How should I respond when my child tells me that my ex-spouse has been making some very critical and unkind statements about me? What's the wisest way to handle this situation?
While many custody agreements prohibit parents from verbally attacking their ex-spouses in front of their children, court edicts don't always change behavior. The important thing to notice is that the attitude of the courts is a reflection of the seriousness of the issue. This is a case where words can be extremely hurtful and inflict long-term damage on young and impressionable minds.
Before doing anything else, you should try to figure out whether your ex-spouse really said the things he or she is reported to have said. We all know that kids are capable of exaggerating or even making up stories, especially if they have some kind of vested interest in pitting mom and dad against one another. So don't jump to conclusions until you've made a serious effort to gather the facts. Your knowledge of your child's and your ex-spouse's personalities is a good place to begin your assessment of the information you've received.
If the evidence convinces you that inappropriate comments are being made, let your child know that you plan to discuss it directly with your former spouse. This will give you a chance to communicate your motives for taking action and the way you plan to deal the problem. For example, you might say, "For some time now you've been mentioning certain negative things that your mother (or father) has been saying about me. I think it's important to our entire family that we put a stop to this kind of talk, and I believe there's only one way to do that: I'm going to speak with her (or him) about the problem and see if we can't find a way to agree about what we will and will not say about each other. That way, if we have issues with each other, we can resolve them without bringing you into it."
The final step is to contact your ex-spouse and ask if he or she is willing to support such a plan. Whatever the response, you can still make up your mind not to retaliate by launching verbal counterattacks. This is not to say that you should "candy coat" your ex-spouse's flaws for the sake of your child. When you have legitimate concerns, you should voice them, but you should also do your best to maintain an attitude of respect. Hopefully your child will see that your actions speak louder than your ex-spouse's words.
If you need further help sorting all this out, or if you'd simply like to discuss your situation at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department.
Divorce and Infidelity