How to Combat Toxic Influences from the Ex
"I'm wondering how to deal with a situation that my husband's Ex has created. She's projecting her negative beliefs about me and my marriage onto her daughter. She doesn't encourage her to respect me and I'm left with an angry, rude and distant step-child! What can we do about toxic influences from the Ex — she seems intent on negatively influencing my relationship with my step-daughter?"
This recent question from a frustrated step-mom got me thinking about our family's experience when my Ex waged a toxic war against us and used my daughter to carry it out. Whether you’re a parent or step-parent, dealing with an unsupportive Ex's influence can be painful — for you and the kids.
Recognize the things you cannot change
As frustrating as this situation can be, we must accept that we cannot control or change how an ex-spouse behaves or what they say to the kids. I wasted too much time trying to reason with my unreasonable Ex. This only escalated my frustrations and left me feeling unheard & wounded.
Instead, choose to redirect your energy and change the things you can. Here are three lessons we learned on the battlefield that help us — and our daughter — to rise above toxic messages and win the war, while promoting peace in our stepfamily.
1. Look to the Future
Let's just state the reality that living with an angry, rude and distant child really stinks! Mike and I both often struggled to muster up positive feelings toward my daughter as she raged against us with misguided beliefs and unwarranted attitudes. We just wanted it to end. But this was only one season in our journey. It certainly wasn't the end of the story.
Remember that kids change and enter into new stages of development; they mature and learn how to manage and accept reality. A helpful exercise is to picture the child a year from now…or several years down the road — look beyond the current circumstances. Focus on the big picture and let yourself dream about what the future could hold for your family. While you're in this difficult season, don't lose hope!
I look back on those years when my daughter believed toxic lies and rejected our family in order to appease her dad. It was horrible and painful, but we never gave up. And when she finally did see through his unfounded judgement and was able to embrace this truth: We loved her and she could count on us — everything changed. We've enjoyed many years with her being connected and loving toward our family — it was all worth it!
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2. Put 'Pebbles' in their Shoes
A pebble in a shoe is a little annoyance that can't be easily ignored. It motivates a person to stop and adjust something. This will require some thought that eventually leads to action. Every time a child launches an attack against you, you have an opportunity to either affirm those toxic opinions they're hearing from the other parent or challenge their beliefs about you by 'putting a pebble in their shoe'.
An effective way to do this is by killing them with kindness! If you choose to respond with kindness & understanding — especially when the child is acting negatively toward you - you are putting a pebble in their shoe. Your gentle behavior and caring character contradicts those toxic things they've heard from the other parent. Once kids experience enough pebbles, they are naturally motivated to question, stop and think!
Every small act of kindness is another pebble the child will eventually have to consider. Gradually, the negative influence will lose its power and sooner or later the child will decide for themselves what the truth really is. This strategy helped my daughter to internalize the truth and recognize the lies. But this only worked because we took the high road and didn't stoop to my Ex's tactics of bad mouthing.
Be very careful not to cross the line by bad mouthing the other parent or telling the child what they should and shouldn't believe — this isn't helpful. The best approach is to be consistent in how you respond. A thoughtful and kind response will reflect the truth about who you are. An apathetic, cold, defensive or competitive reaction will only confirm the lies they've heard. You can undo the lies and help kids to see who you truly are, but only by being wise in how you handle every interaction.
3. Tackle Your Own Emotions
One thing that gave me some much needed relief was taking care of myself by getting help with my own emotions. My counselor gave me a safe place to get things off my chest and healthy ways to process and cope with the situation. Being rejected and treated badly by an Ex and the kids can really hurt, but don't allow painful emotions to take over.
Reach out for help from a trusted friend or counselor who won't just shower you with sympathy. Find someone who will help you to move through your tough emotions and get to better place.
Change Your Focus - Change Your Reality
In our painful season (which lasted three long years), I learned that when I chose to focus on healthy changes that were within my power to control, I experienced more peace. You can make this choice too by patiently staying the course and keeping your expectations realistic.
Be wise in how you handle yourself in the heat of the battle — a pebble in a shoe is a victory for you! Also, do your best to understand the kids' perspectives and what they're having to navigate through in this season. And don't forget to stay united in your partnership, focusing on your specific roles as bio-parent and step-parent.
You can choose to positively impact and change your challenging reality - it may not be easy, but it will be worth it!
QUESTION: What can you do to change your focus so that you can positively influence your stepfamily's future? Leave a comment below…