Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

Don't trash talk your ex

Nov 21, 2016 11:56AM ● By Today's Family
By Paris Wolfe

Saying mean things to your children about their other parent– even true things – is hurtful. And, it just might backfire, according to mental health and legal experts. That may be hard when the ex is behind on a child support payment or cheated, but experts agree, it’s better to say nothing at all.

“(Mom or dad) shouldn’t say bad things about the other because it makes them look like a lesser person,” says Frankie, whose parents separated seven years ago when he was 10.  ”It’s like when politicians talk trash about each other.  You think this guy is being negative and it makes you think less of them.”

And, he’s not just talking lies.  “It doesn’t mean the parent is saying things that aren’t true.  But, they should keep it to themselves.  It’s like gossip. It hurts everybody,” he says.  “If one parent really isn’t good, keep it to yourself.  The kid will find out about it.”

Instead, he says, “Just say we’re not right for each other and we’re not happy. And, the kids will figure it out.”

That approach is, in fact, the healthiest, says Catherine Gaw, PsyD, pediatric psychologist, Cleveland Clinic Children’s.

“It is not harmful for parents to admit that they do not get along.  It is not harmful for parents to admit to having different rules, beliefs and/or priorities,” she says.  “But it is extremely harmful to children when their parents are judgmental of each other and create a belief that one is good and the other is bad.”

While it may sometimes feel impossible, working through conflicts can teach skills to the children.  “Navigating differences provides opportunities to develop flexibility, adaptability, resiliency and healthy life-long coping skills.  Parents need to model this resiliency and healthy coping for their children,” says Gaw.  “It is important for children to learn that emotions alone do not dictate reality.”

When mom insults dad, even behind his back, it may actually be an insult to the child.  “Children inherently view themselves as part of both parents. When one discounts and judges the other, the message their child receives is that a part of theirself is unacceptable,” says Gaw.
This isn’t always easy when a parent is hurting because of a separation.  But Gaw reminds parents that children are not friends or confidants.  Information that should remain confidential includes detailed reasons for the divorce, identifying one parent as responsible for the divorce, child support (especially when it is not being paid), financial statements, details of the ex-spouse’s new partner’s personal information, and the divorce paperwork.

“If you trash the other parent, attempt to manipulate your child to prefer you over the other parent, discuss personal issues of the other parent with your child, or place your child in the role of confidant or co-conspirator, you may be sowing destructive seeds for your own long-term relationship with your child,” Gaw says. 

The best behavior is really quite simple, says Tina M. Scibona, an attorney with the Kurt Law Office. “Think of the saying, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’”

“This will help keep the negative from the children.  Don’t be insincere about the other parent, because children can see through that,” Scibona says.  “A parent does not have to spout the praises of the other parent, but be cognizant that what you say, or don’t say, can still affect the relationship.”

When children have questions, answer as minimally as possible, she continues.  “Oversharing can harm the children and the relationships.”