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

How to identify and protect your child from their other parent’s manipulative behavior

Despite a parent's hopes, co-parenting is often more complicated than expected. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 41% of parents say that being a parent is tiring, while 29% report that parenting is stressful all or most of the time. The reality of hardships in parenting can be even more complex for those in shared parenting situations, especially ones that are contentious well after a divorce or separation.

No matter what a parent does to distance themself from an ex's negative behaviors, they can only create so much distance since they share children. For parents whose exes exhibit manipulative tendencies, they and their children may be subjected to damaging behaviors that they wish to avoid or negate. Fortunately, there are protective measures that a parent can take when they feel their co-parent is manipulating their child.

Mother talking to upset daughter

What is manipulation?

According to Verywell Health, manipulative behavior involves a person's use of interactions and behaviors to gain power or influence over another person. Manipulation is used to change someone else's behavior, emotions, or perception of another person through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics.

By engaging in manipulative behaviors, a person can:

  • Cause unnecessary doubt and confusion
  • Avoid conflict by redirecting blame
  • Conceal their true intentions
  • Continue behaving maliciously

In shared parenting situations, manipulative behaviors may involve a co-parent:

  • Bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the kids
  • Allowing other people to bad-mouth the other parent in front of the kids
  • Using the kids as messengers to communicate
  • 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
  • Disrupting a co-parent's scheduled visitation time
  • Repeatedly forgetting to pack essential items for custody exchanges
  • Monitoring conversations between the other parent and the kids
  • Failing to provide the other parent with updates on extracurricular activities, grades, or medical appointments

Why do parents engage in these types of behaviors?

Whether it's intentional or unintentional, divorced couples who harbor angry, bitter feelings might engage in manipulative behavior toward each other and their children. Some try to be their child's favored parent. Others may intentionally aim to affect their co-parent negatively. In most cases, the manipulative actions and behaviors of parents can often have a more significant impact on the children than each other.

Children who are being manipulated against a parent may exhibit behaviors like:

  • Feeling agitated or stressed when returning from their other parent's house
  • Refusing to do homework or chores while with the targeted parent
  • Treating the targeted parent differently
  • Avoiding spending time with the targeted parent
  • Complaining about wanting to be with their other parent
  • Losing interest in activities the targeted parent enjoys
  • Saying the targeted person isn't their real mom or dad

If one or both parents are engaging in manipulation toward a child, children may experience side effects such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Depression
  • Trust issues
Disrespectful child ignoring mother

How can I protect my child from manipulation?

If you are concerned about the other parent manipulating your child, it is crucial to do what you can to combat it. Here are 3 ways to protect yourself and your child from your co-parent's manipulative behaviors.

1. Establish boundaries

Once you recognize the signs of your co-parent engaging in manipulative behaviors, an effective way to combat their efforts is by establishing and sticking to healthy boundaries. By doing so, you can counteract their manipulation tactics and avoid contributing to the problem or negatively impacting your children.

Some boundaries that can be helpful include:

  • Prioritizing your child's best interests
  • Ignoring insults, guilt trips, or accusations
  • Sticking to scheduled or planned visits
  • Adhering to the custody agreement
  • Keeping your personal life private

One of the most beneficial boundaries is maintaining respectful communication, even if it is not reciprocated. While you cannot control how your co-parent acts, you can control how you respond to their words and actions. While refusing to engage in similar behaviors or address allegations may feel like letting your manipulative co-parent win, choosing to stay civil will ultimately benefit you and your child. If a judge reads your texts or emails as evidence, they will view what and how you and your ex communicate to discern whether a resolution is needed.

2. Document incidents

If you suspect a parent is manipulating your child and want to seek resolution in court, you'll need to have concrete evidence that supports your claims of manipulation. A great way to protect yourself and your child is by documenting interactions and conversations with your co-parent. Keeping a journal of dates, details, and other information can help you present a timeline of repeated manipulative behavior more cohesively if you go to court.

To gather as much potential evidence as possible, keeping communications in a written, documented format is best. If your ex tries to address something verbally, you can send a message mentioning their comment and ask for a written response. While documenting all communication between you and your co-parent isn't guaranteed protection against manipulation, keeping instances of manipulation documented gives you the best chance at collecting potentially court-admissible evidence.

3. Seek outside assistance

Regardless of the intensity of your co-parent's manipulation, dealing with negative behaviors can be overwhelming. While it's possible to manage your concerns independently, seeking outside support can be a great asset.

Legal help

It's crucial to understand your legal rights and obligations before attempting to modify your parenting plan or seeking another resolution. One of the best ways to go to court informed and prepared is by working with a family law attorney. By working with a legal professional, you ensure that you're informed of potential court-ordered resolutions like non-disparagement clauses. A lawyer can help you identify opportunities, ensure any evidence is reviewed before going to a judge, and present your case effectively.

Emotional support

Being on the receiving end of manipulative behavior can take a significant toll on your mental state and well-being, so working with a licensed therapist or mental health counselor can help you protect your mental health. A therapist can help you:

  • Identify manipulation tactics that your co-parent uses
  • Recognize whether you engage in manipulation
  • Implement effective protective measures
  • Develop healthy coping techniques

Technology solutions

When manipulation crosses the line of impacting your children, it's crucial to take the problem seriously and work toward a solution. For parents struggling with a manipulative co-parent, a communication service can be a valuable asset. TalkingParents equips co-parents with the tools they need to communicate in a secure and accountable manner. Any messages sent within TalkingParents cannot be edited or deleted, and phone and video calls within the service come with recordings and automatically generated transcripts.

If co-parents decide to go to court, TalkingParents is a game-changing service that helps parents and attorneys. All interactions, polite or manipulative, are stored on an Unalterable Record that contains timestamps, messages, call transcripts, and more. With Records, parents can save significant time that would usually be spent collecting and assembling evidence. By having a Record that takes seconds to generate and gives a complete view of communications, parents can bypass the need to painstakingly review evidence with a lawyer, saving them thousands in attorney's fees.

TalkingParents is an all-in-one co-parenting solution that can help parents in manipulative situations by providing organization, documentation, and stress reduction. The tool can be used to bolster boundaries and effective communication techniques with a manipulative co-parent while supporting your work with any outside professionals.

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