In a perfect world we co-parent with our ex-spouse amicably. Some of us are lucky enough to have that kind of relationship with our ex and in that regard, we give our children a gift beyond measure. However, it is more common for ex-spouses to be at odds. In that case it is so easy to fall into the habit of villainizing, or even demonizing, your ex-spouse, your spouse’s ex-spouse or your ex-spouse’s new spouse. Often the history of our relationship with our ex and our ex’s spouse is so complex and painful that it is difficult to see that person as anyone other than the enemy.
You feel the way you feel and it takes maturity to get over the wrongs of the past. You must understand that if you parent your child with hatred for the other side of his family you are doing a disservice to your child and effective co-parenting is going to be very difficult for you. No matter what, verbalizing your ill will toward this person in the presence of the child is not okay under any circumstance and defies the basic premise of co-parenting.
Insults Only Hurt The Child
A child psychologist will tell you that, unless a child has been alienated from a parent, most children internally align themselves with both parents equally. Therefore, when you bad mouth your child’s parent, internally that child feels that you are bad mouthing him. Chances are that the parent you are bad mouthing couldn’t care less about how you feel. So the only person you are hurting with your negativity is the child.
The Parent’s Perspective
If you are a parent that is being bad mouthed by the other parent do not fall into the trap by returning the serve and engaging in bad mouthing yourself. Two wrongs do not make a right. Your child is likely being emotionally damaged by the bad mouthing given his conflicting loyalties to both parents. If you say to a child: “your dad is bad”, inside the child thinks: “I am bad too.” The best thing you can do is show your child that you have tough skin and that the child is not to blame for the other parent’s immature behavior.
If you are the parent that is doing the bad mouthing of the other parent: STOP. Understand that eventually your child will grow up and remember your lack of restraint. While your child will probably forgive you for your behavior, he will not forget and may think less of you because of it. Because of the internal loyalty a child feels for both parents, it is very unlikely that the child will truly be convinced that the other parent is bad, so your plan may backfire on you. (Except in the sad case where your child is the victim of Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is for a later discussion).
The Step-Parent’s Perspective: If you are a step-parent that is being bad mouthed, unfortunately for you, you are an easy target. The child is very likely to align with his bad mouthing biological parent and will agree that you are the evil step-mother/step-father that his other parent says you are (at least as far as that parent is concerned). Even if you and the child are bonded and the child loves you, he will never admit it to the bad mouthing parent. If the child is repeating what the other parent is saying, you should take it as a good sign that you have that kind of communication with the child. He obviously feels comfortable telling you what the other parent is saying and is probably secretly questioning the parent’s behavior.
Don’t even think about retaliation by engaging in the nonsense yourself because if you begin bad mouthing his parent the child will feel the need to defend that parent and then you will have two problems on your hands. Remember that your relationship with your child is long term. While the child may not appreciate everything you do for him now, eventually he will grow up and remember the kindness you showed him.
When he becomes independent of his biological parent’s beliefs he will make up his own mind about you based on your history together. The best thing you can do as a step-parent in this situation is to try to have perspective. Do not blame the child for the things they repeat or the way they treat you when their biological parent is around, as it is not their fault. Love your child despite the problems the other parent creates and you will eventually reap the benefits.
If you are a step-parent initiating bad mouthing of the other parent, I’m sorry to tell you that you are going to lose the battle and the war. It doesn’t matter if the other parent is the worst parent in the world, that child loves that parent and you will never be able to break that bond no matter how hard you try. Your bad mouthing may also cause problems between your spouse and the child because the child may start to blame your spouse for not being able to stop you from bad mouthing his other parent. Just bite your tongue.
I promise it will pay off in the long run. The Legal Perspective: Most decrees of divorce these days have a “no disparagement” clause with respect to child custody. If you fail to abide by that clause, you could be found to have defied a court order and be found in contempt of court. In the context of a post-divorce child custody dispute evidence of bad mouthing may be used against a parent in determining whether that parent’s custody rights should be modified.
NRS 125.480 provides that, when determining custody, one of the factors the court must consider is which parent is more likely to allow the child to have frequent associations and a continuing relationship with the other parent. Evidence of bad mouthing and obstruction of the parent/child relationship in general may be used against a parent in this context.
Jessica H. Anderson
Family Law Attorney Reno, NV