What should you do if your co-parent criticizes you to your kids?

All the books and articles about healthy co-parenting after divorce you’ve been reading tell you not to criticize or speak ill of your co-parent in front of your kids. Don’t call them names, don’t blame them when things don’t go the way you’d hoped and don’t lie about them.

When parents badmouth each other to or in front of their kids, it can cause the kids serious emotional distress at a time when they’re already emotionally vulnerable. The same is true if they’re hearing criticism of a parent by others in the family, like grandparents, aunts or uncles. They may feel like they need to defend that parent, but they don’t want to take sides.

So what should you do if you learn from your child that your co-parent has been badmouthing you or lying about you to your kids? Don’t compound the problem by responding with insults of your own, and don’t get defensive. Correct any false information they’ve been given, and talk to your kids about any concerns they have about what they’ve been told.

The next step is to talk to your co-parent. Whether they’re the one badmouthing you or one of their family members or friends is the culprit, they need to take responsibility for stopping it. (Do not have this conversation in front of the kids or when they’re around. That will only make things worse.) You may choose to communicate your concerns via email or some other way that lets you avoid a face-to-face encounter if that could be too emotional.

Emphasize the impact that your co-parent’s (or other person’s) words have had on the kids rather than how it made you feel. Responsible parents don’t want to hurt their kids. Your co-parent may have just been venting and not even realized that the kids heard or paid any attention to what they were saying.

If you’ve tried talking to your co-parent but the negativity continues, it may be worthwhile to talk with your family law attorney to determine what other options you have. You may want to put a nondisparagement clause in your parenting plan. These aren’t easy to enforce, but at least it can show your co-parent that you’re serious about how you talk about each other in front of your kids and help hold you to a higher standard as well.

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