“What am I supposed to do when my daughter tells me that her father is telling her lies about me? I know I’m not supposed to badmouth my ex to my daughter, but she has to understand the truth, doesn’t she?”
It is, indeed, very distressing to hear that your ex is badmouthing you to your child. At such times, you’re bound to feel very angry at your ex. You want to prove yourself right and him wrong. You don’t care what happens; you just want to get even. Given the circumstance, these feelings are quite natural.
The problem is that though these feelings are meant for your ex-husband, when you express them to your daughter, you will be involving her in your battle. It’s as if you are shooting an arrow at your ex-husband, but before the arrow gets to him, it first goes through and injures your daughter. She will then have each parent asking her to be on his or her side. If she chooses to believe one parent, she automatically betrays the other. Since she wants — in fact needs — to please both parents, she is put in a no-win situation.
I know that what I’m saying is very difficult. It goes against all your natural reflexes. However, you cannot use your ex’s misbehaviour to justify your own. Effective parenting often involves putting yourself second and your child first. Logic must triumph over emotion. This is not the time to “act like you feel”. You can be comforted by the fact that children come to know the real story about their parents as they grow up.
Before you respond, put yourself in your daughter’s shoes. Think of how she is probably feeling. Take your ex out of the picture altogether. Whatever your child tells you, even if the information is totally false, don’t jump in and correct it by telling your side of the story. If you do, you’re putting her in the middle in the same way as her father did.
Often, if you respond with a neutral statement such as “Is that so?”, the situation is diffused and your child moves on. Another strategy is to make a response that focuses on how your child is likely feeling at the moment. A statement such as, “I’m sorry you’re caught between dad and me like this. It must be hard for you,” can be very comforting to a child. You may not score points in your contest with your ex, but you will have assured your daughter that she can at least count on one of her parents to be an island of sanity in the storm called divorce.
Janice Shaw, is a counselor and the coordinator of the separation and divorce programs at Jewish Family and Child Services in Toronto. She can be reached at (905) 882-2331.