Why Bad Mouthing Your Ex To Your Children Is Bad For Your Children
The desire to bad mouth your spouse to your child is tempting when going through a divorce. The pain your child is feeling is a result of the actions, or in actions, takeoff your spouse, right? And now you are in the position of trying to pick up the pieces and put everything back together. There is no question that you have grounds to share with your child how your spouse screwed up in order to preserve yourself.
But, stop there. Your child knows your spouse’s problem areas. However, as pointed out in an article by Beyond Words Psychological Services[i], “Seeing or knowing that a parent made a poor choice is different than being constantly reminded of it by your other parent.” No matter what happens, it is natural for most children to continue to love their parents unconditionally and seek both parents’ acceptance and approval. When anyone puts down a child’s parent, it hurts, it even hurts more if the person doing is their other parent. You are essentially bad mouthing half of your child when you bad mouth your spouse.
"Seeing or knowing that a parent made a choice is different than being constantly reminded of it by your other parent."
On top of that, the child ends up in a terrible position, thinking they have to choose sides, resulting in an immense amount of guilt and shame. According to the Beyond Words Psychological Services article, “It can lead to poor self-esteem, self-blaming and self-hatred, which can turn into substance abuse, legal problems, eating disorders and self-injurious behaviors.”
Tamara Afifi, a Professor in the Department of Communication at UCSB, during a TEDx Talk, discusses the impact of divorce on children, specifically identifying physical and physiological reactions children have to their parents’ conflict[ii]. Children whose parents are involved in a high-conflict divorce will have the potential to have physiological stress reactions such as increased heart rate and stress hormones and tend to exhibit behaviors such as avoidance or aggression.
Richard A. Warshak, a psychologist and clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says that while divorce may hurt kids in the short run, children can escape long term emotional scars[iii]. Parents must handle their separation well and not expose their children to hatred and animosity by keeping complaints between themselves.
"...while divorce may hurt kids in the short run, children can escape long term emotional scars if parents do not expose their children to hatred and animosity..."
So what can parents do?
Afifi, in her TEDx Talk, provides a series of proactive steps to avoid hostility with your spouse:
Take steps to cooperate with your spouse. Attempt to create rules with your spouse on how communication is to take place to allow you to co-parent after you are no longer married.
If the animosity and bad mouthing continues by your spouse, take steps to not engage them or fight back. Instead, focus on your own behavior. Not only will you gain respect from your children, your behavior will affect your spouse.
Figure out how to redefine your relationship from married parents to a relationship in which you are no longer married but working as co-parents to your children.
Take steps to diffuse the conflict by using methods to communicate such as emails and parenting journals. Avoid putting your children in the middle, do not even ask them to relay messages to the other parent.
Finally, listen to your child’s voice. Try to put yourself into your child’s shoes to understand what they are experiencing.
A Minnesota Judge shares some blunt words in a open 2001 letter to divorcing parents,
"Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault.
No matter what you think of the other party-or what your family thinks of the other party-these children are one-half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an"idiot" his father is, or what a "fool" his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad
That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer." [iv]
[iv] "Minnesota Judge Has 200 Blunt Words for Divorcing Parents", Judge Michael Haas, 2001.