Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Badmouthing Ex-spouse and His Children

The experts advise divorcing parents to refrain from bad-mouthing the ex-spouse. On the surface this sounds like great advice. If both parents follow it, the children will be spared oceans of emotional pain, will be (relatively) free from adult troubles and be able to develop normally as children.

But what if one of the parents tells the children slanderous things about the other? And what if the slanderous parent is so successful, the child(ren) begin to believe what their parent is saying, even though their own experience is the opposite? I have heard a number of stories of fathers who spew hateful things about their wives or ex-wives to their children, the wives don’t defend themselves or help their children sort through the misinformation, and the children at first begin to believe what Dad says, and eventually hate their mother and want nothing to do with her.

I’ve heard tales of children maintaining that hateful attitude until they themselves are middle-aged and beyond. And even if they finally catch on that Dad was lying, the relationship with Mom is never very close because the lies cover nearly every area of their relationship with Mom and it will take the children the rest of their lives to sort through all the untruths. As issues come up, item by item, and they face one painful belief after another about Mom’s horrible neglect or mistreatment of them or their dad, and they find that Mom actually did not do what Dad said she did, or if she did it was because he did something to misinform or block her, it can be very difficult to let go of “truths” that are not truth at all but have become a part of the child’s self-concept and beliefs about the family history. Because of what Dad said about Mom, the child now believes he or she is not worthy of Mom’s love or is not loveable.

This is tragic. Life will always be extra difficult for that child who mistakenly thinks her mother doesn’t love her and/or is inherently bad. In addition to that, she will have missed out on a relationship that is usually more closely bonded than that of father/child. (When the mother is the badmouthing parent, the children also suffer loss, but the loss may be different.) Without a bonded Mother/child upbringing, children tend to be unable to develop close relationships with others for the rest of their lives. And if the hateful attitude of their dad is the daily “bread” for the family, the children learn to despise others (especially women) and any reaching out to others tends to be for selfish purposes and lacking in genuine caring and compassion. Because of this, I cannot agree with the experts in cases where one parent continually tells the children hateful and untrue things about the other.

However, for the maligned parent to join in the hateful talk only adds to the children’s distress and further impedes their ability to experience a “carefree” childhood and develop normally. Furthermore, if both parents badmouth, the children feel confusion and don’t know who to believe. So neither staying silent, nor badmouthing the children’s father with exaggerated tales or twisting the truth, nor vicious hateful talk will have a positive effect on the children and their relationships with their parents. The mother in this case must walk a very fine line of correcting the misinformation, but keeping all negative talk about their father to a minimum. She can appeal to the experiences of the children to help them sort through the conflicting stories. For example: Even if Mom said that to Dad, is she actually having nothing to do with the children? Does she act like she hates them? Is she being hateful when she helps them with their school work or expects them to abide by rules aimed at helping them develop to their full potential?

Children cannot be expected to sort through hurtful information by themselves; they do not have adequate reasoning skills to perform the task. And there is far too much to lose to allow one parent to drive a wedge between Mother and child.

But even if Mother does defend herself and appeal to the child’s own knowledge of truth, the end result may be less than healthy for the child because of the conflicting messages and accompanying emotions. The child loves both her parents. When Dad uses vicious verbiage to downgrade and disrespect Mom, he has set himself up as the primary parent who has the right to define the person and behavior of every person—especially those in the family. Even if the child has concluded Dad is wrong, his love for Dad is likely to cause him to retain a part of Dad’s message—disrespect toward Mom. Indeed, disrespect toward Mom has been planted, and then with the repeating, disrespect is watered and tended, and is likely to flourish in spite of the child’s conclusions. It is Dad’s example toward their mother that is easily copied, especially in moments when the child wishes to rebel or discount what Mom says.

For the parent who would rejoice with that outcome, the monster will come to roost on your doorstep. A child who knows her parent is capable of being so obviously wrong about her other parent that even the child can see it, loses her respect and trust in the disrespectful parent. She will be unable to bond with the parent that lies to her. In addition, she will feel conflicted about that parent, and by extension, she will be conflicted about herself. She wants to say both her parents are good. If they are good, she can assume she is good, too. But if one of them bashes and lies about the other, how can she conclude the bashing parent is good? And if one of them bashes, can she be certain without a doubt that the bashing was not deserved? So she has to live with the possibility that both of her parents are bad.

If one of the child’s parents is unacceptable, is that true of him, too? Or perhaps his conclusions are wrong, and the bashed parent is actually the bad parent. Even worse, what if the bashing parent is partially correct (not all bad) and Mother is almost as bad as Dad says? With two bad parents, does that mean the child is terrible, too? If his mother is partially bad according to Dad, and he, himself knows Dad is partially bad for his vicious and untrue statements about Mom, the whole family, including him are probably bad and undeserving of respect. In other words, the bashing brings confusion to a child’s thoughts. It’s a confusion that never quite goes away and affects the child’s sense of who he is and how much respect he deserves from society.

The child then begins to either copy Dad and pick on others, or begins to assume a worth beneath everyone else, resulting in getting picked on.

Children rely on their parents and other adults around them for a sense of what is true and the difference between fantasy and reality. When one parent distorts truth by resorting to vicious lying about the other parent, the child has to take on an adult job and discern for herself what is truth. But because the person she naturally turns to to help her discern her world cannot be relied upon, she has to rely on the person the first person has made clear is secondary. And because that person is secondary in her mind, she can never be quite sure if her conclusions are correct.

This confusion will always be churning at some level in her brain, which steals some of her concentration, resulting in the likelihood of creating difficulty in getting good grades in school or of succeeding in life. The child is likely to either believe he or she is less than others, and then the stress of that belief brings the belief to fulfillment and results in poor achievement at nearly everything. Or conversely, the child is likely to believe he or she is super-important (like the bashing parent) and without any effort is entitled to privileges others can never attain no matter how hard they work, which also results in poor achievement at nearly everything.

The prognosis for children with one badmouthing parent is not good. What can the non-badmouthing parent do to reduce the damage, besides help the child to know the truth? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have suggestions.

First, use the reports of badmouthing as an opportunity to teach the children to pray for those who persecute you, as the Bible teaches.

Second, acknowledge to the child that this behavior is hurting both you, the child, and any siblings, and that all of you need to go to God for healing. Search for resources on how to accomplish this.

Third, don’t be in a hurry to force forgiveness, unless forgiveness is taught as something apart from reconciliation and trust. It is not appropriate to teach a child to behave as if it never happened. He or she may need to keep an emotional distance from Dad for awhile as a way to let him know the bashing is unacceptable to the child, and that there will not be a payoff for Dad.

Fourth, do not talk to your children about your own painful emotions about your (ex)spouse, except in areas where they are already involved as a way to show them you are available for them to talk about these things with you, and to model behavior that seeks healing rather than stuffing emotions inside. In those cases, use your difficulties as examples of how to deal with the pain, rather than as spouse-bashing opportunities.

Fifth, always double check your own motivations. Are you doing the right thing for the right reason? Are you helping the children discern absolute truth and keeping your bias (whether protective or accusatory toward the spouse) out of the discussion?

Sixth, if there is anything good you can tell your child about the other parent, do so. Some folks say there is good in everyone. But I have discovered the so-called good in some people is evil in motivation, and therefore I cannot call it good. It may be the only “good” that is to be found is in meeting minimal human expectations. (He fed and clothed the child, even if it was poorly done.)

Seventh, absolutely do not forget to find good things about your child and to comment positively to your child about them. In your effort to affirm your child, do not lie. The child will conclude you think he is so bad you cannot find anything to compliment him about, or will learn to negate what you say which will start a pattern of negating nice things about himself—even when they are true. And your whole effort is to keep your child solidly connected to truth and reality.

Lastly, accept that healing and mopping up after a badmouthing parent will take time. Especially, since badmouthing is not the only damaging thing he is doing.

Never forget: with God’s help there is hope—even for children of a hostile, verbally abusive parent, and also for their non-abusive parent who is suffering along with them. And although it doesn’t excuse the parent inflicting the damage, God is very capable of turning your woundedness and your child’s woundedness into something that blesses all of humanity and brings forth beauty and light to everyone it touches.

Waneta Dawn is the author of "Behind the Hedge, A novel" Please visit


  1. Thanks for this post, Waneta. It's a relatively un-talked-of topic.

    I've experienced this myself, with my daughter showing all the symptoms you talk about as long term consequences. One way I used to deal with it (while she was still seeing her dad) was when she began recounting to me the latest vile criticism he had made of me, I would say as calmly and objectively as I could, "Well that's dad's opinion, but it's not my opinion. Darling, if you listen to dad's negative comments about me, and discuss them with him when you're with him, that's your business, but it hurts me to hear them so could you please not repeat them to me?"

    When she wasn't simply recounting his criticisms, but was spewing them out of her angry mouth as her own personal tirade against me, I would sometimes say "Stop it! That's not true," and perhaps discipline her in some way for her rudeness. Other times I would a brush it off with a bit of irony: "Well I love you too, darling." This tends to shut up a tirade, or at least deflate the angry child a bit, by showing that you won't react back.

    Sometimes there were occasions when I simply had to tell her that what he'd said was not true, and point out the truth instead. I tried to always do this calmly.

    It is often possible to state the truth using "I" statements and thereby avoid denigrating the abuser's character, behaviour or motivation head-on.
    E.g. "I left daddy because it wasn't safe for me to live with him anymore." is less denigrating than saying "I left daddy because he was abusive and violent to me."

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, for your very helpful comments!

    I'm so sorry your child was so awful to you! And it's sad, because although you've moved away from your abuser, he got your child to do his abusing for him.

    I'm glad you brought up your experience with a very vocal child, and included your solutions for dealing with her behavior.

    My experiences with my daughter were more subtle, and since we had a fairly close and loving relationship, and she is one who wants to do the right thing for the right reason, it would take me awhile to realize her not following through on my requests was likely not a teenage behavior that was normal for a kid with a close relationship to her mom. Over time it became clear that her ignoring of my directives was caused by her deep-down belief that my minimal requirements were stupid or excessive. For example: "Since Dad doesn't require me to do homework, Mom is being ridiculous when she tells me it's important to complete and turn in all my homework." Even though she had shared her dad's statements about me, and told me she did not think they were true, her behavior made it clear that she DID believe them. And after she finally accepted that it IS important to complete homework, a year or two later a pattern of behavior led me to conclude her underlying belief was "Mom's teaching is still ridiculous: I should NOT have to work hard; life should be easy." Which is a cousin of 'I do not have to do homework."

    I could identify with her experience, since I too, had known in my head that the derogatory statements he said to me were not true, yet over time, I discovered that the areas of distress in my life were there because his awful words were still replaying in my head. Somewhere deep inside I HAD believed what he said. If I, as an adult had difficulty dealing with this phonomenon, how on earth could I help my child, who thought she loved and respected me fully, see that she deep down did believe what her dad had said and did disrespect me? With her tendency to conclude she was a big loser, I couldn't think of an effective way to explain to her that the lie she was believing was causing her difficulty which radiated out into many areas of her life, threatening her with failure, without also explaining where that lie had originated and why it was so attractive to her to believe it. (the life of ease and freedom of responsibility at her dad's, and his statements that this was how things should be). The trick was to talk in factual problem-solving terms instead of using emotional blaming or denigrating of either her or her dad.

    On the positive side, because I know the beliefs of her dad and finally learned to stop denying them, those same beliefs are easier to spot when my daughter copies him.

    Another way to make a point is to refer to acquaintainces and friends of her own age group or even folks who are my friends to show that actions are productive, counter-productive, or fall short of being as productive as they could be. And as always, look for times when her behaviors are productive, effective, or excellent, point out her successes, and tell her how proud I am of her.

  3. Waneta, my ex started villainizing me as soon as we split. As soon as I realized it, I called him on it, even though all communication was very brief and concise. I told him that visitation with the kids would be restricted as long as he didn't refrain from talking negatively or talking about our issues. His response was to deny it and agree to never do it. Months later, he was still doing it, and I didn't want to be dragged into a debate, but I repeated my request for him to stop it, and he said he would never say anything bad about me because I was such a great mother!

    That's the problem with him. He disguises his barbs such that it is hard to detect. Even the kids would find it hard to detect it - they get fed information about me that gets them to doubt my character (like what the serpent did to Eve in the garden), but it's subtle. My best friend once told me that she didn't recognize the abuse for a long time because he would say that I was a wonderful mother and talk about how much he loved me and the kids. He never used words like b*tch, but he certainly showed that he categorized women as such.

    I've noticed that that's how he character assassinates people lately, because he has been rebuked before by pastors for his attacks. So now when he wants to complain and denigrate someone, he has a three-pronged strategy - he compliments the hearer, then he demeans his target with examples of bad behavior, then he says something redeeming about that person as if he recognizes that that person is not all bad. But he doesn't take back the lies in the middle. Eg, "You are such a smart discerning person I wish more people could be like you; I mean, that writer is just a hardened bitter feminist - her recent book tells women to leave their husband and women actually follow it. Some of her older books were well written though." Very believable isn't it? If you don't see it as badmouthing, how can you combat it?

  4. Anonymous,
    What you are dealing with is a hard nut to crack. Because it is so subtle, and your children may not be aware of what is going on, you may want to refrain from telling them to keep such comments between themselves and their dad. (as the first commenter said she did.)

    As I mull this over, I wonder if talking about it (calmly, of course) would help. Ask questions like "What do you think? Am I a rebellious woman? How can you tell if a person is rebellious? Are you rebellious?

    Or What do you think? Am I a bitter feminist? What does bitter sound and act like? What does the Bible say about bitterness? Are you bitter? How can you tell? If I tell others you are bitter, would you like that?

    If you find out your ex referred to you as a feminist, you can ask your children (depending upon their ages, of course) what do you know about feminists? Do you know how and why the movement started? What is the bottom-line for feminists? (equality and respect, not being devalued, in case you can't answer that one right off.) And you could buy and read Jocelyn Andersen's "Woman this is War: Gender, Slavery, and the Evangelical Caste System." I suggest reading it together and discussing it, asking them what they agree with or disagree with. Jocelyn goes into the history of feminism, which was mostly done by Christian (Quaker) women who saw how others were being abused. It is not at all how pastors behind the pulpit paint it. Most feminists are not strident and bitter, but the men who talk about them sound strident and bitter. Feminists (I consider myself one) work to stop the disrespect and disregard toward women, to win equal pay for equal work, to free them from oppression and from dominating and cruel men. All of this is in line with scripture. There are SOME man-haters among them. But you can remind your children that those who are "man-haters" have been abused, conned, mistreated, taken advantage of. I don't know of anyone who has great love for con-artists. It would be ridiculous to say "she's a con-artist hater" or "she's a rapist hater" or "she's an abuser hater." Yet, that is what most "man-haters" are.

    I hope these suggestions are helpful. My own daughter shared alot with me about what was going on in school and at her dad's. We often batted suggestions back and forth for dealing with the situations, and she often did them in her own way as the situation warrented, many of them humorous and a triumph for her.

    For example, in high school a teacher, Mr. Gross, kept calling her the wrong name. She'd keep correcting him, but by the time the semester was nearly done, he was still calling her by the wrong name. I suggested she ask him if he'd like to be called Mr. Yucky, and we discussed possible scenarios. For one assignment, where they were to write a script about Izzy and Moe, she had them arrive at "Gross St" and say "Yuck!" as they stepped into muck as they were getting out of the carriage. Although both he and the students got the message, he continued calling her the wrong name. Finally during the last week of that trimester after he'd called her by the wrong name again, she said "How would you like it if I called you Mr. Yucky?" He was truly repentant then, and that was the last time he called her by the wrong name. A year later, we heard the students were still calling him Mr. Yucky, although I'm not sure if they were calling him that to his face. We got a kick out of that.

    There are often "cute" ways for dealing with junk, and "cute" worked for my daughter. Your children may be different, so find their preferred styles and work with that.