What to Do When Your Kid Badmouths Your Ex

Jan 2, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. ET
Image: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

“You’re at your daddy’s tonight,” I told my son, giving him a hug at the school’s door. My custody schedule varies weekly, which makes it impossible for a 5-year-old to memorize, so every day when I drop him off, I tell him who’ll be picking him up that night.

His skinny little arms wrapped tightly around my legs. “No! I don’t want to go to Daddy’s! He’s mean!”

My heart sunk as I tried to pry him free. All my co-parenting classes had warned me against badmouthing my ex, but no one had talked about what to do if my kid said something negative. I wanted C. to feel comfortable sharing his emotions with me, and I didn’t want to undermine them. But I also didn’t want my ex to accuse me of poisoning his relationship with his son. What to do?

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few things I learned about how to handle it.

Look at the circumstances surrounding the complaint. Simply put, is your kid trying to get something from you? The “Daddy never buys me any new toys” line when you’re walking by the toy aisle at Target or “Daddy’s really mean, not like you” right after you’ve asked him to clean up his toys are obvious attempts to play one parent off the other.

A child’s actions are easy to see through on those occasions, but their motives may not always be manipulative, particularly in younger children.

As Dr. Kathleen Matthews, a licensed social worker and therapist with over 20 years of experience working with children, points out: “Children pick up on their parent’s emotions, and if they know their parents are in disagreement, they will use this to their benefit. Not in a malicious way, but to align with each parent against each other as a way of feeling connected.”

One warm summer day when he was 4, we’d been outside on the porch, C. playing with trucks at my feet while I knit, when he asked,” Mommy, when is Daddy going to move back in with us?” After I’d gently explained that his daddy had his own house now, C climbed into my lap and told me, “Then I don’t want to go over there. All he does is yell at me and tell me not to step on his ‘puter. He’s mean.” Because he’s just been playing and enjoying himself quietly, and I hadn’t been disciplining him or denying him a treat, I decided to treat his emotions as valid.

As I stroked hair out of C.’s face, I said, “I’m so sorry you feel that way, honey. But I’m glad you shared your feelings with me. You can always tell me how you’re feeling.” After cuddling for a bit longer, he squirmed out of my lap and went back to playing.

Don't invalidate their feelings. My first instinct was to rush to reassure him: "That’s not true. Daddy loves you! I’m sure you’ll have a great time at his house the next time you go over there!" But if I’d said this, I’d have been undermining his interpretation of the situation and possibly teaching him not to trust his instincts. And according to therapist Nicole Grunzke, you want your child to feel free to share their emotions with you. Turning around and contradicting what they’ve told you could harm the trust you’re trying to build.

And let’s not forget that our kids are walking, talking lie detectors. In my heart, when he said that his daddy didn’t want to spend time with him, I agreed with C. One of the many reasons I’d left my ex was because he was a disengaged parent. He’d come home from work, sit on the couch and open his laptop and ignore us. On the weekend, I’d take C. to the park and my ex would play video games for eight hours straight. I couldn’t honestly tell C. that his father wanted to spend time with him when his actions didn’t support that assertion. And while you don’t want to badmouth your ex, you’re not obligated to lie for them.

Examine your unspoken thoughts. While I hadn’t said anything negative about my ex that day on the porch, I had been thinking to myself how I hated sending my son to my ex’s house and how much I loved having him with me on the weekends. My kid could have been picking up on what I’d been thinking.

"The trick is not to make them feel like you have anything invested in them feeling a certain way (anxious, angry) or feeling like you want them to turn against the other parent,” says Matthews. Keep your tone neutral, and try to avoid adding any comments of your own. Sometimes, it’s just enough to listen and acknowledge what they’ve told you.

You don’t have to argue your child out of their feelings. You don’t have to lie for your ex or even stick up for them. Look at the circumstances around the complaint to determine how you should respond, ask neutral questions and provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Listen and love, and maybe two days later, your kid will be telling you how excited he is to go to Daddy’s and play with his new LEGO set.