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I left my verbally abusive ex-wife about 18 months, in part because I could see how much of an effect all the yelling had on my now 5-year old daughter and I wanted both my daughter and my now 3.5 year old son to grow up in a positive environment.

First the good news. In general, the co-parenting has gone fine, and a year after starting shared custody, the exchanges are pretty calm. (My ex yelled at me several times last year, but I didn't play along.)

My kids are doing great. But last week, my 3.5 year old son started saying "Daddy: 1, Mommy: 100" in something of a taunting tone. The implication was that he loves his mom more than me. Judging from his actions and his teachers' comments, I don't think this is at all true.

My immediate response was that I don't think love has numbers. That I know he loves his mom and I know he loves me and I love him no matter what.

My longer-term concern is that this seems to be the latest of several taunts come from his mom. How do I counteract such poisoning? My main thought is to focus on and improve my relationship with him.

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    "My main thought is to focus on and improve my relationship with him." - I think you've answered your own question there. I can't think of any answer which would improve on that. :) – A E Nov 3 '14 at 18:46
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    I'll add a 2-year follow-up, that focusing on him and ignoring various taunts (and there were many) brought us close together. Today, there's a loving relationship and he knows it's OK to love both me and his mom. For others out there, it can be a long process, but stick with it. – Geoff Hutchison Dec 14 '16 at 4:49
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What a difficult, painful and important issue. And congratulations on recognizing the long-term effects that the situation might have on your children.

Divorce can affect a child's relationship with their parents, and creates stresses which can interfere with their natural development. While divorce per se does not seem to negatively impact children in the long run, the factors most important seem to be the quality of the relationship between the parents, the quality of the relationship between the child and each parent separately, and the amount of contact between child and non-custodial parent. The negative effects of divorce are greatly mitigated when both parents maintain a positive relationship with each other. This seems rather intuitive, doesn't it? The problems continue to affect them into adulthood as well.

In terms of your son's comments, he may well not understand what he's saying to you. Reacting calmly without any hostility (as you seem to have done) is very important. Clearly you don't sound like someone who would go the tit-for-tat route. But above that, never criticize their mother (to them or in front of anyone where it might get back to your ex). It is not only bad for your children, but if they repeat anything they've heard to their mother, it is the children who will pay in the end.

I don't know your situation, but generally, what can be done? First, have you spoken about this with your wife? If not, why not? Remember, though, that showing empathy in your dealings with your ex and refusing to engage in conflict is not about your ex; it's about your kids.

Second, (with very good reason), you left your wife. The spouse that was left tends to be more bitter. What was done before you left? Did either of you receive counseling or did you have marital counseling? What effect did that have (obviously you are now divorced, but it would help to know if your wife responded at all to it.) Counseling together as divorced co-parents might result in decreased bitterness, reduce her negative comments/influence and might help her to see how damaging this is to children in the long term. If the last element is the only thing she gets out of counseling, it would be worth it.

Third, income of both parents drops dramatically after divorce. Keeping very current with alimony, and absorbing some extras (running your children to playdates, paying for lessons, etc.) might help. Not only might your children see you going out of your way to be nice to their mom, but she might actually be appreciative as well.

Also, it seems to be clear from the literature that any kind of therapy improves outcome in ~70% of cases. If your wife isn't interested in counseling, you can go by yourself to learn coping strategies, or have co-counseling with your children (yes, they do have interventions with children this young).

If all these measures seem premature to consider, then do what you're doing now: love them abundantly. Gently correct any misinformation they might repeat to you, as you did. Feeling words (that must be confusing, etc) are part of the language of love. Keep open communications with teachers (again, congratulations) to detect problems early.

Let them know they can talk to you about anything (and that it won't be brought up with their mom). Trust is part of love. Providing a safe emotional environment where they don't feel that they're in the middle of some war-torn area is wonderful for your kids.

You can get more advice here at Parenting, as well as from good books on the subject and good blogs (perhaps like this one about collaborative divorce, and this one about co-parenting).

Post-Divorce Family Relationships as Mediating Factors in the Consequences of Divorce for Children Hess et al. 2010
The Effects of Divorce and Marital Discord on Adult Children's Psychological Well-Being Amato et al. 2001
Children's Adjustment in Conflicted Marriage and Divorce: A Decade Review of Research Joan B. Kelly 2000
What works with children and adolescents?: a critical review of psychological interventions with children, adolescents and their families A. Carr 2013
Preventive Interventions for Children of Divorce: A Developmental Model for 5 and 6 Year Old Children Pedro-Carroll et al. 1997

  • Lots of good advice, thanks. I've been through counseling before and during the divorce. She was incredibly antagonistic to counseling and while she attended couple's counseling was not very responsive to it. I'm not entirely sure why, but it was helpful to me. – Geoff Hutchison Nov 7 '14 at 18:31
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    I definitely appreciate the links to co-parenting, and appreciate the comments about talking to the kids to provide a safe emotional environment. That's definitely what I'm trying to provide. – Geoff Hutchison Nov 7 '14 at 18:31
  • Generally good answer, but the available data indicates that while divorce may not impact children in the medium term, it has significant negative effects in the long term, with the children having greater difficulty forming relationships, earning less, etc. Of course this might be expected: if your parents broke up, it's going to be hard to convince yourself that any of your own relationships are going to last. – Warren Dew Sep 8 '16 at 14:43
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    @WarrenDew - Hence, "The problems continue to affect them into adulthood as well." – anongoodnurse Sep 8 '16 at 14:49
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I have some good news and some bad news. Good news is, this behaviour probably isn't strictly related to the toxic relationship between you and your wife. For the bad news, re-read the good news.

At around 2.5+, your child works out that one way to get a little bit more attention is to make you a little less secure about their affection. Anecdotally, my 2-year-old daughter occasionally says "I don't like Daddy", or pushes me away in favour of mummy. Note that they only do this to parents they feel secure with, because they wouldn't risk it if they were scared of your reaction. Which is not to say that it doesn't suck.

If you're suspicious that your ex is fostering this behaviour, you need to talk to her about it non-confrontationally. And if that's not possible, then you need to accept it as something you work around. But it may genuinely be simply your son's natural behaviour, and in that instance any suggestion that you're accusing her is going to be completely counter-productive.

The key thing is not to allow the toxicity between you and your ex to bleed into this normal behaviour. This kind of emotional manipulation is hard enough to deal with when your partner's being supportive, if you start competing without a bedrock of mutual respect, then it's going to go to hell faster than you can say "custody battle".

There's some good advice for coping strategies here, but the key thing in your case I think is to ask your ex what she thinks you should do. Don't suggest that your child's favouriting her because it's "her fault", suggest that she's clearly doing something better than you, and you'd like her help to ensure you can still have a relationship with your son. Praise her relationship with him (which is "apparently 100 times better than yours"*) and ask if she's found certain things he enjoys doing with her that win her the points.

At the end of the day, she almost certainly needs your support as much as you want to give it (when parenting solo, I'd accept help from a horror movie clown if I thought I could trust it), it's just there's too much emotion, pride and history of mistakes in the way. Asking how you can help better, "because clearly you're about 99 points behind", is one way to approach it.

And if your relationships at the stage where asking this would just lead to a row, then

*: Obviously, as everything around this states, that's not the case, but having my relationship with my daughter praised is always nice. And spinning it as "he's praising mummy" instead of "he hates daddy" is a good approach too.

  • Absolutely correct with regard to the child's motivations. This is not to say a 3 year old might not coopt something the spouse said - possibly to herself, not even realizing the kids might be listening - to use in this way. – Warren Dew Sep 8 '16 at 14:49

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