When your kids hear negative talk from your ex-spouse
Parents who badmouth their ex-spouse in front of the children simply do not understand how such negative behavior affects their kids. All the unhappy parent knows is that he or she is angry and hurt, with an urgent need to feel supported and understood by their kids. Ignorance is no excuse, however, for unloading adult feelings onto your children, in effect demanding that they somehow make you feel better. It is your duty as the grown-up, as the parent, to help your children cope with divorce, remarriage, and the many challenges of step family life. Expecting your kids to be your sounding board or confidante, to help you cope, is grossly inappropriate. It is especially unfair to expect your kids to take your side against their other parent
Shared loyalties are central to blended family life
Children in a blended family situation have shared loyalties. They feel loyalty, in varying degrees, to biological parents, to step parents, to step siblings, and to other extended step family members. The inner conflict that badmouthing creates for children can be crushing. At a time when they need encouragement rather than division, kids often react to pressures which would split their loyalties by withdrawing from everyone rather than having to take sides.
How to help when your kids hear bad things about you
If you learn your ex-spouse has been badmouthing you, your new spouse, or your step children – to your kids, ask them how they feel about what they have heard, and listen to their thoughts. Be careful to react with more concern than anger, the concern being for your children. Empathize by saying that you understand how upsetting it must be to hear those things. If they have been told something that is untrue, clarify the misinformation immediately, then simply state that the other parent was mistaken. Do not retaliate by saying cruel things about the other parent. That will only make matters worse.
Can you make your ex stop badmouthing you?
In the past, step family counselors tended toward recommendations to hold your tongue and avoid confrontation, but many experts are now saying it might be best to address the issue formally. Meet the problem head-on by making a formal request that your ex-spouse stop badmouthing you, your blended family partner, or the step siblings of your kids. Often, the parent doing the badmouthing honestly does not realize he or she is behaving badly, but may resent hearing it from you. You may want to ask a trusted relative to call it to their attention. Or you might suggest a meeting with a counselor or mediator to discuss the problem and agree on ways to rectify the situation for the benefit of your kids. Sometimes being held to account as all it takes for your ex-spouse to stop the negative behavior.
Teaching the truth and other life skills
If your ex-spouse does not want to cooperate, you and your blended family partner are on your own and will need a more proactive approach. Make your step family home an environment where people make judgments based on what they know is true, not on what they hear. Teach your kids, and your step kids, that simply hearing something over and over again does not make it true. Encourage them to ask questions about everything, including things they may hear from your ex-spouse, and to consider whether something he or she says about you or the blended family members sounds likely or totally impossible. Promise your kids that you will always tell them the truth, and then, always tell them the truth! It can be quite a consolation, or perhaps a warning, that kids do figure out the truth of what their parents have said by the time they become adults. If you need additional assistance contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center for coaching.