Although there might be bumps along the road, most parents are able to put their children first and become successful co-parents post-divorce. Sometimes, however, one spouse can’t let go of the bitterness and anger caused by the failed marriage; consciously or unconsciously, the angry ex attempts to turn the children against the other parent. 

By Amy Baker (Ph.D.) and Paul Fine (LCSW)

How you handle your emotions when your children are experiencing loyalty conflicts is important. Start by trying to avoid the following common mistakes when co-parenting with an antagonistic ex.

1. Giving in to Anger

It’s understandable that parents whose efforts to communicate with their children are blocked would become frustrated. Of course, the solution is not to take your anger out on your child. While your child may act rude, disrespectful, and hurtful, they are inwardly being torn apart. Responding with anger only reinforces the negative messages your child is hearing about you and increasing the likelihood that your child will side with your ex.

2. Giving in to Depression and Defeat

If you allow yourself to feel defeated and demoralized when your ex attempts to paint you in a negative light, you risk feeling sad and depressed even when spending time with your child. Afterwards, you may experience feelings of despair and regret. Some co-parents allow negative perceptions expressed by their ex or their child to become self-fulfilling prophecies and unwittingly increase their child’s disappointment.

3. Focusing on the Wrong Thing

When faced with an accusatory child, some parents rush to prove that the child is incorrect. It’s understandable to want to convince an emotional child that he has nothing to be upset about. But providing proof of your innocence is usually not sufficient, and refusal to accept the proof means that your child isn’t really upset about the facts. Children in this situation typically respond to the way the parent behaves, not the facts being presented. The alternative to frantically explaining your innocence is to address the feeling and the reason behind the accusation.

4. Blaming the Ex/Failure to Look at Oneself

Having learned about all the behaviors that may induce a loyalty conflict, you may incorrectly assume that every complaint is part of a master-plan to erase you from your child’s life. This is counterproductive with respect to your relationship with your child: it means that you may ignore realistic and constructive criticism, and your child will perceive you to care more about being right than about being an open and truly dedicated parent. It may seem challenging to treat each criticism with an open mind – even when it comes from a child who has been unfair to you or from an ex – but you need to avoid closing yourself to self-improvement for the sake of your child.

Unfortunately, general co-parenting advice will be insufficient if your ex is undermining you and interfering in your relationship with your child. Your primary concern must be how to respond to your ex’s manipulation of your child in a way that doesn’t further entrench your child’s alignment with your ex. It’s important for you to protect your child from the effects of a loyalty conflict and allow him to love and be loved by both parents.

This article has been adapted from Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine ©2014 New Harbinger Publications.

Amy J. L. Baker (Ph.D.) is a national expert on children caught in loyalty conflicts. She conducts trainings for parents and legal and mental health professionals, and has written dozens of scholarly articles on parent-children relationships. Paul R. Fine is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist in practice at a community mental-health center in northern New Jersey.