Better than badmouthing: how to debrief difficult co-parenting situations

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by SARAH COLVIN

Mother and daughter together laughing while talking

Walking with your children through the difficulties of divorce and co-parenting can require tapping imagination, outside resources and understanding love. ©Adobe Stock

“Oh, that’s so wrong!” This had become my 8-year-old daughter’s phrase of the month.

The situations eliciting that response varied from the accurate to the absurd, and occurred so frequently I began to wonder if she really knew what “so wrong” looked like. A recent experience showed me why.

One evening her father dropped by unannounced and briskly attempted to pull her from the porch for a walk. She was without shoes or coat in winter and, after being blocked from this outing, he pretended to hand over a bag, but upon my reaching my hand out for the bag, he dropped it on my feet. Proudly, he sneered and returned to his truck, leaving to return another day.

Is it possible to survive these moments without the situation devolving into a shouting match, breaking down into manic tears, or badmouthing the other parent in front of your children? Yes. There will be those who read this and think, “Goodness, my ex would never do that!” and others for whom the initial reaction will be “Oh, sadly that’s nothing.”

Depending on the severity of the problems, finding confidence in your ability to cope with a difficult co-parent may take months or years of practice. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, the trauma you go through is real, and the following skills aim to get you to a place of peace sooner.

Disengage from bad behavior. In the past, when confronted about something I found to be baseless or insulting, I would defend myself. This typically took the form of arguing, which I am not proud of, but I could not stand the thought of my daughter hearing such words and believing them to be true. I believed I had to fight. Eventually, one day after openly battling over flawed logic, I apologized to my daughter for what she witnessed. Her takeaway: “You two sure do fight a lot.” I’d genuinely believed defending myself was a way to prove to her I wasn’t a pushover, or that any of the insults hurled my way were true. Instead, she simply thought we were both nuts.

Understand your obligations. Some days it feels as though you are constantly preparing for battle. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t need to explain myself every time I was confronted, and I didn’t need to suffer crushing anxiety every time the phone displayed his incoming calls. “Sometimes those who experience domestic violence feel safer when they respond, even if it’s not safe,” says Candy Phillips, executive director at First Step, in Harrisonburg. Fear (of not knowing what the other person is planning, where they are, what they might do in retaliation after being ignored) drives many divorced parents to continue allowing the intrusion into our daily lives.

My daughter simply felt we were both nuts.

Candy recommends any person in this situation work with an advocate to help create those legal boundaries when it becomes necessary. “What’s important is your life and your kid’s life,” she points out. That is all. The material and financial items can always be figured out and assistance is available in most communities. First Step is one of many places that provide 24/7 crisis intervention services as well as shelter, support and legal advocacy to women and men experiencing domestic violence in its many forms. Allow yourself the peace of knowing the only individuals you are obligated to are yourself and your children.

Talk about it. We have likely all heard the adage that badmouthing our child’s other parent is unacceptable, and that standard should not change. The problem is an alternative is rarely provided, leaving many people feeling their circumstances need to be accepted and they must “play nice” even when they are being degraded or humiliated in front of their children. Unfortunately, civil co-parenting is not possible for everyone and certain circumstances warrant, not badmouthing, but appropriate debriefing, such as in the following example.

In the past I would avoid these conversations out of fear of badmouthing, or I would be overly apologetic for discussing what happened. But this time I did have that conversation with my 8-year old, confidently and without apology, and it was disheartening to realize she did not see his behavior as being “so wrong.” After all, she is thoughtful and well mannered—mustn’t this jar her sense of right and wrong? No. She basically had written us both off as two people who fight a lot and any bad behavior on either part was par for the course.

After providing alternate scenarios where this interaction occurs (at a restaurant, the waiter pretends to hand you your spaghetti, but drops the plate onto the table; your banker thrusts the money through the bill slot, dollars spilling onto the floor), she was able to validate for herself this is not an appropriate way to treat others. A “badmouthing-free” discussion about life experiences helps your child to critically analyze interpersonal situations. Also, this may prevent them from seeing bad behavior as the norm and help them to recognize inappropriate or disrespectful relationships in their future.

Take the high road … without losing your ground. Know that taking the high road does not mean pretending everything is fine. With the exception of professional or larger (than your circle of close friends) scale social environments, it is rarely beneficial to act as if nothing is wrong when it clearly is. Your kids will know something is off, and if open communication is your goal—it is worth considering having those lines open in both directions.

Develop healthy relationships and friendships. A friend recently shared her father’s wise quote from childhood that stuck with her into adulthood: “The five people you spend the most time with determine who you will become.” If you have been through an abusive relationship and have removed yourself from it, congratulations: this is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in life.

However, when you look around at the other people who remain in your and your child’s lives, are you confident these people emulate the qualities you want to have—or you wish for your kids to have when they grow up? Severing ties is never easy, but if the answer to the previous question was no, it may be time to explore new hobbies or career options, and seek to surround yourself with the types of people who offer the friendships and relationships that reflect your ideal state.

The other thing any married couple can get from this example is to remember most marriages are far from perfect, even when couples choose to stay together. Marriage is full of highs and lows, and the years with small children can be especially challenging. So the willingness to not badmouth your spouse even if angry is good advice that applies to many married couples as well as divorced parents.

Remember this: Your life, your children’s lives and the gifts you offer to the world are immeasurably valuable. No matter how it feels at times, no one can actually minimize that.

SARAH COLVIN is a freelance writer, happily remarried wife and mother, and registered nurse from Upstate New York who focuses on family and population health issues.

Help When You Need It

Locally:
First Step in Harrisonburg
(540) 434-0295
http://www.firststepva.com/

Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-838-8238
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
If you are in an emergency situation, call 911.

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