How To Handle Co-Parenting When Your Ex Bad-Mouths You To Your Children

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woman in the car with kids

Co-parenting takes compromise and teamwork between parents. But if your ex is constantly badmouthing you to your children, it doesn't make things any easier.

Marne was shocked to hear her nine-year old son exclaim, "Daddy says you like your boyfriend better than me!" as he came strolling in the door after spending a few hours with his Dad.

"Well of course I love you more, honey. I don’t know why your father has to be so mean and say something like that," was her first gut-level retort.

She wanted to go straight over to her son’s father and berate him for saying anything that would undermine their son’s relationship with her.

RELATED: 9 Tips For How To Successfully Co-Parent With A Toxic Ex

How do you handle co-parenting when your ex bad mouths you to your children?

Unfortunately, saying bad things about an ex where little ears can hear it is an all-too-common occurrence during and after divorce.

Rather than safeguarding the child’s respect for their other parent, parents may unknowingly place their children in the middle of adult conflict.

So, what's a parent to do when the other parent is loose with their comments and throws you under the proverbial bus?

Getting defensive and making counter-attacks against negativity is just as harmful. It’s all conflict, as far as the children are concerned.

Maintain a high level of well-being.

In this case, you need to maintain your high level of well-being without falling for the bait of unproductive banter.

The first line of protection for children is for the targeted parent to realize that the other parent’s comments only cut as deeply as you let them.

Your child is watching, so consider demonstrating how the comments are not worth listening to. Resist the temptation to give attention to such unwanted remarks.

Your child will learn that just because a parent says something bad, it doesn’t have to be a big impact on your emotional landscape.

Don't take anything personally. 

In other words, don’t take the comments personally and they will dissipate quickly.

It sounds easier than done, so how do you keep yourself from taking the comments personally? After all, they're meant to elevate the status of the offending parent in the minds of the children.

Juan Miguel Ruiz, in his noteworthy book, The Four Agreements, gives specific instructions to resist taking things personally. Ruiz reminds us that, "even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you."

He goes on to say that we all live in our own worlds, creating a movie in our minds in which we're the main character. Then, we go around defending our movie as reality.

Comments from an ex-partner take on a life of their own, because we have an ego need to make others "wrong" and make our opinions "right."

It’s just a never-ending distraction from focusing on what makes us feel peaceful and happy.

Address negativity directly and briefly. 

Another way to combat the negative talk is to address it directly — and briefly — with the other parent.

Direct comments given in a matter-of-fact manner may call attention to the negativity in a helpful way.

Just like dealing with bullies, naming the behavior with clarity and calmness takes the illusion of power out from under the speaker.

Domineering behavior is meant to intimidate. Giving a prompt invitation for your co-parent to join you on the high road may be worth a try.

When their middle-schooler was coming off the soccer field, ex-spouses Joe and Jana both wanted to be part of the celebration of their daughter’s well-deserved win.

Instead of focusing on the positive moment, Joe told his spirited girl her mother was only there to try and ruin his night, so he was leaving to avoid her "passive-aggressive crap."

His daughter instantly shirked away from the crowd and went straight to his car.

Seeing the quick departure, Jana stepped up to Joe and said, "She needs us both, Joe. We can do better. We don’t have to like each other, but let’s keep it to ourselves."

This method of direct confrontation takes courage and a business-like manner for effective delivery. It can be an impactful equalizer.

RELATED: How To Be A Good Parent To Your Kids When Co-Parenting With An Ex

Talk directly to your kids about it.

Lastly, talking directly to the child about the offenses can be a powerful lesson in self-management.

This last tip is for all parents, including those who know they have no chance of influence over their co-parent and any interactions would only cause more conflict.

This approach is good for children of all ages and in many situations.

When a child relays to a parent nasty comments said by the other parent, think of the feelings behind what the child says.

Address the feelings, not the comment. Tell the child you're sorry that you and the other parent have not been able to work out a better way of getting along.

Validate the child’s experience of confusion, frustration, or sadness without attributing these emotions to the behavior of the other parent.

When Ron shared plans for his upcoming family reunion out of town, his daughter and son were excited to learn they would get to spend time with their beloved cousins.

However, when the children told their mom of their excitement, their mother shook her head, saying, "Those people are up to no good. I’m surprised they aren’t all in jail by now. And your father? How can he pay for a trip when he can’t even help pay for your braces?"

The children told their dad they no longer wanted to go on the trip and asked if they could stay with their mom.

Ron was livid, thinking, "How could their mother not see how good it was for the kids to have extended family?!"

Ron gathered his thoughts and took a big breath.

Instead of defending his family, he calmly replied, "Look, guys, I’m sorry your mom and I don’t get along better. You shouldn’t have to hear any bad things about anyone. I’m worried you feel put in the middle."

When the children heard his words and saw his concern, they felt relieved. But their faces still were sullen.

Ron went on to say, "I know you feel loyal to your mother, and that’s great. Just remember, I’ll take good care of you on our trip and make sure you have a fun time."

Children count on their parents to manage adult conflict.

When parents can hear their children’s concerns without drawing the children into the middle of the fight, children can go back to the business of being children.

So, even if your other parent talks bad about you, stay steady. It really does take two to fight.

Inspirational speaker and author Wayne Dyer said that conflict cannot survive without your participation.

Take care to breathe deeply and remind yourself the little ears need to hear your reassurance that you will not advance any negative cause. It stops with you.

Here's an affirmation to say every day: "I can control what comes out of my own mouth and into the ears of my children."

RELATED: 5 Tips For Surviving Co-Parenting With A Narcissistic Ex

Amy Armstrong, LISW coaches clients to consider expansive possibilities for positive co-parenting. For more tips on self-management during high-conflict relationships, contact Amy Armstrong at The Center for Family Resolution.