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How to Explain Your Unhealthy Ex to Your Children

Updated on June 12, 2012

Parenting Tips

Children are naturally and intensely loyal to their parents. The child remains loyal even when their parent has made multiple mistakes in their care. That loyalty is not a bad thing, but it becomes difficult for the other parent who may be quite a bit healthier. The child is often confused between their loyalty to the unhealthy parent and their understandings that the parent has problems that negatively affect the child.

So what is the healthy parent to do? How do you do to explain the unhealthy parent to the child? How do you help the child to understand the difference between their love and loyalty and their need to cope effectively with the unhealthy parent’s behaviors? How you deal with this issue may make the difference between a fairly well coping child and one who develops an Adjustment Disorder, anxiety, or depression over the situation.

The first task is to let the child see you interacting with the unhealthy parent in a healthy manner. This does not mean that you need to have social visits with your ex, but it means that when you have contact with them concerning issues with the child, you follow some guidelines on how you interact that are healthy and respectful. (See the article titled: ‘Terms of Engagement’). When you do this, you are modeling a good way to interact for the child. One of the most important things is to help your child to strengthen their boundaries while at the same time allowing the available love, concern and support of the unhealthy parent to get through.

Many unhealthy ex spouses are also unhealthy parents. They may make promises to the child that they do not keep. They may engage the child in bitter conversations and accusation about you or your new spouse. They may try and test the child’s loyalty in many ways that stress the child. They may expose the child to non-related adults that you find unacceptable, or the basic care of the child does not meet your standards of care. At the very least, they may have far more lax rules in their house than you have in yours. All of these things can serve to confuse the child.

The younger the child, the more difficult it is to help them understand and cope with the unhealthy parent, but you can still use the guidelines below, but may have to change the language a bit or repeat them more often for younger children.

1. Affirm the child’s love, care and respect for the other parent. No matter how you feel about your ex, you need to work to preserve the relationship your child has with their other parent.

2. Follow the guidelines for ‘Terms of Engagement’.

3. Always avoid any criticism, belittling, or angry expression about the other parent when the child is around. Watch your facial expressions and body language. If you speak about them kindly through gritting teeth, you have failed.

4. Empathize with the child’s disappointment and offer comfort when the other parent lets them down (but again, avoid speaking badly about the other parent, and do not offer excuses on behalf of the other parent.) Also avoid the temptation to compensate for the other parent’s failure by indulging the child or trying to replace a promised (something).

5. When you refer to the other parent, use the title that the child uses for them (Mom, Dad, etc.) and not the other parent’s first name, or worse yet, ‘your mother/father’.

6. If you decide to explain a particular difficulty of the other parent to help the child understand, remember to do this respectfully and in an age appropriate manner. For example, you may need to tell the child that the other parent is in the hospital, but you don’t need to state that they were intoxicated and driving, or that they got so depressed that they tried to self harm. Say: “Mommy (Daddy) had a car accident and is in the hospital”. Or, “Mommy (Daddy) got very sad, and went to the hospital to feel better.” Give the explanation from the best place in yourself, with a kind and compassionate tone.

7. Tell the truth, but only give the bare minimum of explanation needed. For example, if the other parent has an addiction and for some reason is not able to have the child at their home, or is in treatment, you can say: “Mommy (Daddy) has been sick lately, and so it’s not the right time for you to go and spend time with her/him.” If the other parent is struggling with adult relationship issues, you might say: “Mommy (Daddy) is having a tough time right now sorting out a few things, so it’s not the right time for you to go and spend time with her/him.” If the other parent does not disclose what the problems are, and is refusing to have the child for scheduled visits, you can explain: “Mommy (Daddy) is very busy right now, it seems, so it’s not a good time for you to for you to go and spend time with her/him.”

8. Don’t forget to give reassurances to the child. When you have a history of many negative emotions and thoughts about your ex, you may allow these to tempt you to withhold reassurance to the child as a method to ‘help the child see that the other parent is no good.’ This is not that way to do this; the child, with your use of these guidelines above, will eventually be able to sort out the other parent’s illness and character flaws from the parts that are good. Instead, say something like: “Mommy (Daddy) is having a tough time right now, but soon things will be better, and when they are, we will both make sure that you get to spend time with her (him).”

9. Help the child to re-adjust their mood and behavior following the transition from your ex’s home to yours. Children often have a mood and behavioral adjustment task between homes, since both homes do things differently, and your ex may be overindulgent to the child. Your child needs to be reminded frequently that there are different rules in each house, and once they are back in your house, they must follow your rules. Again, when you do this, do not speak negatively about the other parent’s parenting. It’s best to give a child about thirty minutes of unchallenged, undemanding quiet time when they first return to your home.

10. If a crisis happens in your ex’s life (they disappear for a while, for example), it’s O.K. for you to tellyour child that you do not know what is going on with their Mom/Dad. Empathize with the child’s worry and concern, and explain how difficult it is when situations like this happen, and how you (positively) cope with them yourself. Offer reassurance to the child like this: “It’s hard not knowing what is going on with Mommy (Daddy). But you are here, safe with me, and when we find out what is going on, we will let you know.


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