Your ex badmouthing you to your children is a situation faced by lots of ex-partners.
It may make you angry and rekindle all sorts of emotions left over from your relationship. The fact that the badmouthing is being directed at you via your children may make you fear they’ll be turned against you. You may well be worried too about the effects it may be having on your children.
Hearing negative things said about one parent by the other is likely to make your children feel upset, hurt and conflicted. They’re likely to feel deeply uncomfortable about the position they’re being put in – into the middle of a conflict they don’t fully understand and in which they’re unlikely to want to take part.
They may feel that their loyalties are torn. While they may want to defend you against your ex, they’ll also feel uncomfortable about taking sides.
In counselling, we often think of conflict as taking place on a triangle, with the roles of ‘aggressor’, ‘victim’ and ‘rescuer’ on the three points. Where one parent badmouths another to their children the child is put in the position of ‘rescuer’. They’re being asked to take on a role that exceeds their responsibilities – one in which they’re forced to look after the people who are supposed to look after them. This can be overwhelming and upsetting, particularly if the child is younger.
What not to do
There’s a big temptation – to badmouth back. But adding to the storm of insults only serves to amplify the negative feelings your children are experiencing – forcing them to feel resentful towards and conflicted about not just one parent, but both.
What to do
Instead, focus on your children’s well-being above anything else. It’s important they feel supported; that they have the mean to find a way through what’s going on.
Start by talking with them. Ask them how they’re feeling. Let them know that you don’t want to put them in the middle of any conflict and that how they’re doing is your priority. Just saying this can be an important step, especially if it’s not something they’ve heard before.
Beyond this, do your best to talk them through what they might like to do in should your ex badmouth you to them again.
This isn’t about you scheming with your children to fight back, but so your children feel they can respond in a way that doesn’t make them feel they’re part of the argument.
The best outcome is that they feel able to express themselves when it happens again. They should feel able to say to your ex how the badmouthing is making them feel and state, without it turning into an argument, that they don’t want to be put in this position.
Try to help them use ‘I’ phrases – putting the emphasis on their feelings, rather than blaming your ex. Help them to use less polarised language – instead of saying ‘always’, say ‘sometimes’, for instance.
Help your children find the right time to bring up their concerns. Usually, the best time isn’t when an argument is already starting, as this is when we are least likely to express ourselves constructively. Sometimes, it can be better to talk things over when we’re feeling calm – when out on a walk or going for a drive, for instance.
The fact that the conversation pertains to you is academic. You’re helping your child communicate something that’s important to them, and that they’re finding difficult to express.
Talking to your ex yourself
And, of course, you may also want to consider whether it’s possible to bring up this conversation with your ex yourself. You’ll know how this is likely to go. It may create more conflict. But, if there’s still room for you to talk constructively, just trying may make a big difference.