Dealing with a bad-mouthing ex

Even if your relationship is over, the father of your kids can give you a serious headache by bad-mouthing you to your children. Here’s how you can take the high road with your kids.

Child with parents arguging in background |

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If you’re divorced and co-parenting, you’re likely familiar with the sickeningly powerless feeling that arises when you learn your ex is bad-mouthing you to the kids. Community members of the online divorce support group First Wives World are quick to chime in with their bad-mouthing horror stories.

“When [my ex] has the kids on the weekends,” writes Patti, “he tries to drill them for information and tries to drive a wedge between me and them by saying negative things about me. I know because the kids tell me.” Dawn adds, “It’s now been seven months since my ex left, and in all that time he’s done nothing but berate my parenting skills to my daughter. Last weekend he called my daughter fat and said it’s because I’m fat and feed her badly.”

The damage of a mud-slinging spouse

Mud-slinging stories like those shared on First Wives World have the makings of a nightmare. Any mother would feel the urge to turn into a mama bear to protect her kids from vitriol of any kind, but the stakes are much higher, obviously, when it feels like your reputation as a mother is on the line. Let’s be real — learning that your ex is mud-slinging in front of your kids can feel devastating and completely violating on an intensely personal level. Not only that, bad-mouthing can actually damage your relationship with your kids by turning them against you. Many moms report that their kids grow alienated, distant and downright mean when they hear nasty rumors and assertions from their dads.

What’s a concerned mom to do?

Since you’ve already survived the breakup of your marriage, you’re likely aware that reasoning, pleading and begging will do little to fix a problem behavior like bad-mouthing — unless your ex is committed to changing. Unfortunately, if he thinks it’s appropriate to say terrible things about you in front of the kids, then he’s likely past the point of change and reason.

We spoke with nationally-renowned psychologist Dr. Richard Warshak to hear his take on what a mom can do when she learns her ex is engaged in bad-mouthing to the kids. First of all, he was clear that moms need to avoid the temptation to spin stories and return the bad-mouthing. Doing so may make you feel better but it won’t correct anything in the long run. Then he suggested zeroing in on your relationship with your child to assertively correct misinformation about you. Consider the following “fixes” if you sense that your child is aligning with your ex as a result of the mud-slinging.

  • Create positive experiences with your kids. “Use your time with the children for enjoyable activities rather than get preoccupied with complaints,” says Warshak. The insults are less likely to stick when your kids have solid and loving memories with you.
  • Correct false beliefs without insulting Dad. Don’t just ignore the insults you sense floating through your house. According to Warshak, it’s important to “give your children the information they need to judge you fairly.”
  • Express love. Give your children the love they need, even if they’re passing along insults to you.
  • Have a thick skin. Try to let insults roll off your back, even though the impulse to grow defensive is strong. “It can help to remember that your kids are victims themselves of a process they don’t understand,” Warshak says.
  • Maintain contact, no matter what. “Cooling off” periods may work with adults, but they don’t work with children during times of divorce. Dr. Warshak notes, “In some cases of divorce, absence does not make the heart grow fonder — it makes the alienation more profound.”

Without a doubt, these methods are a lot harder than returning insults to your ex. They might not feel as good in the moment, either. But rising above the fray will give your children a safe environment to process their feelings in a loving home, which is worth any difficulty you may face.

More about parenting issues

When Mom and Dad disagree on discipline
Divorced and co-parenting: Your child’s Bill of Rights
When your baby daddy is a terrible parent


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