How to Deal If Your Ex Talks Negatively about You in Front of the Kids
It's a situation every co-parent dreads: You pick up the kids after a weekend with their other parent, and they immediately fill you in on every hurtful thing your ex said about you. As you listen to your child share this information with you, questions fill your mind. Why did my ex-wife or ex-husband say these nasty things about me? Better yet, why did they say these things to the kids? And what can I even do about it?
Shared parenting time or joint custody can enhance your child’s life, but many ex-couples have a difficult time navigating the waters at first. No matter how angry or brokenhearted you feel after hearing this news, the answers to the questions racing through your mind are not as hard to find as you may think.
When your ex speaks badly of you to your kids
Occasionally, ex-spouses slip up and say things in front of the kids without realizing it. However, there's a big difference between a parent expressing how much happier they are living without their ex and one parent dragging the other parent's name in the mud.
Sometimes, an ex may share delicate information about why the marriage ended and make accusations about the parent who isn't present. Other times, one parent will rag on the other parent's ability to care for the children or their lack of interest in spending time with them. And sometimes, an ex will use slurs and profanities when talking about their former spouse just because they see it as their right to say mean things.
Regardless of what was said or why, the last thing you want to hear is that your ex was talking about you in a negative way in front of the kids. It’s simply not in a child’s best interest to be exposed to such talk. Depending on the way your children deliver the news – and what was said – you may feel your blood begin to boil, or you may notice tears stinging your eyes. Anger, sadness, and confusion are all understandable emotions in this situation ... especially if you receive the intel from young children.
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Why does my ex say bad things about me to the kids?
There's no excuse for one parent bashing the other in front of the kids. This behavior is uncalled for and should never be justified. However, understanding why a former spouse may bad-mouth their ex can help you see the situation from a more rational place and determine how to handle it.
It’s their normal behavior
If you left an abusive or high-conflict ex, this may seem like normal behavior that has carried over into the co-parenting relationship. They may have said bad things about you to the kids before you ever made the decision to leave the marriage, and doing so now is merely a continuation of this.
They can’t get to you
There are times when one parent bad-mouthing the other seems out of character. Divorce is a hard time. It’s painful and messy, and the emotional trauma causes people to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t. They may lash out or project their emotions onto others by saying hurtful things. And, if your ex can't get to you directly, they may see your children as the next best target.
They feel threatened by you
Parents sometimes worry about the strength of their bond with their kids. Your ex may see you as a threat to their parent-child relationship and be jealous of the connection you have with the kids. They may even think dragging you down will help the kids like them more.
Although you don't deserve this type of treatment, understanding your ex's motives can help you determine the best way to handle the situation and, with any luck, prevent it from happening again.
Tips for handling an ex who speaks badly of you
Dealing with an ex who says hurtful things about you in front of your kids is not easy, but there are certain things you can do to take care of your own mental health as well as your children.
Don’t sling it back
Take a deep breath. Although it’s frustrating to find out your ex is talking negatively about you in front of the kids, showing anger and expressing frustration in front of them will only cause more issues. Resist the urge to play the blame game or sling mud back. Let things go.
Let your children know that sometimes when a person is having a difficult time with feelings of anger or hurt, they say things they don’t actually mean. Model empathy for your child, and answer any questions they have. This can also be a great opportunity to discuss feelings and connect with your child about how the divorce is impacting them.
(Maybe) discuss it with your ex
After you talk to your children, you may want to reach out to your ex about the bad-mouthing. This isn’t the best approach if you have a high-conflict ex. However, if you have a (remotely) healthy relationship and there’s any room for discussion, it’s worth at least letting your former spouse know how their words are impacting the kids.
If you talk to your ex, remain calm. You will want to have the conversation in private, preferably at a time when the kids aren’t around. You can simply bring the matter to your ex’s attention and talk about it in terms of how it impacts the kids. In the process, you may discover that it’s just a misunderstanding … but you also may help your ex realize the impact of their words on the most important family members: your children.
Unfortunately, not every co-parent is willing to negotiate or evaluate what they’re doing. In fact, there are times when one parent simply must decide to “be the bigger person” and deal with the situation on their own.
If you need help dealing with your own emotions post-divorce, there are several things you can do. For instance, you can seek out a peer support group for divorced parents and connect with other people dealing with similar situations. You can also try coping strategies at home such as meditation or journaling to express your emotions in a calm manner.
If your ex continues to say mean-spirited things about you in front of the kids, you can also seek professional help from a number of sources. For example, you could discuss how this issue is impacting your life and mental health with a therapist or life coach. Or, you could talk to an attorney to determine what steps you may need to take for the kids’ well-being.
Bottom line: Your child’s life – and your own physical and emotional well-being – are what matter most. If you can find a way to smooth over the situation and co-parent with your ex in a civil manner, take advantage of that. If you can't, just remember there are resources out there to help you navigate the situation and care for your child.