As I write this I am most of the way through my 34th year on this planet. I am not the smartest or wisest person out there, but I am also not the dumbest or most ignorant either. So you can take my words with a grain of salt, ignore them or add to them. It’s your choice. I have something to say about co-parenting, and here it goes.
(You can skip past my story and go straight to “What to do,” below)
My parents split up when I approximately 12 years old. I wasn’t through grade 8 yet, and to be honest my memory of my childhood is filled with massive blank spaces that I have to fill in with recollections from family members. The things that I do manage to remember on my own tend to be important or emotionally charged events, such as my parents fighting. Except once they split up the fighting stopped and there was a big void in my world. My older sister and I stayed with our father as he forced our mother out of the house.
At that point in time I didn’t shed a tear about the situation because my dad had already put a good deal of effort into sharing his anger for her with me. I look back at these memories as both an adult and a father myself, and I see things with so much clarity now.
After she left he would spend even more time telling me about all the ways that she wronged him. I listened quietly, never second guessing a thing that he said, never once using my own thinking capacity. I grew to hate her.
A few years later, when I was mid-way through grade 11, he decided to move in with a woman who lived about 30 kilometres from our home. My sister went out on her own while I chose to follow him, which meant that I would have to take a few buses and a train to get to school every day. The environment changed, but his opinions of my mother hadn’t.
In that house there were separate issues that lead me to decide to move 130 kilometres to my mother’s house. It doesn’t make sense to choose to move into her house after having explained that my father caused me to hate her, does it? To be perfectly honest, I hated her when he was speaking. When I would visit her I would see her with my own eyes and I didn’t hate her. This is how I made that decision, though it wasn’t a conscious one as I just explained it to you. To me, at that point in time, I just favoured her house to his, and so I left. I couldn’t continue in school either, which was a major issue to me as well.
I ended up living with my mother as her son, but I looked at her quite often through my father’s eyes. What a mind-game that ended up being, and it took me several years to finally work through it all and see her on my own. The end result is regret. I wish he hadn’t polluted my mind with his problems, with his distorted opinions and his experiences. In fact, a lot of it was simply untrue. If I hadn’t blindly accepted whatever he said and chose to think on my own, then I am certain that I would have treated my mother better.
I’ve explained this to her before, and since apologized, but I still carry the guilt. (If you’re reading, Mom, I apologize again.)
To contrast the negative comments he had for her, she would always say the honest truth about him – good or bad. She would tell me about her experiences from her perspective, but it was always different. She was talking from her point of view and was never pushing onto me. She never tried to change my mind about him. She would tell a story and explain how it made her feel and that was it. Such contrast! These were her stories, being told to relay her life’s events, not to change how I saw him.
It took me some time to notice that pattern in her story-telling. It ended up helping me to develop my ability to think about what I am being told instead of just accepting it blindly.
This experience prepared me for this aspect of fatherhood. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Parent-bashing should not even be a part of fatherhood, but it for some it unfortunately is.
I am separated from the mother of my children so I am familiar with co-parenting situations. I have 50% custody so I spend a good deal of time with them. I do not want to participate in anything like what I’ve described above so I will not get into my situation here, but I do want to put my thoughts on this topic out there, because I lived through it.
Do I have to like my ex?
You most certainly do not need to like any aspect of your ex-spouse.
You can completely hate them.
There is no obligation to like another person.
But when you have children you must consider the child first.
Obviously there are parents out there who really are a danger, who really do cause harm and those people are often not co-parents, so this writing does not address those situations. I intend this for co-parenting scenarios. When you share custody with the other parent you have to work together to raise the child(ren), and parent-bashing can not be a part of that process.
What to do
I don’t honestly know what the right way to handle parent-bashing is. I can only speak from my perspective, and it is based on a very simple philosophy: The children love their parents – don’t spoil that for them!
No matter how I feel about my ex, my daughters love her to bits! Whether or not I can understand that affection is irrelevant. They love her and that’s what I have to protect if I want to avoid raising little girls who will resent me once they’re grown. I know it because I lived it.
All of my thoughts and dealings with their mother are my business. I do not need to tell them what’s going on because they will worry about it. Children do not have the mental capacity to process or solve adult situations so don’t put them into that position.
When your ex crumbles and says hurtful things to your child(ren) you must respond properly. Your response will either validate what was said about you, or teach the child something about you. Consistency is key here also.
First, ignore the emotional aspect of it. You’re a jerk? You’re a bitch? You’re stupid? You’re a loser? Your new boy/girlfriend is fat or ugly? Yawn. Do NOT give your child a reaction to the comments. Your response should be like this:
“Ok. How does that make you feel?”
Then you sit quietly while the child answers you. When the child is done you can say, “Thank you for telling me how you feel.”
At this point you have just taught a lesson in people skills, Like a Boss. If you flip out over stupid comments then your child learns to flip out over stupid comments. Then when kids make fun of them at school and you tell them to ignore those kids, your words will fail you because your previous actions make it so that you cannot be heard.
Now that you know how your child feels (probably not very good) you can wrap it up with, “It is ok that someone else does not like me. Everyone is allowed to think whatever they want to think. It does not change anything about us.”
Like a Boss, again, but only if you stay calm and don’t show a negative reaction. This is the consistency part. If you simply say these words but your actions do not match, your child(ren) will notice.
Sometimes the things your kids repeat to you will be lies. It is hard to tell your kid that the other parent lied to them because the kid immediately wants to know why their parent would lie to them. Their minds usually cannot take it. You have to respond according the age and understanding of your child, but do not over estimate your child. It is better to say too little than to correct having said too much.
When confronted with something that is not true, treat it like it is not true instead of treating it like a lie. The difference between the two is intent. A lie is on purpose and simply untrue is an error in the facts. Your response to an error in the facts can be like this, “Ok, thank you for giving me a chance to correct that because that’s actually no entirely true. Don’t worry about it because people make mistakes all the time and this is probably just a misunderstanding. The truth is…” If the truth is relevant to the child tell them. If it is just some more BS then leave it out. This is you coming out on top yet again, but you’re not putting someone beneath you to do it.
What NOT to do
Do not tell your kids:
Your opinion of their parent.
What they did wrong in your relationship.
What they did wrong as a parent.
What you think of their parent’s friends.
Why not? To answer that let’s role play. Place your child in the role of therapist and you in the role as the angry parent. Now, vent all of your frustration, anger, resentment, bad memories and the like to this new therapist. When you’re done ask the (child) therapist what you should do. Your precious little child may be old enough to understand that you’re unhappy, but they’re not going to have the answers that you need. Add to that the fact that their level of understanding will not allow them to get past the simple idea that daddy is mad at mommy. There are countless children who BLAME THEMSELVES for situations like this.
If you’re the parent that is spreading negativity onto the child you know that you are doing it because you just can’t control yourself. Or even worse, you are trying to turn the child against their parent. How selfish of you!
The good news is that you can stop and the children will forgive you. If you don’t stop, you’re going to raise a resentful child. And they’re more than likely to repeat your ways when they become parents.
It is Important to Remember
It is important to remember that your child loves both of you and they will always see both of you through those loving eyes. The only way to change the way they see you is when you cause them to change it.