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What is Counter Parenting?

How to recognize the signs and prevent the negative effects of counter parenting.

Successful parenting typically depends on positive efforts from both parents, and the same is true even after they split and transition to co-parenting. Unfortunately, parents commonly end on not-so-great terms after a contested divorce or separation. While many co-parents can reach a compromise and work together, others frequently encounter significant obstacles along the way that cause stress for themselves and their children.

In situations where you're co-parenting with a narcissistic ex or a high-conflict co-parent, their actions can make it seem like their life's mission is to upend every aspect of your parenting approach. The sad truth is that this uphill battle of a co-parenting experience is one many people encounter, so much so that there's a unique term to describe it. Learn how to recognize counter parenting, understand how it affects you and your children, and find productive ways to work through it.

How does counter parenting work?

As its name suggests, counter parenting is an approach where one parent actively and willfully works to undermine, thwart, or dismiss the other's co-parenting efforts. The key differentiator from everyday co-parenting conflicts is that counter parenting is not done to protect children from the other parent's harmful parenting. Instead, co-parents who use counter parenting aim to inflict mental and emotional stress on the other parent. Experts also refer to counter parenting as spiteful disregard when actions target a person's children.  

You could be dealing with counter parenting if your ex consistently:

Father and son not talking to each other

Why do people use counter parenting?

In many instances, a co-parent may engage in counter parenting because they have deep-rooted hurt or resentment because of the circumstances surrounding their split. Navigating a contested divorce or separation can leave both parents with bitter feelings toward each other. Without guidance on achieving an amicable split from a family law attorney, mediator, or arbitrator, co-parents can feel the need to vindicate wrongdoing through conflicted shared parenting.

While negative feelings play a considerable role in unintentional counter parenting, different types of narcissists often make the conscious choice to go against their child's other parent. Narcissists strive to manipulate and control situations in any way they can, and counter parenting usually fits the bill for the goals they want to achieve. With this method, a narcissistic ex uses tactics to either become their child's favorite parent or maintain control over their child's other parent.

What are the effects of counter parenting?

Being on the receiving end of counter parenting can be a substantial source of anxiety for co-parents. More notably, children often experience the most adverse effects in these situations. Spiteful disregard takes a significant emotional toll on children, as their parent uses them as a means to distress the other parent. If left unaddressed, counter parenting can negatively impact children in ways that continue into adulthood.

Children repeatedly exposed to counter parenting can be left with:

  • Reduced self-confidence
  • Low self-worth
  • Mental health issues
  • Unhealthy boundaries
Sad teenage girl

How can I combat counter parenting?

If you and your child are dealing with counter parenting, it's vital to recognize the signs and do what you can to avoid the negative effects. While there's little you can do to change how your ex is as a person and a co-parent, things within your control can protect your and your children's well-being. Here are four ways you can counteract your ex's counter parenting.

1. Fortify your parenting plan

While it can seem like an obstacle from certain angles, your parenting plan can be an incredible asset that supports more consistent co-parenting. Several helpful parenting plan provisions can set and reinforce more structured guidelines for how you and your ex handle all things co-parenting, from following a custody schedule to sticking to communication requirements. If you feel your parenting plan has room for improvement, you can modify it to facilitate a more accountable shared parenting situation with healthy boundaries.

2. Document everything

If you suspect you're dealing with counter parenting, a straightforward way to determine how severe it is and whether you need legal intervention is by keeping track of your ex's harmful efforts. In keeping a log of what you and your kids experience, you can rule out counter parenting or confirm the need for legal assistance. Bringing evidence to family court is tedious but vital because any relevant information can better support your goals. A thorough log of interactions, efforts, and other details can help prove your ex's spiteful disregard.

3. Think before reacting

Whether your ex is narcissistic or enjoys provoking conflict, your first instinct in responding to their harassment is to match their energy. Counter parenting thrives on emotional reactions, as they give the instigator proof that their efforts are working and fuel to use against you. While giving in is more gratifying, it's best to pause and withhold your emotions when responding. Using the grey rock method is an excellent communication style for dealing with counter parenting. Supplementing it with journaling can also help you healthily process your emotions.

Mother and daughter talking

4. Be there for your child

While protecting yourself from parental burnout related to counter parenting is critical, it's paramount to support your kids and help them cope with their emotions. Dealing with counter parenting can be a potentially adverse childhood experience (ACE), so building trust with your children and being supportive is vital to preventing negative impacts on their development. Whether you encourage them to be open with you or give them space when they need it, do what you can to support your kids' mental health.

Counteract counter parenting with TalkingParents

Dealing with counter parenting from an ex can be a considerable hardship, but it's not something you and your kids have to experience without support. If you want greater accountability in your shared parenting situation, a co-parenting communication service like TalkingParents can help. Secure Messaging prevents any written communications from being edited or deleted, and all messages are timestamped for when they're delivered and read. If you want to journal, keep a timeline of events, or anything in between, your Personal Journal is a private blank slate for however you wish to use it. Interactions in these and other features in our all-in-one service are documented to a court-admissible Unalterable Record, so you can reference any part of your co-parenting situation without actively tracking everything.

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