How To Respond To Children’s Questions About The ‘Other Parent’ Without Badmouthing

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We’ve all been there. Whether you’re a biological parent, a stepparent, an aunt/uncle, grandparent, or friend, more than likely you’ve experienced a time when a child was asking you questions about their parent. Of course, this is often when words fail us the most, and it’s easily one of the most common times adults and parents misstep and end up speaking words that may cause damage that isn’t easy to reverse.

“It’s very important that your children hear you make positive comments about their other parent. And you shouldn’t badmouth the people who love your children – especially the other parent.” – Ellen Kellner, an expert with The National Association of Divorce for Women and Children

The subject of the other parent will come up, and it’s a matter of when rather than if. It’s important to meet your child in the middle and bring calmness during these difficult discussions, because they’re coming from a place of confusion and vulnerability. Kellner reminds us, “When it is your child doing the talking, remember she is also listening. She is hearing what you say about her other parent and she is internalizing all of those words.” She then asks us to ponder… “What form will your words take? Will you talk about her dad/mom through clenched teeth or through a smile? You get to choose what your child hears from you.”

dad holds daughter, mom is walking in distance
Courtesy of Pauline Loroy (via Unsplash)

The “Old Way”

It’s easy to take the route of “an eye for an eye” and throw out the filter, letting old pain and resentment resurface. Adults who deal with their pain by burying or avoiding often find themselves using the “Old Way.” Dealing with things the “Old Way” looks like: “Rarely mentioning your ex’s name, with the assumption that everyone is aware that the ex was a part of the past – and a bad part at that,” says Kellner. “In moments of weakness, his/her name is mentioned, certainly not in a positive light, oftentimes hissed through clenched teeth and followed by a string of expletives… The comments that you make about your ex are anything but positive. Everyone in the household knows that it is better to avoid the topic altogether, and they do.”

“In situations like these, your child/ren knows, through experience, that mentioning his/her dad’s/mom’s name brings a wrath of sarcasm and old pain to your surface,” continues Kellner. “She knows that in your home, her dad’s/mom’s name is not welcome. And you are just fine with that.”

The “New Way”

Recognizing our cold resentful words only accomplish continuing a trauma cycle, as parents, we need to make the conscious decision to move forward into healing, growth, and acceptance. In doing so, we will alleviate the need for our children to heal from our experiences.

Rather than letting the thought of any individual cause us to clench our teeth and hiss their name, we acknowledge the trauma response we are exhibiting and we choose to let our feelings out in a more private, therapeutic way of expressing, such as writing or speaking to a therapist. Whatever method of expression we take, we should be processing our feelings, moving through them, and seeking to understand rather than dwelling and festering in them. The “New Way” promotes and encourages examination of our histories in order to learn from experiences which have deeply affected us, so we may improve future situations should they present themselves.

Dad site on curb with his son, looking at him
Courtesy of Sebastian Leon Prado (via Unsplash)

Healthy Boundaries While Healing

Although we are processing through pain and resentment, we should avoid subjecting our children to this process, as they are not capable or suitable to support us in our adult experiences yet. While we may want to let our children in on the details “so they better understand” or “can decide for themselves,” it’s completely inappropriate, often traumatic, and not easily undone. It’s important for parents to have healthy boundaries with their children. This often looks like:

  • Removing personal emotions Focus on what your child is saying, feeling, and the emotion they are expressing (happy, excited, sad, worried).
  • Respond with understanding – Without bad mouthing or insinuating ill will of the other parent, verbally acknowledge and support your child’s feelings.
  • Encouraging your child to express their feelings – It’s super important to your child that their parents know how they feel, but it’s always better coming from your child than it is from you. If your child isn’t comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with their parents, it’s equally as important you find a therapist or professional so they may further explore the reason behind their hesitation. Therapists can then help your child learn healthy coping mechanisms to help navigate these tough times so they may eventually be able to do so themselves.
  • Seeking support for yourself No doubt you have gone into mental breakdown mode a time or two and spent the night sobbing into your pillow for hours regarding the situation you and your child are in. It’s difficult for the best parents to navigate uncharted territory as far as co-parenting and encouraging a relationship with someone you are done having in your life. But your children deserve the best you have to offer! So seek to journey through these feelings of yours, separately, and be better able to focus on your child’s. Time meets place! Therapists are chalk full of information, new techniques and ways of doing/looking at things, and will be better prepared to help you navigate both your roles.
  • Acknowledging your two roles– It’s detrimental you acknowledge you have two roles; the first being a parent, the second being an ex-partner. You can choose to focus on “ex-partner” and keeping the boundaries bold, but most parents who journey through the healing process usually lose that terminology and replace it with something like “co-parent.” Either way, support is recommended for both roles, and may greatly assist with keeping co-parent level content/adult details out of discussions with your child.
  • Keeping your child out of court talk – While you may think it’s important to let your child know what is going on in court, because it’s important to you and involves them, court talk is a breeding ground for bad feelings/concern/and intimidation. Keep the legal talk and conversations about court/child custody proceedings and processes/attorney meetings out of reach of your children’s ears. They will thank you when they are adults.

Your children need you to let them stay children. When they need you, get on their level.

mom holds her daughter on her lap, looking down at her
Courtesy of Omar Lopez (via Unsplash)

Sometimes, We Struggle To Find Words…

It’s okay not to always know what to say, but it’s important not to say anything you can’t take back or that will make things worse. That means sometimes you have to tell your children you don’t have all the information. This may sound like:

  1. “We all try to make the best decisions we can based on the information we have; sometimes we just need more information.”

This lets your child know you value the decisions of the other parent as equally important as yours. Whether or not you agree with them is irrelevant to your child.

  1. “I don’t know why that happened, but I do know that your Mom/Dad would want to know how you felt about it.”

This response informs your child you don’t have all the answers, but also reassures them their other parent cares about their feelings and encourages them to share them with the parent in question.

  1. “I can’t speak for Mom/Dad but I can help you come up with a way to bring it up to them.”

This sets a boundary in regard to assumptions about what the other parent would/wouldn’t say if they could answer the question for their child. It’s important to avoid assumptions and instead relay that you don’t have the answer, but will support your child in coming up with a way to bring their concerns up with the other party.

mom holds her son in her lap, comforting him
Courtesy of Jordan Whitt (via Unsplash)
  1. “This is pretty frustrating. While I can’t change it, I can help you come up with ways to deal with it.”

Acknowledging your child’s feelings with verbal recognition of their emotions regarding the situation helps them feel understood, and it encourages them to continue being vulnerable. By recognizing and acknowledging you are there to help them navigate these uncharted waters, and there are healthy ways of coping and expressing oneself, your openness to learning new techniques encourages your children to do the same. Lead by example!

  1. “I hear what you’re saying. I wish I could offer more than an ear and some advice to help manage it. I love you.”

Telling your child you hear them reassures them you are paying attention to their thoughts and feelings. Who doesn’t love feeling heard? Letting them know that while you wish you could do more, what you can do is be there to listen and maybe give them some advice to help manage the stress and worry is so important. While we think our loved ones know these things, they need to be said out loud from time to time, and most especially and more often during tough times.

In Closing

Communication is key, and making sure it’s healthy communication is essential to the process. Try your best not to project feelings or negativity onto your children. Release them from the burden of making sure their feelings align with yours to make their relationship with you easier. Your child doesn’t deserve it, and neither does the other parent.

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Courtesy of Issac Quesada (via Unsplash)

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Heather Leanne of Mama Bear Blended Family Support. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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