Post-Divorce: The Golden Rule with Children and Stepchildren

Posted July 7, 2010 by

Back in the day, when my parents divorced they made us choose. We could only love one parent: if you lived with the mom, you could not openly or freely love the dad and visa versa. No visits, no phone calls. It was sad.

I married late in life (38 years old) and became the proud and loving stepmother of a 7-year-old boy (I’ll call him Jack) and a 9-year-old girl (I’ll call her Jill). I loved my husband very much; we dated for 2 years before we married. The children lived with their biological mother but I saw my stepchildren as often as I could. I adored Jack and Jill endlessly. Jack and Jill often confided in me about the pain of their lives and the impact of certain behaviors that hurt them so deeply. I truly believe I am a better person and mother now because of the many insights they gifted to me.

On behalf of my stepkids…I am compelled to tell the world what your children need from you deepest in the quarry of their magnificent hearts, even if they cannot verbalize it yet or put it together in those magical words that help people understand when they ‘really’ need to understand. What they really want is a gift that only *you* can grant them and it is a gift that will never ever stop giving as you watch their incredible accomplishments pile up, if you grace them with this one life-changing treasure. I am delighted to tell you it does not cost one penny, but if not bestowed upon the precious little person (or persons) who look up to you for guidance and care, it could cost a price that will never stop racking up.

The Golden Rule is to not say anything disrespectful of the other parent.

That’s it. It’s free and all you have to do is do what you do best: protect your child from the ugliness of hurtful talk about the other parent. Give them the freedom to love ‘everyone’ while they are young; it is priceless to their emotional development. My personal visual is to picture hurtful words as arrows, then envision those arrows with your ex-spouse’s name on it, then lastly recognize the first path that arrow will take is through your child’s heart. Maybe you don’t want to throw that arrow after all? This is the harsh reality children suffer everyday when adults do not realize the power of words and the lasting damage they can do.

Why follow this Golden Rule? You might be thinking, “because the other parent said mean things about me…” Maybe one thing that was incredibly unacceptable or many incredibly unacceptable acts, why should I not ‘warn’ my child and do what comes so naturally to ‘protect’ them by telling them what I might think they need to know?  Try to remember there is plenty of time for *your* child to grow up, and to recognize what you saw in the other parent and be equally disappointed…you really do not want to rush that. I believe most parents do not want their child or children prematurely depressed and feeling let down any sooner than necessary; their youth is merely a wrinkle in time.

Because Jack and Jill still suffer today for all the hurtful words and acts thrown back and forth between their parents. You should know nothing ever was resolved, but merely continued the pain and anguish the children lived with every day throughout their childhood years. It stole what was rightfully theirs in the first place, which was being young and free of worries. They cried to me so often about the fighting that had gone on between their parents that many days they could barely carry the emotional load it put on them — both back then and now. Jill is self-destructive, Jack emotionally detached. They are still sad to this day about it all.

You might be asking yourself, “What if I have already thrown hurtful words about the other parent in front of my children, even as recently as this morning?” I would suggest that you make this the last morning that you are ever a ‘negative role model’ to your child or children and start anew right now!  Never give up trying to reach your own ‘personal best.’

The biggest question is: Do I love my children enough to not hurt them with my own pain, which is minimally relieved with criticisms anyway?  Am I adult enough to recognize they never asked to be my sounding board or referee?  Perhaps this is where you might ask yourself  ‘Can I give if it hurts me back?’ It might be an adjustment — keeping your comments inside until there is an adult around (and the child/children elsewhere) you can vent/talk/share with.  But what you are also doing is keeping their precious minds and hearts clear and open to see the world in wonderment and awe.

The possible pluses:  less aggressive behavior, less tension in the house, better grades at school, you’ll feel good that you are doing ‘the right thing’, less arguments between you and your child because they will be naturally compelled to defend the other parent, and the real soul food here…one day when they are older they will thank you for not making what was already hard enough for them to handle even harder.

Lastly, this is the one chance in life to really be a hero — a hero to your beloved dear child — is there anything more wonderful?

The biggest challenge:  when you hear that the other parent badmouthed you,  make that a positive too…You can say, “How did that make you feel when they said that?”  (they might share)…you can say, “That is why I don’t say things like that; I don’t want to be responsible for making you feel anything but joy & happiness.’ (And remind them that just because someone says something does not make it so.)

It is my deepest wish for your children to know great joy & happiness in your company.


Empowering Parents welcomes Julia Clark to the Parent Blogger team! Julia is the single mother of an 8-year-old girl. She is presently also caring for her gently aging father. Julia has two older stepchildren, a boy and a girl in their twenties, from her first marriage. She is also five years into her second blended family with her fiancé and his three children, a 12-year-old boy, a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy. “With three generations at home, it’s always busy,” says Julia.

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  1. Julia Clark Report

    Dear SadDad, Clearly you love your wife immeasurably. You have chosen the life of quiet desperation rather than to fight with her about this all important topic and risk hurting her feelings. With my ex spouse his situation was so hostile it simply occurred to me the situation did not need ‘another opinion’. I am not a doctor but like my situation, in your situation you and your wife desperately need to get on the same page with this. You two are the whole point of your household, you two are the foundation, somehow your wife needs to recognize the ‘wedge’. That in her loving passion for you and your reputation she is damaging the meaningful love that brought you together. Against all odds, you both mustered your faith and tried marriage, trust, commitment, finances, children and more to face the world together. If she were the love of my life I would work hard at showing how much she means to me, how special she is to me and how much I absolutely adored her, I would reassure her in the little ways how much I treasured our relationship because when she feels more secure and becomes equally wrapped up in rejoicing in the rapture of love and reflecting it back, hopefully she will not have the time to express her distaste for your precious children’s mother. I adore my fiance’ to no end, if I said anything hurtful about his ex to his children it would crush him ‘on behalf of them’. I would swallow my pride for him, be deeply sorry and vow to do such things in private with him only. I express my distaste for my fiance’ exwife in private only. He has seen his children suffer enough at the hands of their own mother, they need not suffer in my company as well. I want all children in my company to be fed, clean and have a bandaide on their hearts, for usually by the time I came along, they suffered enough. God Bless your true heart, may your true love melt that wedge. Thanks for your kind words. 🙂

  2. Sad dad Report

    I found your article really thought provoking and have to say that my heart yearns that this environment existed in my household and that respectful attitude for ex partners was true for my children. I am remarried and my new wife and I have 5 children between us – my 2 in shared care between myself and their mum, my wife’s 3 children with us all the time. My new partner, whom I love dearly, is really negative about my first wife, often in front of my children. My first wife does still tend to do a number of hurtful and controlling things and while I have long since decided to let them go and not buy into it, my new wife finds that these behaviours by my ex really get to her and she responds very locally about it, trying to defend me. Unfortunately she says really negative things about my ex, often in front of both her children and particularly mine. This is both really hurting my children and her relationship with them but when we try to talk about it, she gets very defensive and I have been unable to help her to see that her defending me like this is not helping anyone. It is becoming a wedge between us as well now. I am going to show her your well written article and see how she feels about that. Hopefully it will strike a cord with her.

  3. Julia Clark Report

    Thank you so very much Susan. It is my first post and I did not know that I was so welcome to respond to the comments … so now that I know … as each one comes in, I will in kind. I am so impressed you put it in your ‘agreement’ wow, that’s foresight. I marvel at divorces that reflect any agreement … let alone something so intangible and benefiting not the children immediately but more so their future and a compliment to who they will become. So you sound amazing in your own right. You are fortunate to have a reasonable relationship with your childrens dad. So often it is not and all to often it just can not be. You must have realized life is not really about ‘you’ anymore it is about teaching our children about healthy and unhealthy behavior, so they become positive members of their family & community as well. There is not a person working with children of divorce that ever forget the “The Golden Rule”, it is for our precious children that we be respectful in their company of those they love dearest, regardless how we feel about those individuals, it really should extend to step parents too. I am so moved people relate to my thoughts which just pour out my heart. There is so much of our lives between these lines eh? I appreciate your applause. 🙂 sending you smiles 🙂

  4. Susan Engel Report

    Welcome, Julia! Wow — what a great blog post! I have 2 sons: they will be 7- and 10 years-old this summer. My fiance and I have been together for 5 years this November; we met almost a year after I separated from my ex-husband. I am eternally grateful to have a man in my life who loves my kids as he would his own.

    II congratulate you for reiterating the significance of this issue. One of the “golden rules” when my ex and I divorced was that we would never, ever bad-mouth (or be disrespectful of) the other parent in front of the kids. In fact, we had it written into our divorce settlement agreement! I am blessed that we both felt is THAT important of an issue. And I am happy to say that, as far as I can tell, we have each been able to uphold our ends of the bargain (my fiance sometimes veers slightly off course, but he’s quickly redirected).

    I know that my situation may be unusual (i.e., an amicable divorce with kids), but I cannot help but underscore how incredibly important that Golden Rule is in making it so! It is VITAL. Most parents don’t understand what kind of damage disrespecting the non-present parent does to a child. Like it’s less thinly-disguised sibling, revenge, it ALWAYS backfires. We (as parents) may not “see” it, but trust me — it does. I’m glad to read that other parents take this as seriously as I do.

    So, thanks again for a job well done! *clap, clap!* I look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Julia Clark Report

    to doyle: i am amazed after being divorced 7 years to still hear name calling about me. i have recently gotten tired of being hurt by it. i am now embracing it as an affirmation why i divorced that person and that as long as i let it hurt me i am still their victim. in the early years it seemed people heard it, of late it doesn’t seem to go anywhere except back to me and wound me. so ‘please’ join me in being wounded no longer. peace to you & yours.

  6. Julia Clark Report

    Thank you all for taking the time to read my article.

    Your kind thoughts have all warmed my heart.

    to bds. I agree with you re: ‘better than’. That is unproductive and not respectful. I have learned same sex parent is the most significant ‘role model’ therefore; I try to ‘role model’ clearly for my daughter so she will know how to ‘role model’ for her children (my grandchildren). I do relate to your caution in the wind and I will adjust my sails in kind to be more aware of the ‘better than’ storm.warmrgds.

  7. amy Report

    Wow, Julia . . . I could’ve been reading my own story as I read your blog today. I am 38 and getting married next month to a man with an 8 yr old daughter and a 7 yr old son. I appreciate your advice and will definitely keep this in mind. It was so well said and explained. Excellent advice. I have made great strides in being the peace keeper, the neutral party, the go between and have managed to diffuse the messy situation. I hope it continues and keep strong, mature, and keep those children in mind in all the decisions I make and the actions/words that I chose. Thank you. I look forward to more of your articles.

  8. bds Report

    A good habit,though I think it’s dicey to say, “That is why I don’t say things like that, etc.” It ssts up a better-than cycle. It takes some stretching but just as they like and need to be reminded of what is good about themselves, children of divorce need to be reminded of what is good about the ‘other’ parent.

  9. mr mom Report

    I really enjoyed this little piece if information. I just ended the third marriage. It is good to know why what I am doing is good for my two boys ( one with Aspergers). I had never thought of it like that before. I am just glad that THIS TIME I am on the right track. Thank you or sharing that information, I hope it helps other couples who are getting divorced.

  10. Doyle Report

    Thank you for your post, I found it very encouraging and affirming. I too, feel the way you do about protecting the children from the “arrows”, and I needed to be reminded of it today. You’re right, it’s hardest when it seems I only get hurt in return for doing the right thing, but in the larger scope of things I am allowing my children to be loved and feel whole when I choose to stop the cycle of disrespect. Thank you too for your suggestion on what to do if I hear that the other person has bad-mouthed me – that gets me almost every time!!! I was encouraged to be reminded of the solution.



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