3 Healthy Responses to Badmouthing

Co-parent reading message on tablet

Parents badmouthing each other after a divorce is an all too common behavior. But whether provoked by fresh anger, frustration or lingering feelings of bitterness, badmouthing will only ever make difficult situations worse. 

You and your co-parent may make the occasional snide remark about each other, but if those types of comments are incredibly rare (and rectified with both an apology to your co-parent and an explanation to the kiddos about acceptable behavior), badmouthing isn’t likely to result in lasting damage. 

But when it’s chronic, badmouthing is destructive. 

As soon as badmouthing becomes a common behavior frequently witnessed by kids, it needs to be addressed. The effects it can have on children are numerous. Badmouthing can:

  • Damage a child’s relationship with the parent being disparaged
  • Damage a child’s relationship with the parent doing the badmouthing
  • Teach children that tearing others down is acceptable behavior
  • Cause children to internalize the insults and putdowns

Refusing to badmouth your co-parent is a positive first step. The last thing you want is a cycle of escalating behaviors, and that will be much less likely if both of you aren’t adding fuel to the flames. 

But what can you do about someone else badmouthing you? It might be coming from your co-parent, but it could also be the work of their family, friends and others. While the fact of the matter is you cannot control their behavior, there are healthy strategies you can employ to mitigate the effect badmouthing has on your and your children’s lives.

Don’t let their bad behavior control your response

When someone is saying negative things about you, it’s hard to fight the urge to step in and defend yourself. 

But if you rush to react, you’ll be letting them dictate the terms of your communication. Worse, reacting during a heated moment might tempt you into badmouthing the other person as well. 

It may feel unfair to let the behavior go unremarked upon initially. You may also convince yourself that your anger, and whatever response it produces, is righteous. But regardless of whether the situation is fair or your response is justified, any response you make will not be happening in a vacuum. 

Your kids will be paying attention, and they will be learning how to approach thorny situations like these from you. If both of their parents give in to badmouthing back-and-forth, they’ll have to look elsewhere to see healthy models of responding to negativity.

Resist the urge to become defensive or start saying mean-spirited things yourself. Stay calm and focused on having a productive conversation instead of feeding into the badmouthing.

Stay focused on what’s important

At the end of the day, how much energy should you devote to caring about what your co-parent thinks or says about you? What is important is the effort you put into your relationship with your kids and the kind of role model you strive to be for them. 

Hearing that someone is putting you down will undoubtedly be hurtful, especially if that person is criticizing your parenting. It may even impact your self-esteem and put doubt in your mind about your relationship with your children. It's not always easy, but try not to let it put a cloud over your daily outlook. If you are confident in your parenting, maintain a positive focus on that.

If it's your children who tell you that they heard badmouthing about you, don't panic. Address the situation in a neutral tone so that your children can still feel safe telling you anything. Take this as an opportunity to discuss badmouthing in general with your kids, how it affects people, and how we can respond when someone begins badmouthing a loved one to us. 

Your children should never feel as though they have to rise to the occasion to defend you, but they should be given the tools to communicate how the badmouthing makes them feel

Most importantly, make sure your child feels supported when they come to you with this information. It can be damaging to hear one parent disparage another, so it’s vital you check in with them regularly about their feelings and frustrations.

Take measures to make it stop

When you hear that your co-parent or someone else is badmouthing you, one of your first thoughts may be about how you might get them to stop. It's important that you take healthy measures to work towards ending the badmouthing rather than prolonging it. If it's your co-parent, talk to them directly and ask for the negative comments to stop. If it's a relative or friend of your co-parent, still consider approaching your co-parent to ask that they help you end this behavior. Make sure this conversation does not involve your children, as they should never be made get caught in the middle of conflict or difficult conversations between their parents. 

If you aren't able to have a constructive conversation with your co-parent, consider enlisting help from a neutral third-party professional. Working with a mediator or a family therapist can increase your odds of having a productive talk that leads you and your co-parent to a workable solution. If you feel as though you need additional assistance, consider speaking to your lawyer, as they may have the best guidance for you as far as how to handle the situation appropriately while protecting yourself and your children.

No one wants to hear that someone is badmouthing them behind their back. When these situations do arise and have the potential to impact your children, do your best to manage the situation in a healthier way. Stay calm and neutral, and find the most appropriate measures to end the negative talk.