Q: I had an affair, and my husband and I broke up. He tells our son every chance he gets what a terrible person I am. My son is too young to understand and now refuses to see his dad. My ex is convinced I'm the one putting our son up to it. I am not, and I don't know how to get through to his father that the badmouthing is what's behind the refusing to see him. How do I get his dad to stop? What's good ex-etiquette?
A: "How do I stop my ex from badmouthing me?" is one of the most common questions I'm asked — and it's one of the reasons I included "don't badmouth" as one of the 10 Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for parents.
When I have confronted parents about badmouthing, I've been told everything from "It's no big deal, it won't stick with them" to justifications for their behavior because they think their children should understand what a terrible person their father or mother really is.
Rarely does the badmouthing parent realize what they are doing to their children. Children don't disregard what their parents say when they badmouth each other. And thinking their parent is a terrible person rarely contributes to a child's peace and security.
Some children feel they have to shield the victim of the bad-mouthing and stop wanting to interact with the parent who bad-mouths. Others become alienated, just as the bad-mouthing parent wanted.
Either way, it's very difficult to overcome the damage.
This is when I often hear, "Well, do you want me to lie to my child?" No. But, you certainly don't have to volunteer all the graphic details. Nor do you have to refer to your ex in a derogatory manner.
I can't count how many kids have told me that one parent has labeled the other parent as a "cheater" on their phone ID. Each time the phone rings and the child sees it, he's crushed a little more.
Even though words are not said, that's badmouthing, and labeling it as bad ex-etiquette is an understatement. It's downright abusive.
In terms of stopping the badmouthing, I've found that education helps. Many bad-mouthers don't realize the effect of what they are doing and when educated, they stop.
For instance, you could initiate counseling for your son, and the counselor could integrate Dad into your son's therapy. Dad will then hear firsthand what his badmouthing is doing — from the therapist and from your son. You don't even have to be present.
Finally, although affairs are morally problematic, I have not seen a court prohibit a child from seeing a parent because they had an affair. But I have seen a court refuse visits because the parent so severely badmouthed the other that it was determined to be emotional abuse.
The primary objective is to love your child more than you hate the ex. If you can't do that, it's not in the child's best interest to visit until you can. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the founder of bonusfamilies.com.