When Your Child is a Miniature “Ex”

When my ex-husband and I were deciding on what to name my son, he liked a name I was uneasy about, simply because a woman with whom I used to work had a son by that name, and her personality drove me nuts! In my mind, I had connected the name with an unpleasant person, and it made me reluctant.

We decided on the name he wanted after all, and now, I can’t imagine my son with any other name. But isn’t it weird how the names of people we don’t like become taboo when naming our own children? It’s as if we’re afraid the name will somehow affect their personalities.

A similar thing happens when we have children with spouses we later come dislike enough to divorce. Whether we like it or not, our sons and daughters are biologically part of the other parent. Inevitably, they will have inherited some of their looks, their mannerisms, their personality traits, their ways of doing things — some of the same things that drove you to divorce your ex-spouse!

A friend of mine put it best when she found herself in the same dysfunctional patterns with her 16-year-old son she had been in many years before with her ex-husband. “Diane, it’s like déjà vu, and I’m living with my ex all over again!” she exclaimed in frustration. “I’m having a tough time separating the two.” Her son not only communicated much like his father, but his looks and tone of voice were almost identical.

Although most marriages do not end simply because of personality differences or annoying physical characteristics, those things can become magnified once we feel betrayed or lose respect and trust in our spouses. Then, when our kids begin to display similar traits, we become uncomfortable. It’s a subtle process — we may not even notice the resemblances our children have to their other parent until our kids get more adult-like. But if we’re not careful, our teenagers can become easy targets for latent anger and frustration meant for our ex-spouses.

Single moms who have teenage sons and single dads who have teenage daughters need to be extra careful that they are not parenting based on reactions to old emotional baggage. One dad told me about his daughter, who was a spitting image of her mother. When they had a confrontation of any kind, she would wrinkle her nose the same exact way her mother used to. “Right away, it put me on the defensive, and it was almost as if I was blaming her for being like her mother — as if she could control it.”

So how can parents who have look-alike or act-alike kids control these urges to respond to the past? It starts with understanding that children have little control over biological traits or even mannerisms and moods that have been learned in the other household.

Here are a few ways to keep reactions in check:
• Remember, everyone has a good side. Make a list of all the characteristics about your ex-spouse you may admire or find acceptable. I know it’s difficult to do this after many years of finding fault, but there is bound to be something admirable. Maybe your ex has a special skill or talent, or maybe he or she is particularly outgoing or fun. After making the list, check off those things your child has the benefit of possessing, as well. Try to concentrate on the positive.

• Resist the temptation to compare. Try not to say, “You’re just like your mother” or “Quit acting like your father.” Once kids know you despise this part of their personality, they probably will use it against you every chance they get! Also, my experience has been that kids tend to sympathize with the victims of their parent’s criticisms. So, they may begin to idealize the part of the other parent’s personality you are always tearing down.

• Don’t use your kids as the scapegoat for your weaknesses. If you lapse into poor and familiar communication patterns with your child, it probably has more to do with your failure to change than with your child’s inherited traits or learned behaviors. You can control what you say, how you say it and how you react to others.

Don’t put the burden on your kids to be good communicators.If the other parent is not setting a good example for them, this is a great opportunity for you to be the model of good communication.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a family counselor, divorce mediator and parent educator in Atlanta, Ga. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families” (Fairview Press, 1997).