When Your Ex- Is Not The Best Role Model For Your Kids

My kid desperately wants to be like his father (my ex-husband) but his father is not a good role model. What can I do?

@thinkstock_Polka Dot ImagesDR. RUTHERFORD (Molly’s mom): It’s important that a divorced parent is careful about what she says about the other parent to their child.

It would be best if she tried to act neutral and avoided saying outright negative things about the ex-spouse. As the child gets older, he’s likely to figure out what kind of person his father is on his own from observing his father’s behavior.

MOLLY: This question was asked by a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She explained that she is divorced and wants to tell her 9-year old son that he is loved by his dad and that he of course should love his dad, too, but that his father does not always model good behavior due to his drug use and dishonesty, among other things. She doesn’t want to turn her son against his father, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want her son to emulate him either. What should she do?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I don’t think she needs to tell her son to love his dad; that’s really for him to work through. Her job here is to avoid saying negative remarks about her child’s father.

If she is critical of the boy’s father, it will backfire on her as the child will dig in and defend his father to the end. And he will likely also stop talking to her about his dad.

Instead, if she remains neutral, her son will feel freer to express both positive and negative feelings about his dad’s behavior as he witnesses it and experiences the effects.

As the child gets older, he’s likely to want talk to his mother about things he sees and experiences the father doing if he feels safe doing so with her. Her job is to be sympathetic to her son; as events unfold,she shouldn’t ever deny what the father has done but should instead focus on being supportive of the son as he sorts out his relationship with his father.

MOLLY: When should she tell him the truth about his father?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The best time for that is when her son actually asks for the information. While the truth can very important for children to understand, the timing of divulging such information is just as important in terms of the child’s age and if he’s ready to deal with the information. He might not ask for this information until he is a teen, in his twenties, or even older. She should answer her son’s questions about his father honestly and sensitively when they come while remembering that children do not necessarily need to know all of the sordid details about their parents’ bad behavior.

MOLLY: What if the child witnesses some bad behavior, and reports back to his mom. For instance, “Daddy drinks a lot.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: This is when it’s important that you are honest with your child.  Denying the child’s perception of reality is not a good thing because it makes him doubt his own perceptions. If the child is 9 or 10 years old, the mother could answer, “Yeah, I think so too. He loves you very much but he is trying to deal with his problems.”

When the child is a teenager, there’s no denying what’s going on. Kids are smart and observant so I think the important thing is to be honest. Negotiating your child’s relationship with someone over whom you have no control can be challenging, but we do have control over our own behavior. This mom can do the best she can for her son by modeling good behavior herself, not talking badly about her ex-, listening to her son with a sympathetic ear when he needs to talk about his dad, and being available to support her son.

ding 35 comments on “When Your Ex- Is Not The Best Role Model For Your Kids

  1. I had this issue when working in day care. I simply said that ‘at my house’ certain words were not welcome. I explained that every family was different, that the other kids in care may not know the words being said and that it would be easier if we all used the same words together so we could understand each other better. All swearing disappeared very quickly, with minimum fuss and no blame/finger pointing or cross parents required!

    • Helen – Very nice – and successful – approach! Sometimes, in the home, it gets more complicated than language issues. For instance, defensiveness for the absent parent is quite common. However, having some control over what’s said in your own home is a good idea.

  2. Such a difficult subject particularly with that mentioned. There are however numerous times when parents together or separated disagree with their role modelling behaviour.

    What is important to remember is just because we believe our way is correct it may not coincide with his or her way. As long as the behaviour is not deviant, drug or alcohol fuelled then many of us have different parenting styles.

    Remind the child that in your house these are the set rules and boundaries for the child. Children learn these quickly even if they try to push to boundary similar to a parent. Quietly remind them that adult behaviour may be different for some people however child behaviour is x y z.

    If separated it is often easier as the rules in your home are the rules the children need to abide by. You can not control what occurs in the other parents home except to ensure the child is healthy and safe.

    If living together with different parenting styles, speak to a professional child Counsellor for direction. Partners will hopefully be guided by the words of wisdom expressed without bias.

    • Karen – I particularly liked your reminder that one parent cannot control what goes on in the other parent’s household. That’s sometimes hard to come to terms with. I believe that in the message we received from this particular parent, there were issues of drug and/or alcohol abuse going on, which definitely muddies up the water. Thanks so much for your input!

  3. As our kids age, they notice that other families work much differently than ours. We simply coach that parents get to choose how to run their families…that some styles and choices don’t serve kids well…and that we prefer to “do things today that feel good tomorrow.” If you start that talk early, it becomes a natural part of their knowing what’s best for them. While you can offer moments of leniency, you must remain firm in your basic rules of operation.

    As an example, our kids tend to notice when people don’t care, then choose to set an example (picking up someone else’s garbage on the ground at the park), often choose water for a beverage instead of soda (including in public), or feel good about using good manners (ex. being a good sport before, during, and after competitions).

    • Jerry – I really like “do things today that feel good tomorrow.” So helpful to think beyond today’s behavior. And, you’re right, as kids get older they notice that other families operate differently . When there is substance abuse in a family, it can get tricky for the other parent and how to deal with the kids – married or divorce. Sometimes there’s a fine line about how to deal with the kids.

  4. As a middle school teacher, I sometimes told students, “It sounds like your parent is not behaving the way you want (or showing you love the way you want), so it may feel like he/she does not care (does not love you), but parents are still learning and growing, too, so you need to trust your parent is doing this/her best possible at this time.” With more mature kids, I would begin to coach them through expressing their feelings and asking for what they need from their parent (even while recognizing the parent still might not be able to give it).

  5. Molly, you have raised a key topic. Well done! Respect is something we earn from children. To earn it, we have to be role models. It is not really a question of ex- or current. It is a question of living a life of virtues and values. When someone in the family does not do it, we have to redouble our efforts to draw children away from bad influences. It is tough, but that is the price we pay for being parents. We do not have to compete with someone who appears attractive to children. As long as we are consistent in what we do, children will work things out sooner or later. They will wean themselves away from what looks good on the outside. They do with with peers; with teachers. They will do it with the family. Trust their good instincts. And PRAY. God bless.

    • Ignatius – children do work it out, and it can take years for them to do it. Loyalty to parents can be intense, so internal conflicts in kids can often happen when parental behavior is less than positive. It’s an ongoing process, for sure. Thanks for your input!

    • I couldn’t have said it better than Ignatius has. Don’t compromise your standards to compete with the other parent. As they grow up they will see the light and know who was the better parent. It is also a good time to look at your standards and make sure they are realistic. Kids will develop and change their own standards over the years, especially in the teen years, but will usually revert back to something like yours as adults. My children are all grown up with their own families now and I can feel confident now that I was a good parent.

  6. This is an important topic. We are not our childrens’ only source of “input”. They will see and hear things from others in their ives which go against what we are trying to teach them.

  7. You must explain to them that we are all human being we have committed number of mistakes in life we want you to learn from from our mistakes . We love you so much . We are taking care of. so please listen to us . We will be very happy.

    • Dr. Indira S. – It’s good to instill the kind of tolerance you’re talking about for all of us imperfect humans, and that we can learn from our mistakes. This, of course, includes the parents. Most parents want to do the very best for their children

  8. Actions speak louder than words. Continue to Model Good Behaviors, so that your child will see and learn the difference between good and not so good behaviors.

  9. “We each have our parenting guidelines/rules. In OUR home we do…..” then reinforce how you as a family want to work together. Do not call attention to what the other parent is or is not doing. Do not put down the father or your ex-spouse to your children, family, or others. That ‘clearance’ and working out problems are best handled one on one with a therapist counseling session (s) and/or spiritual counselor.

  10. I will reflect questions back to the child, if age appropriate, engaging in a discussion about choices and expectations. And if the adult’s behavior is negatively impacting the children in my care, i would be direct and communicate my concerns…in the appropriate setting of course.

  11. The National Wellness Institute uses these three questions for helping those seeking greater wellbeing to assess whether or not a particular behavior helps or hinders their individual growth and potential. I think the same questions might serve here as well.

    Teaching children to assess whether or not ‘anyone’ is asking something of them or interacting with them in a constructive manner is something I haven’t seen in too many schools, yet it’s very beneficial to ourselves and to our youth.

    I wish I had these questions in my own tool box when I was a teen or young adult.

    1) Does this help people (me) achieve their (my) full potential?
    2) Does this recognize and address the whole person (me) through a multi-dimensional approach?
    3) Does this affirm and mobilize people’s (my) positive
    qualities and strengths?

    These questions takes the onus off of the individual with whom we are engaging and puts it on the ‘expectation of,’ or ‘request by, or ‘interaction with’ another person.
    I am an educator, not a social worker or psychologist, but I find these particular questions quite useful across many relationship issues.

    Grateful to have the chance to participate in the discourse.

  12. I will reflect questions back to the child, if age appropriate, engaging in a discussion about choices and expectations. And if the adult’s behavior is negatively impacting the children in my care, i would be direct and communicate my concerns…in the appropriate setting of course

  13. Great Article. It is always difficult when parents are not married (or married and do not see eye to eye) and each wants the child to act appropriately. Parents who do not share a united front or cannot due to drug use or other personal issues cause problems with children understanding what is right, or choose sides, or play one against the other. The best thing to do is remain as positive as possible. Difficult though.

  14. I am not going to tell you what to do, I will tell you what NOT to do. Criticize or speak badly about your ex in front of your child or to anyone he will hear about it from. It really is better that he loves his father then to hate him. If you set your children’s feet upon God’s path in their youth they will not depart it in their age. That doesn’t guarantee a perfect child but it goes a long way in supporting you and guiding him. You may even help your ex by setting a good example.

    • Joy – Criticizing an ex-spouse is a real no-no – I so agree. And, it will boomerang back – the children will automatically defend the attacked parent. Setting your own example is an excellent notion. Thanks for your input.

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