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How to Speak about Your Ex in Front of Your Child

When divorces or break-ups occur, one or both former partners are hurt and/or angry.  These emotions can make it difficult for the former partners to form positive statements about each other.  Read on to learn why you should overcome this difficulty and speak positively about your ex in front of your child . . . and learn some great communication tips when speaking about your ex in front of your child as well. Why you should speak positively about your ex in front of your child.

  • It affirms your child’s sense of security.  Your child needs to know that his/her environment is stable and secure, that s/he is loved through thick and thin, that the love s/he receives is not lessened by the divorce or break-up.  Emotional upheaval (such as may result from warring former partners) compromises stability and security.  A child raised with warring parents learns anxiety, fear, and distrust.  When will the next fight break out?  How bad will it get?  I’m tired of hearing two people that I love tear each other apart; where can I go to get away from it all?  Why does it have to be this way?  Who is telling the truth?  Who is manipulative?  Can I rely on anyone to tell the truth with consistency?  If I fall in love one day, will that love turn to hate just like mommy’s and daddy’s did?  Is there such a thing as lasting love?  (Let’s not fail to notice in these questions the potential for running away, attaching quick intimacy in any relationship that may offer a more peaceful domestic alternative than the parental options, and victimization at the hands of predators who would take advantage of a vulnerable, frightened child.)  Further, a child who is raised in the domestic equivalent of a combat zone often gets lost in the conflict between his/her parents; the parents are so busy engaging in battles (both in-person and in the way that they speak about each other to third parties) that they fail to pay attention to their child or even notice the effect of their combat on him/her.  A child raised in such an environment may end up questioning whether s/he is loved by one or both of his/her parents.  This is often because either s/he has been repeatedly overlooked or because one or both parents have said something akin to, “S/He (the other parent) is so self-centered that s/he’s incapable of loving anyone but him-/herself!”  An oft-overlooked child will likely grow to misbehave in increasingly significant ways; the child is attempting to garner his/her parents’ attention, even if that attention comes in the form of discipline.
  • It affirms your child’s self-esteem.  Let’s compare, “Yes, Pat and I got a divorce about a year ago.  We’re doing well, though, and still consider ourselves blessed . . . after all, we wouldn’t have our pride-and-joy child if we hadn’t ever met!” with “Yes, Pat and I got a divorce about a year ago.  My child and I are struggling to get by now.  It’s too bad his/her dad’s such an @!%&*!!”  Your child knows that s/he is a product of both of you; s/he needs to know that s/he is a product of love, not a product of a regrettable liaison between one saint and one flagrant jerk.  Who wants to be 50% flagrant jerk by genetic composition?  Does this child who is half saint and half flagrant jerk grow to act out the alleged jerk-genes just because s/he believes it is his/her genetic predisposition . . . or does s/he work hard to be saintly to overcome the alleged jerk-genes?  In either scenario, is that the audio track you want running in your child’s head for the rest of his/her life?  Additionally, the child who should be the object of love for both you and your ex may end up feeling like s/he is merely a pawn, an expense, or time commitment for one or both of you.  Is that really the message you want to send?
  • It gives your child positive role modeling after which s/he can pattern his/her own healthy behaviors.  You know that your child watches what you do, learns from you, replicates your behaviors.  Are your behaviors worthy of replication?  Do you want your child to do the things you’ve done?  How would you feel if you saw your child saying mean-spirited things about another person?  How would you feel if you saw your child rising above anger, controlling his/her emotions, and exhibiting kindness and empathy instead?  Do you want your child to learn to communicate tactfully?  Do you want your child to be able to exhibit cooperation and forgiveness?  If so, then you must lead by example.
  • It enables your child to maintain his/her relationship with both parents.  A child raised in combat often feels stuck in the middle between the two warring parents.  Ultimately unable to remain neutral, most children raised in such a difficult environment end up choosing a side, thus having a difficult (or completely severed) relationship with at least one of his/her parents.
  • It allows your child the opportunity to be happy and well-adjusted.

Communication tips when speaking about your ex in front of your child.

  • Say positive or at least neutral things about your ex.  “Cole is an excellent father!” is a positive statement about your ex.  “Cole is my child’s father, and I strongly support his ongoing relationship with our child.” is a neutral statement about your ex (but it’s still a positive statement overall.)
  • Be mindful of your non-verbal communication.  If your words say, “I forgive Charlie” and your facial expressions and body language say, “I would gladly burn Charlie at the stake”, your child will observe the discrepancy.
  • Be honest.  Do not lie in an attempt to be positive.  For example, if your ex is an active drug addict who hasn’t even attempted to see your child in over a year, you should not say, in response to a third party’s inquiry about alleged paternal abdication, “Jerry’s been in Europe on some big business deal for over a year.”  Instead, find an honest way to communicate positively.  For example, “Jerry’s got his hands full with some issues right now.  He loves our child with all his heart and has most certainly not abdicated!”
  • Be tolerant and refrain from engaging in the conflict.  For example, if your neighbor repeats to you something unkind that your ex said about you, you can gently reply, “I didn’t know she felt that way.  I’m sorry to hear that.  My perception isn’t the same as hers on that subject, but I guess we all look at things differently, don’t we?  I support her right to hold that position, but I hope there will come a day when we can just be friends.  I know she can be an amazing friend, and I would really like to call her friend again some day.”
  • Be understanding and consider the perspective (or potential perspective) of your ex.  For example, in response to your sibling commenting on how your ex “always” picks up your child late for visitation, you may say, “Paula has a fluid sense of time.  She’s a total free spirit.  It’s part of what attracted me to her back when we were young.”
  • Speak of continuity.  For example, “No, I don’t hate Kelly.  Actually, I will always love her.  I look back on our early years together, and I can still feel the deep, abiding love that I felt back then.  We aren’t well suited to living in the same house together, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect for her.  And most importantly, we have a beautiful child together, and I am forever grateful to her for that.”
  • Focus on your ex’s relationship with your child, not your ex’s relationship with you.  Instead of saying, “My ex . . . “, say, “My child’s father . . .”
  • Mention your ex’s positive traits and how they manifest in your child.  For example, “Her dad is an amazing artist.  I saw the rose she drew last night.  It looks like she is artistic as well.”
  • Do not over-share.  Some private or particularly colorful information simply should not be shared in a setting in which your child could overhear the discussion.  This includes information about the sex lives of you and your ex (and any former, current, or potential future partners either of you may have), sexual health issues (i.e., STD’s, sexual addiction, etc.), potential (i.e., not confirmed) physical and/or mental health problems that may be serious (i.e., cancer, bipolar disorder, etc.), potential (i.e., not confirmed) personal crises or major changes (i.e., bankruptcy, relocation, etc.), and any other topic that may not be suitable for your child’s ears.

It may be difficult to follow all the tips above with consistency.  Your emotions, following your divorce or break-up, may make it hard for you to forgive your ex and embrace positive communications about him/her.  However, for your child, please release your hurt and anger.  After all, what better motivation can you have than the well-being of your child? *This blog presumes that neither parent presents a clear threat to the well-being of the child.  If physical and/or sexual abuse, among other threats, are or may be present, maintaining that parent-child relationship may be contraindicated.  Kindness should still be employed when speaking of the parent that presents the risk, but not all of this blog will apply to the parent so situated.

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