When Stepkids Talk About the High-Conflict Ex-Wife: Say This, Not That
I have been an active part of online communities for stepmoms for nearly a decade. A few problems seem to surface over and over again. One of the most common questions and problems I see posed by stepmoms is: What do I do when the children constantly mention their mom, the ex-wife?
In many of these situations the ex-wife is high conflict and is a constant source of anxiety and drama for the stepmom, her husband, and the children. Unfortunately the advice most often offered to this type of query is: Tell the kids they can never mention their mother. Punish them until they stop bringing her up! You tell those kids, your house, your rules. You don't have to listen to anyone mention HER in YOUR home!
A high-conflict ex-wife can be a soul sucking experience, even for a veteran stepmom. Though it is tempting to banish every last word or thought of the ex-wife from your house this article will describe a better way to handle this common stepfamily issue. If you are truly dealing with a personality-disordered,high-conflict ex, you are also likely dealing with an abusive parent. Children from abusive homes need a safe space to disclose their experiences.
Are the children allowed to mention the ex-wife in your home?
Take the High Road
If you are reading this article and deal with a high conflict ex-wife in your life, you probably rolled your eyes when you saw: Take the High Road. In this article I am going to re-frame for you what the high road means in this specific situation. The high road is not letting everything go for the sake of happiness. If you deal with a high conflict ex-wife you cannot achieve the Brady Bunch. It is not possible to go back in time to give the children a different mother. The ex-wife is the one and only mother they will ever have and she is not going away, therefore you might as well make the most of a less than stellar situation.
What you can do in this situation is take back control of the conversations around the high conflict ex-wife. That is what the high road looks like in this scenario. As a stepmom you have little to no control over most stepfamily related issues , but you can take some control by proactively asking about the ex-wife. The goal is to make the ex-wife a part of your every day conversations with the children.
By incorporating the ex-wife into the every day conversations you have with the children (and I do not mean literally speak about her every day, I mean speak about her naturally the way you would any person in the child's life) you give the children the opportunity to relax in their own home. Giving the children the opportunity to speak about the other parent, who they love, is the decent human thing to do. A relaxed child is also more likely to tell you what is really happening in the other home. If you deal the kind of high conflict ex-wife I do, you know there is likely verbal and emotional abuse in the other home. There may also be physical and sexual abuse. You will never know, and will never have the opportunity to know, about the abuse if you shut down any mention of the ex-wife.
As stepchildren get older and become more aware of the adult dynamics they may naturally stop mentioning the ex-wife. If there is any type of abuse in the other home, the abusive parent will often train and condition the children to not mention what happens in that home. Even very young children can be conditioned in this way. If you, the stepmom, are able to incorporate the ex-wife naturally into conversations you have a much better chance of the child opening up and sharing what they experience over time.
Remember that an extremely high-conflict ex-wife is not only abusive to her ex-husband and you, but also she likely abuses the children either behind closed doors or openly. A high-conflict personality does not abuse, stalk, and harass and ex-husband and then become an excellent mother to the children as soon as she is not speaking to her ex-husband. .
Have your stepchildren disclosed abuse to you?
Walk Beside Them
After a disclosure of abuse by a stepchild there are several legal avenues to be considered. The first option is to make a report to Child Protective Services in your state. The second option is to file a motion with the courts to change custody. In most cases neither the first nor second option will result in any change for the children. The third option is for the children to receive therapy by a licensed professional. It is highly likely that a high-conflict parent who abuses their children will never let this happen unless it is court ordered.
The final option is to offer emotional support for the children in your home. This may be all you can do. As the stepmom you may not feel comfortable offering this type of support to your stepchildren and this is ok. The father of the children should take an active role in emotionally supporting the children and providing them with skills and tools to manage their thoughts and emotions. I feel it is my ethical duty to suggest that the adults find a licensed therapist to guide them in emotionally supporting children in abusive situations.
What to Say?
It can be daunting to incorporate the ex-wife into your every day conversations. It's never, ever ok to interrogate the children about what goes on in the other home. When the children return to the house of high conflict it is likely they are grilled about their every move in your home. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to ask the children genuine questions about their activities, what they enjoy, and how their mother was involved in that activity or how she helps to make it special.
Here are some examples of natural ways to incorporate the high-conflict ex-wife into the conversation:
- What is your favorite food? When your Mom makes it, what does she do that makes it taste so yummy? Has she shown you how to make it? I bet she would love to show you!
- What did you play yesterday? Oh that sounds like fun! What part of the game did your Mom play? Oh, she didn't play? What was she up to?
- Does your sister like this movie? Do you watch it with her? I bet your Mom likes to watch it with you two! Oh, she doesn't watch it? Was she doing her own hobby?
I found in my own life when I, the stepmom, was the one to engage the children in conversations where the ex-wife was mentioned the child was more likely to open up to me than when my husband, the father, engaged in the same types of conversations. Even very young children are aware of the turmoil that exists between Mom and Dad. A stepmom can be a neutral party in the situation for the children to talk to. One of the most powerful conversation tools we can use to communicate with children is respect. If you respect the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of the children they will be more likely to share with you in the future.