. Make sure your family and friends know not to bad-mouth your ex in front of the kids. Because children absorb everything in their environment, they may think family and friends are talking about them, too, because they are half of you and your ex.
  4. Find an outlet. Your anger, disappointment and hurt are REAL. Divorce hurts! Talking to a friend, finding a support group or seeking out a therapist will help you vent in a safe and appropriate space. You need to vent; it’s good and healthy. Just find the right place and time. Protect your children emotionally.
  5. Tell your kids over and over it is “not your fault!” So many children think they are the cause of the divorce and when the bad-mouthing starts flying, this message is reinforced. Kate’s father told her, “You’re just like your mother, CRAZY!” This was a negative message Kate internalized and carried into her adult life. This negatively affected her relationship with her father and now he is not a part of her life.
  6. Remember that you are human, and parents make mistakes. Divorce is hard. Parents slip up. No one is perfect. What matters most is how hard you try to help your kids. Listen and talk to them openly and honestly. They will remember you were there for them and listening.
  7. Remember you were once attracted to your ex and loved their qualities. Your children are a product of that love. Let them know this and talk to them about the positive qualities they inherited from your ex. Help your children to focus on the best attributes they received from both of you. And in turn, they will not become like Mike, who has been emotionally burdened to believe that he must prove to his mother that he is not a loser.

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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