What to do When Your Co-Parent Badmouths You to the Children

Divorce and separation are challenging enough on their own, but co-parenting can add another layer of difficulty. One of the toughest issues is when your co-parent badmouths you to the children. It’s natural to want to defend yourself or even retaliate, but it’s important to handle this situation thoughtfully. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this tricky situation:

  • First, take a deep breath and resist the urge to retaliate. It’s crucial to remember that your children are just that – children. They should not be involved in adult conflicts, nor should they be burdened with their parents’ emotional struggles. As their role model, your behaviour and response are what they absorb, observe, and learn from. They are not equipped to understand your emotional trauma or to mediate your disputes.
  • Second, focus on Your Child’s Needs. Once you have established yourself as the calm and reasonable parent, it’s essential to focus on your child(ren) and listen to their needs. Children primarily need unconditional love and reassurance from their parents. When adult issues are shared with them, they are not emotionally equipped to handle it. Take a moment to recognise your own emotional overwhelm. How can you expect your child to process it any better? At this point, express your love for them and reassure them that they are not in trouble for sharing this information with you.
  • Third, validate their feelings. Remember, they are children caught in the middle of adult emotions. This is scary for them! Let them know that you understand how sad or angry this situation might make them feel. If you’re unsure of their emotions, ask them: How does this make you feel? Then, hold space for them and respect their needs. Whether they need a hug or some alone time, let them have what they need. Reassure them again that you are always there for them if they need to talk.
  • Fourth, open the lines of communication. Depending on the age of your child, older children may have questions. This is a good time to create an open platform for communication. After refraining from retaliating, listening to understand (not respond), and validating their feelings, ask if they have any questions. Remember, this is not the time to explain yourself or provide excuses. It’s still about the children, not you. If they have no questions, accept it and continue to offer unconditional love and reassurance. You can say something like, “If you think of any questions later, I will be here to answer them.” If they do have questions, this is an opportunity to ease the burden placed on them by the other parent without assigning blame. I strongly advocate for age-appropriate truth. While telling the truth can be uncomfortable, it opens the door to solutions. For example, if a child is told that the separation was because one parent cheated, the truth should not be about blaming or expressing regret. Instead, say something like, “Yes, I did, but this is an issue between me and your co-parent.”
  • Finally, avoid making promises. It can be tempting to make all sorts of promises to protect them from hurt, but don’t. Now is the time to reinforce that whatever happened between their parents has nothing to do with them. Reassure them that they are loved and that both parents are doing their best to work through the issues. Remember, these are your issues, not theirs. If there are questions you don’t have answers to, do not make up answers or empty promises. Simply tell them that it’s a good question and that you are still figuring it out. This honesty helps build trust and shows them that it’s okay not to have all the answers.

By handling these situations with care and consideration, you help your children feel secure and loved despite the challenges of co-parenting. Remember, the goal is to support your children and model healthy behaviour, even in difficult times. It is also important not to try to “fix” the situation for your children. Instead, focus on being present and listening to them. Let them know that it is normal to have complicated feelings and that it’s okay to express them. By doing this, you empower your children to develop their own coping skills and resilience, which will serve them well throughout their lives.

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