When the marriage of Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D., ended, the New York City mom made the conscious decision to speak only in positive terms about her ex in front of their children, then 12 and 8. "I wanted the kids to grow up with feelings of respect and admiration for their father," says Dr. Rabinor, a psychologist who later wrote a book called Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex. "I knew that constantly putting down their father would diminish him -- and me, as well -- in their eyes."
Biting your tongue isn't always easy, especially if your ex is badmouthing you. But remember: In this war of words, kids are the real casualties. Hearing negative things about a parent puts children in a difficult position. "It's like asking them to choose sides," says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things that Can Ruin Your Marriage. Taking the high road is easier when you follow these steps.
Watch what you do. A roll of the eyes, a disbelieving shake of the head, a look of disgust -- your gestures can be just as hurtful as any name-calling. (Actions speak louder than words!) Apologize if you catch yourself in a slip-up. (Those eye rolls sometimes happen before you can stop them!) You might say, "I'm sorry. That wasn't very nice of me. I know your dad loves you and has your best interests at heart."
Commit to a cool-down period. If your ex does something that upsets you, give yourself time to think things through before you react. Out of range of little ears, vent to a friend, family member, or therapist about the situation. "Let off steam to safe people so your children aren't exposed to your anger or frustration," Dr. Tessina says. Once you've cooled off, you'll be better equipped to respond with a possible solution instead of lashing out and potentially making the situation worse.
Don't use your child as a messenger. If you disagree with something your ex is doing, don't get your kids to issue directives -- such as "Mom says you should be putting us to bed earlier." "Don't make your problems with your ex your children's problems," says Dr. Tessina. E-mails and texts can make ongoing conversations with your ex easier; just remember that tone and intention often can be misconstrued with these forms of communication. It may help to speak or write to your ex as you would a business partner -- after all, you're both in the business of taking care of your children. That means being cordial and respectful.
Mind your business. Don't ask your kids to spy on or rat out the other parent (unless it's a matter of safety, like being lax about seatbelt use). If your child wants to share what's happening in the other house, that's fine. But resist asking nosy questions. "Try to respect that there are different ways to raise children," Dr. Rabinor says. "As long as your kids are safe and well cared for, the activities at your ex's home are not your concern."
Take the high road. Ignoring a badmouthing ex probably ranks as one of the hardest things you'll ever do. But if you can master it, the payoff for your family will be great. Model for your children how to respond to difficult situations with maturity and integrity. For instance, if your child reports that your ex is upset with you or has said something unkind, you might respond with: "It's not nice for Dad to say those things. This sounds like something he and I should talk about in private." You can explain that people sometimes say hurtful things that they don't necessarily mean when they're upset.
In the end, the only person you can have any control over is yourself. "Do your best to treat your ex with kindness and respect, even if he doesn't extend the same courtesy to you," Dr. Rabinor says. "At the very least, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that one of you is setting a good example for your children."
Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.