At last, you are finally on the other side of the longest, hardest life change you have ever experienced: your divorce. Your emotions are stabilizing and the coparenting arrangement seems to be working (for the most part). You are free from him* and ready to move forward. You are taking steps to advance your independence. You are beginning to rebuild.
Suddenly, BAMM! Your Ex’s expressions are plastered on your children’s face! Your daughter has the audacity to use a phrase your Ex may as well have coined himself. Your son grimaces and suddenly your reliving the past, remembering the sneers and the way your husband used to dismiss or disrespect you. You are blindsided, triggered, and instantly repulsed. You are so offended—how can your children be so insensitive? Doesn’t she know you used to HATE it when her father said those words? Doesn’t your son understand that you left your Ex because you decided to no longer tolerate any form of disrespect?
One client told me that every time her daughter responded to her with “gotcha,” it felt like a razor’s edge. For my client, “gotcha” was not an innocent word but a word that sounded like a parroting of her Ex when he was “pretending” to listen. And many women feel much the same. It’s not easy figuring out what to do when your child acts like your Ex-husband.
You’re divorced but still haunted by your Ex
What now? You can’t divorce your children. Should you react by yelling at them to stop their behavior? The fact is, none of this—not your divorce and not the ways that your children remind you of their father—is your children’s fault. Your children didn’t choose their father, you did. Besides, have you ever been on the receiving end of a derogatory comment like, “You are just like your mother”? How did that make you feel?
In my experience as a family and teen coach, lashing out at your children and blaming them for your triggers could have lasting damage on your relationship. It could put your kids on the defensive, wanting to protect their father. It could impact their self-esteem because you are attacking your children’s character. And it could compound guilt your children may already be feeling about the divorce.
Yes, that’s right. Kids of divorce sometimes carry guilt because they often think it’s their fault their parent’s relationship didn’t work out. They might conclude this based on what they heard and felt during the events leading up to the divorce, which later manifests as guilt.
Figuring out what to do when your child acts like your Ex-husband is a part of coparenting you weren’t prepared for. While it may feel nearly impossible to contain your reaction in the moment, doing so will leave space to build an amazing relationship with your children in the long run and will help you heal and build immunity to these inevitable triggers in the process.
Manage your response when you feel triggered
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” is a well-known quote by Jim Rohn, motivational speaker and self-help guru.
Not only are your children genetically 50 percent of you and their father, but they are spending time with each of you, so it is only natural that they will pick up some tendencies and expressions from both of you.
Therefore, when your children do or say something to trigger you, the first step is to do a quick analysis. What about this bothers me? Is this my pet peeve or an actual behavioral problem that will affect my children’s personal relationships?
If it’s a pet peeve, use your emotional intelligence to guide your response: “My children are not my Ex. This is not personal. I choose to let it go.” Tony Robbins always says, “What you focus on expands.” Hence, if you don’t like it, don’t focus on it!
Confront behavioral issues
If it’s a behavioral problem, keep your relationship with your children in mind as you parent the behavior from a place of compassion and empathy, in an age-appropriate way. Remember, your children learned this behavior and can successfully unlearn it with proper parenting from you.
If you wonder what “proper parenting” looks like now that you’ve survived divorce and are on your own, consider joining a professionally-facilitated parenting support group for women to get the support you need as a mother to stand strong.
Make time for self-reflection
Finally, if the hurt and emotion you are experience is defeating you, it’s a glaring sign that you haven’t healed yourself. Maybe it’s time to lean in and clear the burden once and for all, for the sake of your relationship with your children and any other relationship you hope to have in the future. Take time to heal through self-help alternatives, or speak to a professional coach who can help you face, explore, and abolish those feelings once and for all.
The topic of this article was inspired by a beautiful client of mine who endured a horrific divorce and custody battle. She was still putting the pieces of herself back together when she noticed that sometimes, if her 9-year-old son was hurting or feeling bad, he would say hurtful or vindictive things to her, such as “You’re fat,” or “You have no friends.” Ouch! The pain went right to her core.
As her coach, I had so much compassion for her as she realized the pain her Ex inflicted could still reach her through her children. Through the power of transformational coaching, she discovered the solutions resided within her.
Today she realizes right away that those comments are not coming from her son but are behaviors that his father often models. As a mother, she can respond with compassion and empathy to disarm him and then let him know that while she understands his frustration, taking it out on her or others is not appropriate or acceptable. She is earning her son’s respect while teaching him an effective way to navigate his emotions and have a healthy, loving relationship, without once mentioning his father.
In closing, the next time your children act like your Ex, bite your tongue and remember that they are not their father. Your loving connection with them matters so much more than your past relationship with him.
Cindy Thackston is a compassionate, certified professional coach and founder of Rate Life a 10!, Youth and Family Success Coaching. She works with families with tweens and teens who are facing various challenges that are causing disconnection and a breakdown of the family unit. To learn how Cindy helps families reconnect and create a thriving family culture, visit her website at www.ratelifea10.com to schedule a free consultation.
*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.