Remember the adage from the classic Disney film, Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all?” It’s a great lesson to teach our children. But there are times in the midst of stress or grief or anger where we all mess up and say hurtful words, even mean, towards our spouse. And when those adversarial interactions occur between divorced parents, sometimes the verbal damage gets worse.
So how should you respond when your spouse or your ex-spouse says something hurtful to you in front of the kids? It hurts when a spouse or ex-spouse says something nasty but, when it happens in front of the kids, a whole new set of issues and thoughts come into play…
Will they agree with her?
What if they will think less of me?
Will they think this is an okay way to talk to their future spouse?
Will they look down on me if I fight back? What if I just take it?
So the next time there are hurtful words between you and your spouse or ex-spouse in front of the kids, here are a few things to consider.
1. Stay calm and don’t overreact yourself.
This is often easier said than done, but escalating the situation in front of the children is the last thing they want or need to see. Over time, they will appreciate and respect your self-control. Sometimes, silence in such a situation is the best policy.
2. Don’t pull the kids into it.
No child should have to be asked to “pick a side,” whether in an intact family or a divorced family. It’s like asking them to split themselves in half.
3. Don’t return fire.
If your spouse or ex-spouse starts firing at you, it’s normal to want to load up your gun and fire back. But when that happens, no one wins, and your friendly fire may just hit your kids.
4. Find a private moment to express how you’ve been hurt.
You need to be honest with your spouse or ex-spouse, not just assume that the wrong will take care of itself. If it’s not challenged in a gentle way, it can become a pattern that will harm your relationship and your kids.
5. Don’t talk negatively about your spouse or ex-spouse.
After the encounter is over, avoid saying things to your kids that make your spouse or ex-spouse look bad. You can certainly explain what is right and wrong, even point out if the hurtful thing was wrong. But treat it in a matter-of-fact way. Here are more tips on the dangers of complaining to your kids about your spouse.
6. Be willing to forgive and ask for forgiveness.
Closing your heart to reconciliation hurts you, your spouse or ex-spouse, and your kids. Kids don’t understand all the issues behind the hurtful words. But they do know this: They just want their parents to love and care for each other. And kids of divorced parents are no different. They, at least, hope for them to be kind to each other and get along.
7. Apologize in front of your kids.
I have a friend who likes to say in his family, “When we mess up, we should ‘fess up.” If your kids witness the wrongdoing between you and your spouse or ex-spouse, they need to witness the right doing too. Being willing to apologize in front of the kids actually increases the bond of the family and shows great humility.
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Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Has there been a time when you overreacted? How did it turn out?”