Ex-etiquette: Talk to co-parent about wife’s behavior

Q. What do you do when you suspect your children, ages 10 and almost 12, are being emotionally abused by their stepmother? Things like when I drop them off to see their dad, if he’s late home from work, she makes them sit outside for over an hour until he gets home. When he arrives, she acts like they just got there! They are so afraid to say anything I don’t think he knows. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. OK, before I chastise this woman, let me take this opportunity to call to co-parents’ attention once again that things often get lost in translation when kids pass along information between homes. Parents are constantly telling me their kids would never lie. However, they do, for all sorts of reasons. Often it’s because they want to protect their parents. Kids hate when their parents fight, so when they know something happened at one home that will upset the other, they change the story, or at least retell it in a way that will eliminate parental confrontation. Sometimes they withhold information altogether.

Kids also have a different concept of time than adults. “I had to wait outside for something like an hour!” could actually mean they were waiting for 15 minutes and there may have been a reason — the floors were wet, the rugs were just cleaned before Dad got home, who knows? I’m not making excuses. I’m just pointing out, there may be another story as to why you are hearing what you are hearing. That’s why even if Dad’s wife seems to be at the root of this, it still merits a clarifying conversation with Dad.

Let me point out why I’m suggesting this approach rather than just calling out his wife. You didn’t mention that the children were balking about returning. That makes me think something else MIGHT be going on. Of course, it is good practice to always believe children when they are telling you about abusive behavior. It has been my experience that kids that age may not tell you exactly what is happening, but they will tell you they don’t want to return. If they are not, that’s a red flag.

All this boils down to a need for investigation, and approach is everything. Nothing will break down communication faster than accusations and blame. That’s why co-parents must create an environment where they can comfortably check in with each other when they hear something questionable. Granted, she is Dad’s wife and deserves to be respected. However, consider Good Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule #4, “Parents make the rules; bonusparents uphold them.” In other words, she is to be respected, but she joined the club; she doesn’t make the rules.

If you are afraid to say something to Dad, that’s another huge red flag. Many tell me it’s because “He won’t believe me.” Or “I don’t want to fight anymore.” All I can say to that is, these are your children. They are also his children, and if he is with someone who does not respect and protect his children, he needs to know — and take a good hard look at his choice. Your children come first. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.