Ex-etiquette: How to stop grandma from bashing his ex

Q: My mother is out of control. She is very upset that my ex left and says horrible things about her when the kids are around. Her last rant called their mother “a lying, cheating ho.” And I didn’t know what to do. I try to reel her in, but she doesn’t listen. I don’t want to stop her from seeing her grandkids, but she doesn’t realize that what she says about their mother, even if it’s true, hurts our children. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: It’s understandable that parents have strong feelings about their children’s breakup — especially if the breakup was not their child’s idea and they witnessed their child’s hurt firsthand. However, if their anger is obvious, that will hurt their grandchildren far more than it will demonstrate allegiance to their child. Badmouthing a child’s mother or father, no matter who you are, is a hurtful practice and often backfires.

Let’s admit it. Anger is a tough one to cover up. You may think no one knows how upset you are, but it comes out in your words and deeds. Even an observation like, “Your mommy just doesn’t seem to be as sad about this divorce as your daddy” can backfire. The kids will pull away because they love both mommy and daddy and when grandma puts down their parent, it can be very confusing.

Children love their grandparents, as well, and hopefully see them as a source of comfort. Now that source of comfort is calling their parent bad names — at the very time the child needs stability. Badmouthing asks children to check their allegiance — to mommy, to daddy, and ultimately, to whoever is doing the badmouthing — in this case, grandma.

The child must then weigh which parent is right or wrong and then also decide if their grandparent is telling the truth. Young children are not developmentally able to figure it all out. Their reaction is to then check out. Don’t be surprised when you hear, “I don’t want to go.”

In situations like the one you describe, children don’t care which parent is right or wrong. Most just want their parents to get back together, and comments that force them to take sides or offer too much adult information can seriously affect their ability to form trusting relationships in the future.

The greatest help a friend or extended family member can offer children in the midst of their parents’ breakup is to make sure their house feels safe, just in case the child needs a soft place to fall if the split erupts into chaos.

So, when calling attention to grandma’s actions, bring it back to your children. Thank her for her allegiance but explain the kids believing that their mother is “a lying, cheating ho,” is not going to help them feel good about themselves. They will personalize it and feel even more insecure.

Grandma’s job is to be there to pick up the pieces, not spread them around so the kids can trip over them. 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.