What Happens When a Divorcing Parent Bad-Mouths the Other in Front of Their Children?
Parenting children can be difficult even when a couple is in a close relationship. When that relationship goes south and parents separate, co-parenting can become harder. Sometimes children are caught in the middle of a nasty divorce or separation. One parent may attempt to use their children as leverage in a custody battle against the other parent and do all they can to disparage the child’s other parent to anyone and everyone, including the child.
Since this can have lasting consequences, courts will try to do things to keep this from happening at all or stop it from continuing. If you believe your child’s other parent is exhibiting some of the tactics discussed below, consult an experienced child custody attorney for legal advice and review your custody arrangements or custody agreement.
Even parents who are normally concerned about their children’s well-being can suddenly lose sight of the effect of their actions upon their kids during divorce or separation from the other co-parent. Out of the many dirty tactics used in custody disputes, one of the most frequently used is “badmouthing,” i.e., a parent making disparaging remarks about the other parent to or in front of the children.
Bad-mouthing is often used by a parent to hurt the other parent or to get their own way. Family law attorneys sometimes refer to this as parental alienation which may be used to damage or undermine the child’s relationship with the other person with no justification. Even in the case where the disparagement may be true, such as telling a child their other parent is a drug addict, should not be done.
A parent may bad-mouth the other directly to the kids or indirectly, like through social media posts or by talking to other family members or friends within earshot of the children. This negative behavior may present in a number of ways, such as:
- Demeaning the other parent
- Criticizing or questioning the judgment of the other parent
- Blaming the other parent
- Telling the child lies or negative information
- Calling the other parent bad names
A parent may feel like they have no control over the situation with their children and the only thing they can control is what they say to them. Sometimes, a parent may use bad-mouthing as a tactic to influence their children’s opinion on which parent to live with or other custody decisions.
Hearing these remarks can put the children in an uncomfortable position and have negative effects on their well-being. Children may believe the false information or not fully understand what is happening. A child may feel anger or hurt towards one parent or both. Often, this leads a child to not want to spend time with a parent or not feel comfortable with them anymore.
Bad-mouthing can also have other effects on children. The harmful information or language can be psychologically damaging for a child. Sometimes children mimic this behavior or use the language they heard being used which leads to the child lashing out emotionally. In more serious cases, this problematic conduct can lead to emotional trauma and may even constitute psychological or emotional abuse.
Children can also internalize the disparagement. Saying things like “you are just like your mother” when a child acts up or does something the parent views as a negative trait of their co-parent can emotionally harm the child. A child may then withdraw or otherwise act out.
The process of divorce or separation can make even the most rational and sane adult suddenly become irrational and insane. With emotions running even higher when child custody is in dispute, most courts take preemptive actions to protect the well-being and interests of the children. To combat this, oftentimes judges will require the parents to develop a parenting plan together.
Courts may also order parenting classes geared towards making parents aware of these exact issues and teaching ways to ensure parents don’t fall into this negative way of communicating with each other or in front of their children and how to foster a healthy relationship as co-parents moving forward.
When a custody action is begun, parents are generally not permitted to speak disparagingly about the other to the children but as tensions rise it may occur. Creating a parenting plan is a way to preemptively prevent bad-mouthing, search for a middle ground, and diffuse an existing negative situation.
Establishing a parenting plan early in the divorce process or custody process has a number of benefits including:
- Ensuring both parents are involved in the development of the child
- Bringing the parents together to determine what is most important for the child
- Establishing a rational system to work out disputes that will avoid the involvement of the legal system
- Putting the child first and foremost
- Demonstrating a united front of love for the child, even if they are separating
A parenting plan can include anything relevant in dealing with the children such as living arrangements, visitation, and most importantly dispute resolution should an issue arise. That way in the event of a disagreement, the parents can turn to the parenting plan first to determine how to resolve the dispute.
While parenting plans are the first line of defense to deal with bad-mouthing, sometimes further legal steps must be taken. If a soon-to-be ex-spouse or ex-partner won’t stop this behavior around the children, a court may order a psychological evaluation or mandatory therapy.
Sometimes a judge may opt to modify the child custody order in place, such as limiting the offending parent’s parenting time. The court may appoint a guardian ad litem, or other qualified third party to talk with the children and see what the child has to say about the situation if the bad-mouthing continues in spite of court orders. The family court may even find the offending parent in contempt of court and order jail time or other consequences if the behavior is not stopped after repeated warnings by the court.
Keeping track and recording any incidents of bad-mouthing may be helpful information for your family law attorney when building your custody case. Although there may be a child custody order in place already, it may be necessary to modify the family court order to protect the child’s best interests. Your attorney can help use this negative behavior to help build your child custody case and protect the emotional health of your child.