Creating a Safe Space for Children of Divorce

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Dear JCADA.

 My husband and I divorced five months ago, and prior to the divorce, we did not have a healthy relationship. My two children, who are 7 and 5, spend weekends with their dad. The younger one has told me that “Daddy says really mean things about you,” and I have heard the older one repeat some of these things during tantrums and times of frustration.

How do I handle this situation? I would appreciate it if he did not say nasty things about me in front of my kids. Will this ruin their image of me? Will this affect our relationship? I do not know how to respond when my kids tell me these things because I could say so much about their father, but I don’t. What should I do?

 

Dear Reader,

 Thank you for writing to us! The aftermath of divorce can be a difficult and complicated experience for each family member, especially the children. It sounds like you are trying to foster a healthy approach to parenting, but there are obstacles getting in your way. It can be difficult when one parent is sharing hurtful messages with the children, but it’s important to try to remain calm and offer protective responses. For example, if your child tells you, “Daddy says mean things,” you can respond by saying, “What you heard may have scared or confused you, since you love both of us. I am not sure why Daddy said those things, but I am here for you if you want to talk about it.”

There are several suggestions I would make to enable positive co-parenting. If your ex is trying to badmouth you and damage your relationship with your children, it is important to remember that while you cannot change what is being said, you can control how you respond. Consider the following ideas:

Don’t talk about your ex in front of your children, no matter how angry you are. Do not retaliate by making similar remarks; this will only affect the children and create an unsafe space for them.

Validate your children’s feelings. It can be hard and very confusing to hear such things from a parent you trust who is supposed to make you feel safe. Explore what your child feels but remember to be empathetic and validate what they are experiencing.

Remind your children that what is going on between the grown-ups is not their fault. Children often internalize what they are experiencing.

Create an open and inviting environment for your child to feel safe to tell you how they are feeling.

Encourage your children to think independently. Your ex might be trying to control what your children think of you. Give them permission to think for themselves and to come to you if they have questions or concerns about what is being shared.

Remember to engage in self-care and take time for yourself to heal.

 

At JCADA, we know that marriage and divorce can be difficult, and oftentimes, there are no easy answers. Don’t hesitate to call us at 1-877-88-JCADA (52232) for free and confidential counseling, safety planning, and other services.


 

For the past 17 years, JCADA has offered support to victims and survivors of domestic and dating abuse. These free clinical and legal services are available to any resident of the Greater Washington area, 14 years of age and older, who is affected by any type of domestic abuse. Staff are available to answer questions, offer support, and connect callers to services on our free and confidential helpline Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 1-877-88-JCADA (52232).