Your kids have just gotten a front-row seat to another heated argument between you and the other parent.
Your Ex lashed out at you, slammed a door, or made a cutting remark about what a lousy parent you are.
Maybe this happens all the time, and you’ve become used to dealing with hateful words and the ongoing tension, never knowing what’s going to set your Ex off next.
You simmer with a mixture of guilt and despair. You know this isn’t good for the kids! And you’re at a loss for words. Just how do you explain to your children what’s happening?
How do you tell them the truth about the situation?
Don’t they have a right to know what’s really going on?
Shouldn’t you defend yourself by giving them your side of the story?
And how do you address your Ex’s behavior so that your kids aren’t affected?
If your Ex is bad-mouthing you, then naturally you want to defend yourself.
If your Ex kept it between the two of you, maybe you could let it go. You have better things to do than to argue with your Ex and plead for decency.
But when it’s happening in front of the children, your need for things to stay civil jumps to a whole new level.
First, you’re angry that your Ex would put your kids through this. Can’t they see beyond their own issues and agenda and put the kids first?
And you’re also indignant. You want to defend yourself and make sure your kids know that your Ex is wrong about you. You DON’T want your children growing up thinking you’re a jerk.
Which is exactly why you should tell them the truth. Right? Actually, no.
As it turns out, telling the truth isn’t what’s always best for your kids.
Telling “the truth” often places children in a no-win situation.
For starters, truth is subjective. When parents split up, you can pretty much expect that there will be at least two different perceptions about what the truth is. AND… don’t forget that your truth may not necessarily be your children’s truth.
Think of it this way, in a movie theatre full of hundreds of people, everyone can see the same movie. Yet, each one will come away with a slightly different interpretation of what they just watched.
Everyone will have a different perception. Each person’s truth will be unique.
The same goes for what’s happening between you and your Ex.
Your Ex may be a total jerk towards you. But is that true for your kids?
Even though your Ex might have been a horrible partner for you, it doesn’t make them a horrible parent for your kids.
In fact, what’s true for you is likely not true for your kids. And as badly as your Ex may be behaving towards you, you are still making it harder on the kids when you tell them your truth.
When you tell your kids your side of the story (no matter how true you believe it is), you put them in the middle of a no-win situation. There is no way they can embrace your perspective without denying or rejecting your Ex’s point of view.
No matter how you slice it, they’re caught in a huge loyalty conflict. They love both of you, and don’t want to have to choose sides. So how can they be loyal to both parents, when their parents are at odds with each other?
The answer is they can’t. For your children, it’s an impossible situation.
But for many kids, it doesn’t stop there.
When a parent speaks negatively about their co-parent, children often feel divided. A part of your child wants to agree with you (because he loves you and wants to make you happy), but he also wants to stick up for his other parent (because he loves and wants to make them happy, too!).
Children are fiercely loyal to their parents. Following a divorce it’s not uncommon for kids to try to please both parents, and as a result may say different things to each parent. They are stuck walking a fine line feeling anxious and stressed on both sides.
That’s a lot for children to handle, which is why keeping your opinion (aka truth) to yourself is critical.
So does that mean you have to keep quiet and can never disagree with your Ex?
Are you destined to be their doormat forever?
By making one little shift you can ease so much of the stress for you and your kids by taking your judgement about the other parent out of the equation.
Things become MUCH simpler when you focus on the problem, NOT the person.
Imagine your Ex told the kids that the divorce is all your fault and that you broke up the family. Suppose from your POV that isn’t true.
Instead of telling your kids the other parent is wrong or a liar (focusing on the person) You might say something like, “I don’t agree with what Mom/Dad said, I have a different opinion. When a divorce happens there are often lots of things parents see differently, this is one of them.” (focusing on the problem)
It would also help to follow up with… “When Mom and Dad don’t agree, it’s not your job to try to fix it or make things better.” Make sure your kids know it’s a grown-up problem, that Mom and Dad need to deal with, not them.
See, your kids’ problem is different from your problem. For them, the problem is that they’re hearing bad things and they don’t know what to do about them. They are talking to you about what they’re hearing because they need your help and guidance.
When kids share with you negative comments or bad things they’ve heard about you, do your best to focus on how it feels for them. So you might say something like…
“Sounds like dad is really angry at mom. I’m sorry you had to hear that. Sometimes when adults get angry they say things that are mean or hurtful. How do you feel about what Dad said?”
Wow, Mom must have been pretty upset to say those things. When divorce happens, grown ups don’t always know how to handle their angry feelings. I know you love both of us very much. What do you think about what Mom said?
The last sentence is key, because it helps your child to connect the dots between what she experiences and her emotions/thoughts. It also reinforces that it’s okay to share those feelings with you. It’s an opportunity to teach self-awareness while also opening the door to a deeper relationship with your child.
I know that after a fight with your Ex, you’re riled up with emotion and desperate to make things right for your kids. Your gut is telling you to set the record straight. But what your children need more than anything is validation and connection.
In other words, what she needs most is knowing that whatever she’s feeling in that moment is okay. She’s probably confused, scared, sad, angry, or all four. It’s not your job to fix or change what she’s feeling—only to listen to her and let her know you love her. In doing this, you’re giving her the only truth that matters: your unconditional love.
With all the stress and overwhelm of parenting from two different households, it’s all too easy to allow parental conflict to get in the way of your best intentions for your kids.
Remember that even in “intact” households, children will still be exposed to differing viewpoints and conflict.
In my video program Co-Parenting With Purpose, I’ll help you navigate the tricky and often difficult moments shared parenting brings.
Drawn from over 20 years of working with separated and divorced parents, I’ve addressed the key challenges you’re likely to encounter as you deal with an Ex who is often very different from you.
I’ll give you my best tips for sharing information with the other parent in person, by phone, over email or text–so that you can keep communication focused on what matters most… your kids.
I’ll also teach you how to help your child get in touch with all of the different feelings that come from having “two houses”, including how to respond in a way that brings you both closer together:What Kids Need to Know About Divorce
The only truth your child needs to hear from you is the ongoing reassurance of your endless love for them.
Wishing you and your children the very best,
P.S. Do your kids come back from the other house a mess?
In my program, I’ll teach you how to make household transitions smoother and how to handle differences in the way you and your Ex parent your child:Learn More