Dear Dr. Jann: I really want an amicable relationship with my ex, but he is very angry towards me and I know our daughter feels the tension. He says inappropriate things to her about me and I never say anything negative about him. I have tried speaking to him about this, for the sake of our daughter but he refuses to hear anything that I have to say. How can I either make him see the effects of his attitude and how can I co-parent with a brick wall?
Dr. Jann says: You’re actually asking me a few questions:
1. How can I get my ex to stop badmouthing me in front of the kids?
2. How can I make him see the effects of his badmouthing?
3. How can I co-parent with a brick wall?
First things first—you can’t “get” anyone to do anything. You see he’s not putting your daughter’s best interest first, but he may not. At this point, his desire to hurt you or revenge for whatever ended the relationship may be foremost on his mind. You mentioned that his change in attitude is recent. He may not realize what it’s doing to your child and therefore his judgement is off.
I like to think that the majority of parents who behave badly don’t know any better, and when they know better, they do better. That means education is the key to “getting” him to change because when he realizes what the badmouthing is doing to his beloved child, he will hopefully change his ways.
For the record, of course badmouthing hurts your child’s feelings, but it also puts her in the position of feeling as if she must choose sides. Many times the child personalizes the badmouthing and it undermines his or her adjustment and budding self-esteem. In this case it’s “Daddy is angry and hates Mommy,” but I’ve seen it the other way around as well. A child reasoning is then, “I’m half Mommy. Mommy made Daddy mad. Daddy hates Mommy. If I make Daddy mad, someday he might hate me.” Ultimately, the child grows up fearful of angering her parent and being rejected. Unbeknownst to the perpetrating parent, badmouthing often backfires. The child may identify with the targeted parent and reject the perpetrating parent or identify with the perpetrating parent and reject the targeted parent. Either choice is not healthy for a child. She has a right to have a relationship with both of her parents.
If your ex is angry at you, it’s doubtful he will take direction from you, so the answer is a nonbiased source to intercede, like a therapist, a clergyperson, even coParenting classes that you both attend together—any way to get the information to him. If he won’t go, coParenting classes or coParenting counseling might have to be court ordered.
Finally, how can you coParent with a brick wall? You can’t. Again, education, is the answer, and if education doesn’t work, it may not in the best interest of the child for the parents to force the child to go back and forth between battling parents. That’s when, “in the best interest of the child” might dictate a parallel parenting approach.