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