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Ex Damaging Kids' Self-Esteem
Q: My ex-husband and I were divorced about 6 months ago, but have been living apart for about a year prior to that. We have two children, Garrett 6 years old and Katy 5 years old.
Greg tended to be verbally and mentally abusive towards me. Nothing was ever good enough and our relationship was beginnning to turn physically abusive (no hitting, but pushing, grabbing me by the arm and yanking me around). We tried marriage counseling, but after the second session when the counselor suggested that Greg was obsessive/compulsive and over-controlling, he walked out and refused to try any more counseling. He is completely unable to accept any type of fault in himself. Everyone else in the world is wrong, but him.
I initiated the divorce proceedings and Greg and I were pretty upfront about the divorce with the kids. We read the book Dinosaur Divorce and explained that sometimes grownups could not live together because they could not get along. And that, because Mommy and Daddy could not live together without the arguing, we thought it would be best if we did not live together. We went on to say that although their parents did not live together, they still had a complete family. They live with me, but have open access to their dad and he has the standard visitation. He's pretty good about taking them every other weekend, but misses approximately half of his weeknights mostly because he's in a bad mood due to work, problems with the house, car, whatever. I made a solemn oath to myself when we separated that no matter what, I would never bad mouth their dad or create problems with the visitation no matter what because I felt it was vitally important that their relationship with their father remain in tact and separate from my relationship with their father. They have seemed to adjust to the situation fairly well. Just recently, however, a friend mentioned that Garrett had told her that we divorced because Daddy yelled at me all the time and was mean to me. I was dumbstruck. How do I improve his image of his father? How do I talk to him about this?
Another problem recently surfaced when Dad returned the kids this past Sunday and proceeded to rant and rave about how terrible the kids are. Come to find out, his complaints had to do with things such as the kids forgetting to wipe their feet, flushing the toilet, putting juice boxes in the garbage when through and their bickering amongst themselves. Things to me that are just everyday normal kid-type things. They just need to be reminded. After talking with the kids, I found out that they had had a pretty crummy weekend with their Dad. He'd prettty much spent the whole weekend reminding them how horrible they were and punishing them for their many offenses. I'm worried now that he's treating them like he once treated me. What can I do to protect them and their self-esteem? Where do I draw the line?
Sorry this is so long. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks!
A: You certainly have been taking the high road when it comes to not trying to be 'the good guy" in this uncomfortable family situation. But it does appear that you do have some cause for concern over your children's mental and physical health. Your ex showed an inability to control his verbal and physical abuse of you and a total unwillingness to admit he has any problems. He is erratic in terms of his taking the kids and has taken to punishing them for just being kids.
Your kids do not deserve to be berated on a regular (or irregular) basis by their dad. If this behavior continues for much longer(and I mean more like a few weeks than months) I think he is sending them and you a message that he cannot get his life together enough to be a loving and caring father. And yes, that means you have to consider strongly the possibility of preventing him from seeing your kids- unless and until he can demonstrate that he is willing and capable of good parenting.
As to your son's reasoning for why you got divorced, he is old enough to be told that what he saw and heard was one of the reasons you two could not stay together, that daddy just couldn't seem to stop being angry and stop his screaming. You could say that you and your ex knew this and other things that happened between you two were just too upsetting for everyone and that you hoped daddy can be happier and not get so angry now that he's living in his own house. You can say that sometimes even though dads and moms love their kids a lot like you two love them, they aren't very good at being a great mommy or daddy; the idea here being to assure your kids they are loved by the both of you but that sometimes parents aren't very good at being husbands,wives or happy moms and dads.
Obviously if you ever hear he has physically frightened them or hurt them in any way, THAT'S IT!!! Mental abuse takes its toll too, as you know, so you need to get feedback from your kids that will enable you to be the best advocate for them you can be. I know this isn't advice that will cheer you up but I have seen too many kids bodies and self-esteem sacrificed up for the protection of a harmful parent in denial. Good luck and keep me posted.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.