How do explain my ex-husband’s behavior to our kids without making him look bad?


Morning friends,

Prayers needed. Each morning of this week, I am writing for four to five hours before starting my counseling schedule. My clients have graciously agreed to come in the afternoon all week so that I can have my best writing time free. Please pray that God would give me wisdom and flow in order to write well. So far, I’ve completed almost five out of fifteen chapters, but that’s just the rough draft. There is so much more to go.

Question: I left my ex-husband 10 years ago because of his abusive behavior toward myself and my oldest child. The children have had to maintain a court-ordered relationship with him. My son was older and has been able to maintain his dad at a safe distance. Our daughter was always his little princess. She has no memory of the abuse as she was too young when I left.

I get comments from people that I should never speak ill of their father to them and that I should encourage a positive relationship, but how do I do that when he has such a continuing pattern of lying and passive aggressive behavior? The mind games concern me, especially when it affects my daughter’s spiritual walk. We try to teach the truth from the scriptures, but when he contradicts things, how can we correct her thinking without bashing him? Once my daughter witnessed a violent outburst where he screamed obscenities, but he excused himself because he was tired and she bought it. How do I deal with that?

Answer: It is difficult but not impossible. Children do best when they have a positive relationship with both parents however awful one person has been in the marriage. Children want to believe the best about their parents and want to feel that they are loved and important, even if the marriage failed.

That doesn’t mean that you never contradict what your ex-husband says to your children, but you try very hard not to disparage his character. In other words, you might say something like, “Daddy and I disagree on this subject. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we believe that God’s Word speaks truth and that is what we are going to believe or do in our family.”

What you don’t want to say is, “Daddy is crazy.” Or “Daddy is a liar.” When you know he is not portraying the situation truthfully, you could say, “Daddy and I see things differently. I don’t know why he is saying that, but I don’t see it that way or I don’t think it happened that way.”

However, if he is violent and/or abusive, you must not cover-up, make excuses or create another reality. So in the above situation you might say, “Daddy lost his temper. Yes he was tired, but that doesn’t mean we can hurt people with our words just because we are tired. Let’s pray that daddy will learn to control his temper even when he’s tired.”

Framing it that way enables her to continue to have compassion towards her father, but you are also helping her learn that each person is responsible for the way they behave, regardless of the circumstances.

If he is a danger to your daughter (driving recklessly, drinking while she visits, being abusive towards her), then you may need to take firmer measures like supervised court-ordered visitation. Again, without disparaging his character, you could say, “Right now daddy has some problems that he needs to get help for. Until he does, I can’t allow you to visit with him unsupervised.”

At some point, it may be important to communicate with your ex-husband about issues you are concerned with. I would recommend you do it in writing or through e-mail so that you have a documented trail of your correspondence. Be factual and describe your concerns in concrete terms. For example, “I want Amy to have a good relationship with you. I will do everything I can to encourage that. However, when you consume alcohol during her visits (or whatever your specific concern is), it puts me in a protective stance. I cannot allow Amy to visit you when I feel she could be in danger.”

There are no easy answers in this kind of dilemma. You will not do it perfectly, but I sense that your heart wants as much as possible to give your children the best opportunity to form some sort of relationship with their father. The bible encourages us as much as it depends on us, to be at peace with all people (Romans 12:18) but sometimes it is just not possible because you cannot make peace all by yourself.


  1. Sarah on November 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    I am currently separated for the 2nd time from my abusive husband, and trying to sort out what exactly I will do. We have 4 children together, for a total of 5 children (I have one not my husband’s child), who are all very young. So far, I have allowed him to visit with the children in our home, but it is becoming more and more toxic for me in our relationship, with him pushing boundaries, manipulation, pressure and guilt trips. I am considering supervised visitation, as soon as I can get legal advice. How do I explain all this to my very young children (ages 5 and under!), about why daddy doesn’t live here anymore, why they can’t see him all the time.. I haven’t gotten too many questions so far, but I fear more coming if I make these changes. I don’t want to traumatize them more than they already are, due to some of his rages and our conflicts, I am dealing with some of the effects of terrified children, such as night terrors, separation anxieties even in our own home, unreasonable fear of “monsters” and other things disrupting their play.. There has been physical abuse present, and some directed at the children as well. They adore their father, however, and I don’t want to turn them against him. How can I walk this balancing act of keeping them safe, being truthful, and still allow or even encourage a relationship with their father?

    • Leslie Vernick on November 16, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Sarah, how tough for you. But I think since all of your children have experienced his rages I think you can simply say something like, “Daddy needs a time out until he learns how to handle his temper better and until he does, he cannot live at our house.” All young children understand when they lose their temper and throw “fits” there are usually some unpleasant consequences so this simple explanation will help them understand not only is it unacceptable for grown ups to behave this way, but that you are going to keep their environment safe for them and they need that right now.

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