Most parents I work with are enlightened enough to understand that badmouthing each other is wrong and that kids need both parents. But sometimes comments slip out of even the tightest, most well-intentioned lips. This is forgivable because no one’s perfect. What’s not so forgivable is when parents try to justify their negative comments, acting like some valiant hero guiding their kids around land mines left by their ex’s. Some defend their negativity and attacks by claiming the kids need to know “my side of the story.”
Some claim “it’s the principle of the matter,” or “this is a teaching opportunity” for the kids to learn from the other parent’s mistakes. Sure, badmouthing is wrong, they tell me, but this situation merits a special exemption to that rule.
In my experience, the only way this stops is when parents are confronted with, and accept as reality, the pain and damage they are causing their kids.
This post is inspired by Kayla, a young adult looking back on her parents all-consuming, high conflict divorce. Though her parents loved her dearly and had the best of intentions, their constant badmouthing absolutely confused, debilitated, and marginalized her. Kayla has often wished she could go back and tell them, “There are no sides, just our family. To take a side is to divide myself in two.”
The hatred was so bad that Kayla felt like she had to choose one parent over the other. But the idea of choosing sides felt so unnatural because they were equal parts of her. So when her parents badmouthed each other, Kayla felt like they were badmouthing her. She explained: “I am my parents. So when they would say things like ‘well that side of the family is just crazy. I’m thinking to myself, well shit, half of me is them.”
Siblings Turned on each Other
The conflict was so bad that her siblings ended up taking sides and turning on each other. This just increased Kayla’s loneliness. She remembers when one sibling would get mad at her, and say she was “acting like mom.” Or another sibling would say she was “acting like dad.” As a seven-year-old, she began to believe that if she was like either of her parents, it was bad. For a time, she thought her parents were both horrible people and was deathly afraid she would become like them.
Maladaptive Coping Behaviors
In order to survive and make sense of her world, Kayla developed maladaptive coping behaviors. She remembers: “I began to shit-talk the other parent to my mom/dad because they would give me positive feedback when I did… even further separating me from them.”
I Wish My Parents Had Put a Stop to All the Shit-Talking
To make matters worse, the parental conflict was fueled by each parent’s “tribe,” friends and family members who actively supported their hatred of the other parent. Kayla remarks: “I wished my parents had put a stop to all the shit-talking that went on by other family members (even my siblings), who always made little comments digging on the other parent and that really hurt because it made me feel like they were shit-talking about me.”
Her extended family told her that the other parent was the reason they were no longer a family. She started to blame and resent both parents, and then finally not care enough to feel anything for them.
I Wish They Would Have Been Honest With Me.
To add to all the confusion, there was a lot of misinformation and half-truths told to her. She wasn’t ready to hear the whole story, they told her, so they told her parts of it. Instead of the half-truths, she wished they would have told her and her siblings, “You are not ready to hear all of this yet, so I’m going to wait until you are able to understand the whole story instead of telling you confusing bits and pieces now.”
When parents and their support systems badmouth each other, the world becomes a much scarier place for kids because they cannot depend on those closest to them to be honest and to protect their feelings.
Kayla remembers thinking the world was an uncertain place. She could not trust her parents, so who could she trust? She’d lie awake all night trying to figure out what was true and what was not.
If you had to choose between yourself and your child, who would you choose? What if it meant keeping all negative comments about your ex to yourself, no matter how justified you feel?
The solution is simple: Do not badmouth your ex! If you need to vent, then confide in a trusted adult when the children aren’t around.