What to Do When a Co-Parent Is Manipulating Your Child

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Child Manipulation by a Parent

A manipulative, narcissistic ex is, unfortunately, the gift that keeps on giving if you have children together.

No matter what you do to distance yourself from an ex’s controlling, selfish behaviors, you share children and will be part of each other’s lives, to a certain extent, forever.

Hopefully, if you and your ex have agreed to co-parent your children, you also both will commit to the following co-parenting rules:
  • Respect one another
  • Do not criticize, blame, or accuse one another
  • Do not force your children to take sides
  • Set consistent standards between households
  • Above everything else, consider the feelings of your children first
Unfortunately, a failure to follow the rules of healthy co-parenting is the reality in many divorce situations. According to a lawyer in New Jersey, some studies show parental manipulation of children is present in 11-15% of divorces with children.

Manipulative behavior is trying to change someone else’s behavior or perception of another person through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics.

Manipulative Behavior

Manipulative behavior is trying to change someone else’s behavior or perception of another person through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics.

Divorced couples who harbor angry, bitter feelings toward one another can engage in manipulative behavior with their children, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Signs of Manipulation

  • Bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the kids
  • Allowing family members and friends to bad-mouth the other parent in front of the kids
  • Using the kids as messengers
  • Lying to the kids to make the other parent look bad
  • Acting distraught, getting angry, or making the kids feel guilty when they spend time with the other parent
  • Suggesting that the other parent is dangerous
  • Consistently showing up late for drop-offs or early for pick-ups to limit the other parent’s time with the kids
  • Disrupting a co-parent’s scheduled visitation time with phone calls, texts, or ‘forgetting’ to pack key items
  • Monitoring conversations between the co-parent and child
  • Failing to provide the co-parent with updates on extracurricular activities, grades, or medical appointments
  • Sharing adult-only information about the marriage and the divorce
Why do parents engage in these types of behaviors? For some, they are trying to curry favor with the child to be the favored parent. For some, they are merely selfish and clueless. In more severe cases, some parents systematically try to alienate their children from the other parent.

Some courts recognize parental alienation as a form of child abuse. Children who are alienated from their parents face a higher likelihood of battling problems such as poor self-esteem, low academic performance, depression, drugs, alcohol, and more.


Document Everything

If you suspect a parent is engaging in manipulative behavior designed to drive a wedge between you and your child, it’s essential to put a stop to it right away. Talk to your lawyer immediately. Your attorney will most likely recommend that you begin documenting any concerning behavior before it becomes the new norm.

Make sure you document all incidents in writing, including efforts to communicate with your ex about your concerns. The court wants to see that you are making a good-faith effort to work problems out directly with your ex for the sake of your children. Make sure your communication is calm and civil. Assume a judge will read your texts or emails at some point, and he or she will be trying to discern who is the more responsible, respectful, mature parent. You want it to be you.

For example, your children come home and tell you that the other parent said they couldn’t have a party for their birthday because you spent all the money on a new significant other. Send your ex a text or email and ask them if that is indeed the comment that they made. Remember, you can’t believe everything your children tell you. Children misunderstand conversations all the time. If your ex admits to making the statement, ask why he or she said that and what they meant by it. Save all these communications so you can provide them to your lawyer, showing that your ex’s manipulative behavior is recurring and not an isolated instance.

Some clauses can be added into court orders to prevent this type of behavior, for example; non-disparagement clauses prohibit your ex from bad-mouthing you in front of the kids. Court orders are not polite requests. They are orders, and if you can prove your ex is not following them, you may have a case for a change in custody or visitation.
non-disparagement clauses prohibit your ex from bad-mouthing you in front of the kids

Crossing the Line

If you suspect the manipulation has crossed the line into child abuse, it is crucial to get help right away. Abuse includes verbal abuse, physical abuse, neglect to feed, bathe, or provide necessary medical care to a child over time.

If you have suspicions, but your child is not facing an immediate threat, contact your lawyer. Child abuse is a serious allegation, and you will need to have concrete evidence to proceed.

If you feel like your child is in immediate danger or is seriously injured, you need to call the police or child protective services right away.

TalkingParents blogs are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult with a qualified attorney regarding legal matters.

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