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Why Shouldn’t My Kid Know I’m Angry About My Ex?

September 22, 2013

While you may not love your former partner be careful about poisoning your child with anger or disdain towards their other parent. Here’s why…

Kids form an impression of themselves as a reflection of their parents. They look up at their parents and say, I am half mommy and I am half daddy. In the best case scenario, parents feel good about each other and the children then develop healthy self esteem as a result of an internalization of this positive reflection. Kids with healthy self-esteem are better able to concentrate on school, appropriate relationships and even fun. They are typically better behaved and typically achieve more scholastically and vocationally.

However, if one parent causes the other parent to be seen negatively, then the child must look inside and ask, “Which side of me is then bad.” Now imagine if that is reciprocated so the negative image formation runs both ways with both parents causing the other to look bad in the eyes of the child. Then this child when looking inside and seeing him or herself as both parents, must conclude, “Being of both parents, I must be all bad.” This leads to poor self-esteem.

Children who form a negative self-appraisal as a reflection of their view of parents, are themselves more apt to be angry and/or depressed and/or anxious and/or withdrawn. These children may not care about school performance (why invest in myself as I am not worthy of investment) and/or the quality of their social relationships (if I am worthless, why should it matter if people like me) and/or they may seek validation as expeditiously as possible (early onset sexual behavior and/or delinquent behavior where both gain quick validation albeit for the wrong reasons).

It is not enough for angry separated parents to retort, “I never talk in front of the kids.” This is very often far from the truth and even if it resembles the truth, these very same parents likely bristle at the mere mention of the other parent or fume when having communicated with their former partner or when having spoken of their former partner with family, friends or lawyer. Children are exposed to these parental behaviors which clearly signal to them, the other parent is bad. They don’t need to see or hear a parent’s communication with or about the other parent, they need only be exposed to the aftermath to still be affected.

When children start showing the impact of their exposure to parental anger and disdain, then the parents are apt to blame each other and seek to point out the shortcomings of the others parenting that led to the child’s behavior. As one or both does this, really they are only reinforcing the child’s view of him or herself, that he or she is either half or fully bad and thus they are intensifying emotional issues for the child.

If you truly have an interest in keeping your child emotionally well during your separation and having a child with intact self-esteem as they develop, then consider the following:

  1. Do not badmouth your child’s other parent. Respect your child’s relationship with the other parent whether or not you respect your former partner. If you have issues about your former partner (absent abuse, neglect, substance abuse) let those be your issues and not your child’s issues.
  2. Do not discuss your former partner with your child in the home. It is nonsense to think your child isn’t listening or at least hearing. While your child cannot always make out the words, they sure can hear the volume and feel the emotional intensity. Your child will know who that volume and tone is reserved for and it will hurt them on many levels with concern for you, concern for the other parent and concern for him or herself.
  3. Avoid contact with your child for at least an hour after any contact or dealings with your former partner. In other words, do your best to plan contact with or about your former partner for when your child is away from you both. Dealing with a former partner in the midst of a difficult separation can be distressing. You may need time to compose yourself before contact with your child. Your child needs to perceive you as being emotionally intact and capable. After-all, your child is dependent upon you and if you appear tattered or disheveled, your child will be concerned not only for you, but for their own safety and well being. Parents are there to provide for the child’s sense of safety and security, not the other way around. Parents who come to rely on their children emotionally are at risk of children who grow to become anxious and/or depressed. This is a topsy-turvy relationship, typically beyond the emotional capabilities of the child.
  4. Do not let other family or friends badmouth your child’s other parent to your child or with your child in the home. Some parents like to rely on the anger or inappropriate behavior of others to thus influence their child by proxy. This is the parent who can legitimately say, they didn’t poison their child. However, if you fail to protect your child from the negative influence of others, then you are neglecting your role to keep your child safe from these intrusions into their psyche. If you seek to live vicariously through the expressed anger and disdain of others, then you are making a choice to let your child be harmed emotionally. Instead, intervene and explain to family and friends, that you do not want to jeopardize your child’s view of him or herself by causing him or her to feel badly towards the other parent. Demand respect your your child’s relationships.

If you follow these tips, you not only increase the likelihood of your child getting through his or her parents’ separation less affected and with his or her self-esteem intact, but you may actually improve your own odds of lowering tensions between you and your former partner which in turn may facilitate your settlement and adjustment.

Bottom line: Your ex is still your kid’s parent. Don’t mess with your kid’s self-esteem. Let your kid see a positive reflection in him or herself in the eyes of both parents. Don’t worry about defending yourself by making the other parent look bad. This just compounds your kid’s view that he or she is then all bad! At least with one parent acting well, your child will have someone good to emulate. That’s not half bad.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847 

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

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10 Comments
  1. Thanks

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    • I think you get to a point when your children reach their 20’s or so where you have to respectfully lay out the facts because ignorance is not bliss and if you are an alienated parent due to parental alienation, there comes a time when the lies must be know. Using demonstrative evidence like photos, email etc.
      To tell them their alienating, abusive is sick (not bad) and back this up with many reliable references to me is the responsibility of a caring, Mother so this child abuse can end. Awareness is the first step. Again, you are not bad mouthing, you are laying out the facts of parental alienation.

      • Well. Good luck with that. I am more of the view that reasonable behavior begets reasonable behavior. If there is contact with the then adult children, I recommend focusing on one’s own behavior and relationship only. Even good evidence against the other parent runs the risk of causing even your adult children to remain defensive.

        Your good behavior however, should stand on it’s own.

        Having said that, I do recognize that not all relationship problems resolve themselves. I just don’t know how pulling the rug from beneath another elevates oneself.

      • Thanks I think your comments are well taken

  2. rivka permalink

    Very true.
    I see the results via my sister in law and her children.
    My brother in law’s second ex as well – he divorced her because of her ex using her children to get to her and my brother in law. These children were in a terrible bind. When I was there for a visit I used to be their shoulder and ear. I hope they are ok. They are wonderful children but emotionally in ruins.
    Even without divorce, parents make those very mistakes of badmouthing their partners. it is something my children drew my attention to just last week,
    When we fight we tend to involve the children. It is unfair and terrible for the children to be at a point of taking sides. I explained to them that no one is asking them to take sides and explained how we work things out.
    Most couples that fight do not show how they resolve their problems to the children. How would the children know how to get along with their own partners in the future? How to resolve their problems in partnership? I keep on thinking that my eldest is avoiding boys because she is fearing such a relationship. We do fight, we work things out and there are my in laws that don’t. Divorce in in the family, Grandparents (my side that remarried after years), Aunt (twice), Uncle (twice and remarried for a third time). It was her that mentioned that she want’s to know how couples resolve their differences and get along as a couple.

  3. I agree with your suggestions.

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  5. Mark permalink

    I totally agree it is best not to involve the kids in the divorce disagreement, but it is so hard to swallow. I have been maligned by my ex- for years when we were together and intensely since the separation. At one time the kids were afraid of my ” violent” behavior even though I never exhibited such. My wife would say ” Don’t hit her!” when I was disciplining my daughter for bad behavior even though that was never a question… Once brought up, she could never get that out of her head so the opportunity for parenting was lost. Consequently my grown daughter has authority issues and gives up or withdraws from any potential conflict without discussion. hence she cannot participate in group sports where there is potential for conflict or criticism.

    My biggest hurdle now is accepting that my wife has 80% of the money (achieved through secretive careful divorce planning for 7 years). My kids now think all the money I earned and saved for their college education is mom’s…. Yes i was stupid and let her put the accounts in her name… So I am in the position of them seeing me as some dummy who only collected debt during the marriage and smart mom collected money….

    I am resigned to accept that because it is all legal and what good would it do to show them that I was the one who worked hard to save that for them? I just have to keep my mouth shut and “do the right thing”. I hope they grow up with their self esteem intact and some some integrity.

  6. Reblogged this on Keep Your Head Without Losing Your Mind and commented:
    It’s hard to not let those feelings spill over…remember the kids didn’t ask for this.

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  1. Co-Parenting Tips For The Holidays: Creating New Memories | Moving Past Divorce Blog

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