With any luck, you have an open line of communication with your children and they will tell you the good, the bad and the ugly that comes home from your Ex. This is because your relationship with them is built on trust and in order for that trust to continue, your kids need to know it’s safe to talk about anything under the sun with you, even if they are telling you things you don’t want to hear.
Our jobs as the “neutral” parent is to support our kids to work through their feelings, and when confronted with negative speak about you, to help them make their own decisions about it, and empower our children understand that their feelings can be different than the ex’s.
Here are some steps that I’ve learned to combat negative speak from the Ex:
1. Accept that you cannot change your ex. Even if what he may be saying (or doing) is not right, nothing you say will actually make that person change. Once you have that down, the knee-jerk reaction of the “unfairness” of it all will ease and help you cope with the matter at hand.
2. Validate your child’s experience, but do not validate the negative words. This is a fine balance and it took me a while to figure it out (and I’m still challenged by it). When dad says, “Mommy is rich and daddy is poor, because I give all my money to mommy” or whatever it is that he’s saying, do not respond with “that’s not true!” or “he’s wrong!” All that does is confuse the kids—i.e. well, dad said this, and mom said that. How do I tell the difference?
Validate by responding: “Gosh, I’m sorry your dad said that to you. Or, “how did it make you feel when he said that?” This communicates that you are listening, that you believe your child heard what dad said, and you are respecting the space that they are trusting you with their worry or concern about it.
Next, tackle the subject. Instead of saying, “how dare dad say I’m rich, I can barely pay the rent/mortgage, and he doesn’t even pay full child support!” You could say, “gosh, what does poor mean?”or “what does rich mean?” and start a meaningful conversation that is not focused on mom or dad.
In my case, I circle back to the subject asking my daughter, “gee, does daddy live in a nice house?”
Her answer, “Yes.”
“Does daddy have a truck to drive?”
Her answer: “Yes.”
“Does daddy have a cell phone?”
Her answer: “Yes.”
My follow-up, well, “it sounds like daddy has a lot of things that a lot of people don’t have in this world. Just like we’re lucky that we have nice things, too” (this normalizes the subject–bringing both dad and mom into the conversation.)
I do my best not to ‘preach,’ but to base my conversations on tangible experiences that the children have—and then, give them room to connect the dots.
3. Stay neutral when your children tell you crazy things the Ex says. This is a weird and almost counter-intuitive. Of course you want to react. Of course you want to correct. But because of #1 and #2, staying neutral creates a safe space for your children to tell you the craziness in the first place.
I honestly believe my children tell me the weird stuff dad says because I respond in a non-judgmental way. I don’t validate his negativity, but I “normalize” the context for which they tell me. Once, my daughter told me, “daddy fights with grandma and won’t let us talk to Uncle.” I responded, “you know, I’m really sorry to hear that, but I’m glad you can share that with me. Grandma and Uncle love you very much. And by the way, you can tell me anything that happens—at school, at church, at dad’s house, at brownies”…
This way, they feel safe telling you things, no matter where it comes from, and that your ex’s house is not singled out.
4. When you can, sprinkle in your own positive messaging. When not confronted with nasty remarks, but just going about your business, sometimes you can say, “you know, it’s mommy’s job to take care of you, honey. It’s not your job to take care of mommy or daddy.”
Another positive messaging go to I often use is: “it’s okay to have your feelings, and they don’t have to be the same as mommy’s or daddy’s.”
Saying these things and doing them is a challenge and it comes with practice. Sometimes I really lose it (on the inside) when I hear the nasty digs about me or my new husband, but I’ve learned to cope by adhering to these principles. By holding onto as much patience as I can (sometimes barely hanging on with my fingernails!), being supportive of their experiences, and calmly talking about the negativity in a neutral way, I’ve seen them grow into their own, empowered to make their own decisions and to differentiate their feelings from dad’s.
P.S.. While we live in a nice town home and have food in the fridge, for which I am grateful, I’m far from the 1%! I do, however, “feel” rich because I love my girls and my hubby so much. And I’ve sprinkled that into the conversation, too.