What to Do If My Ex is Manipulating My Child?
August 7, 2022
Are you dealing with a toxic ex-spouse who’s manipulating your child and poisoning your life? Read on to find out their favorite methods and how to resist them.

The coParenter Team

Divorce is a painful situation that affects each spouse and child differently. Some couples break up peacefully and maintain a civilized relationship, while others start a full-scale war using a child as a weapon. The most frequent tactic is when the ex manipulates a child to alienate the other parent.

For a child, being caught in the crossfire is extremely detrimental. However, some studies show that divorce may not negatively affect children if the parents separate without conflict. Conversely, a high-conflict divorce, especially where one divorced parent manipulates a child, leaves deep psychological wounds that take a long to heal.

Why is a mother manipulating a child against the father or vice versa?

Children perceive the outside world and form their views primarily under the influence of their parents. The most prominent examples are the child’s phrases beginning with “my mom says” or “my dad thinks.”

Typically, a mother and father have slightly different parenting styles. The child turns to the mother for understanding and the father for entertainment. In addition, fathers in many families play the role of “bad cop” and restrain children from some activities, while mothers console them and are the first to bring good news.

With such winning cards in hand, it is much easier for women to turn a child against their father after a divorce. “My ex has turned my son against me” is what we often hear from fathers in similar situations. It is called parental alienation (PA) when a child turns away from one parent under another parent’s influence. 

Why does this happen? There are several explanations of child manipulation in divorce by a mother.

  • After divorce, an ex-wife turns a child against the father because she’s angry and wants revenge. It’s a widespread consequence of a husband leaving his wife to be with another woman. The ex-wife feels abandoned, worthless, and betrayed. That’s why she wants to hurt her ex-husband. And the only available tool she can think of is the children.
  • She has controlling or narcissistic traits. In the first case, your ex is using a child to control you and your life. In the second, she encourages hate or fear in children towards the other parent. Although pure narcissism is rare (4.8% in women and 7.7% in men, according to studies), the negative traits can be found in many emotionally injured spouses.

Mothers are not the only ones guilty of using a child to hurt the other parent. An ex-husband turning a daughter against the mother is also common. So what are his reasons for parental manipulation? They’re pretty much the same. The ex-husband wants his child on his side. Maybe he’s jealous that his ex is married to a new person, or he doesn’t like the very idea that his children spend time without their real dad.

And it doesn’t matter how much time a child stays with the father. Damage from a non-custodial parent manipulating a child can be done even during rare overnights.

Signs your ex is turning your child against you.

“How do I know if my husband is turning my child against me?” You can spot it in the child’s altering behavior, mood swings, and changing beliefs and values. Let’s look more closely at the obvious signs of child manipulation by a parent.

  • The children come back from the manipulative parent more agitated and stressed. They refuse to do usual things like homework or helping around the house.
  • They start treating the targeted parent differently. They become rude or defensive, and it takes a lot of time and effort to reconnect with them.
  • If the children live with their parent’s new love interest, they avoid spending time with them. They also often display disobedience and say things like “you’re not my real dad” or “my mom says I don’t have to listen to you” to their step-parent.
  • A manipulative parent sabotages the visitation time of the other parent. For example, they take children to shop for school or have a party on a particular day when a child is supposed to meet with the other parent. If your ex is manipulating the visitation schedule, it’s one of the signs they want you to have an estranged relationship with the kids.
  • The child starts complaining about school or the neighborhood and wants to leave the targeted parent’s house and stay with the other.
  • The kids lose interest in the activities they used to do with one parent because the other devalues their significance.

The strategies your ex uses to alienate the kids.

A parent manipulating a child against their mother or father can be considered as a form of abuse. Its sole purpose is to undermine the child’s relationship with one of the parents. And the number of methods is only limited by the manipulator’s imagination. Here are some of the popular strategies.

  1.   The ex-spouse twists the truth about whose fault it is that the marriage is over, putting all the blame on the targeted parent. But it’s not only about using a child to hurt the other parent. This tactic includes brainwashing to make a child think that their mom or dad is evil and eventually get custody and child support in another court battle. As a result, the kid might hear many false accusations of domestic violence and sooner or later believe that the other parent did horrible things when they still lived as a family.
  2.   They bribe the child with presents to win their love. It is also common to persuade the son or daughter to express the desire to stay with them during a custody battle. Since the judge sometimes considers the child’s opinion, their wishes can play a crucial role in determining custody. It is a dangerous situation even after divorce because kids feel when parents try to buy their affection. As a result, the child starts manipulating the divorced parents to get what they want.
  3.   The ex-spouse constantly criticizes the other parent and their actions, exaggerating their negative traits and rarely saying anything positive about them. So even if the other ex is an exemplary mom or dad, the manipulative parent will make all their good deeds look pathetic.
  4.   The manipulative parent insists that a child spy on the other parent and tell everything in the ex’s family house. Unfortunately, the children don’t realize it’s wrong and are afraid to displease the controlling parent. Making a child spy makes up roughly 30% of all cases of parental alienation, according to the research on alienation strategies and their effects on the child’s and the alienated parent’s mental health.
  5.   If the ex-spouses share custody, the custodial parent may try to prevent the child from spending time with the non-custodial parent by offering competing choices. They also intervene with the phone calls or hide the gifts sent from that parent.
  6.   They invent or twist the situations to show the child that their other parent doesn’t love them or stick to promises.
  7.   If one parent is married to a new partner (50% of children under 13 years old live with a step-parent), the other might start manipulating the child into hating this new person.

What effects does parental manipulation have on children?

A high conflict divorce has more detrimental consequences to the children than their parents because they do not yet have full-fledged mechanisms to cope with stress. They used to find support and protection in their family, and when it falls apart, the kids feel abandoned and forgotten. Unfortunately, they are not entirely mistaken.

Often, a contentious divorce process is followed by mutual hatred, making the other person suffer. Moreover, since most former spouses share children and maintain contact through them, the kids are often used as a means for one parent to hurt the other. And although parental manipulation is not always conscious, it brings more harm to a child than to the alienated parent.

For one, parents may think that they are protecting the children by telling them what a horrible person their mom or dad is. But in reality, they are only making their children’s lives miserable because they consider the “bad” parent a part of themselves. According to research, they begin rejecting that part of themselves and, as a result, lose integrity and confidence.

While a loving parent’s job is to assure a son or a daughter that both parents love them, a manipulative one will convey their own feelings of betrayal to children, making them believe that the other parent doesn’t care about them. For example, if a mother using a child against the father tells them that their dad doesn’t love them, they will think it’s because there’s something wrong with them. Consequently, they will have difficulties forming healthy relationships in adulthood.

Other effects of parental alienation include low self-esteem, hyper-sensitivity towards criticism, depression, and several risky behaviors, such as self-harm and substance abuse. The point is, co-parenting with a manipulative ex is a challenging task, and unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do to change the situation.

What to do when your spouse turns your child against you?

It’s not uncommon to hear conversations like “my husband has turned my son against me – what should I do?” or “My daughter doesn’t want to see me because my ex tells her lies about me.” Is there a way out?

Parental manipulation is a tool that one ex-spouse uses to control the other parent’s life. It interferes with creating a healthy parent-child relationship and often makes it impossible to co-parent with a manipulator.

So, what to do when your ex is brainwashing your child? Here’s some advice you can use to protect your family and children and endure parental alienation.

1. Talk to your ex.

A father turning a child against the mother or vice versa is a big problem. But you can’t fight fire with fire in this case. If you try to talk to your child about relationship problems between you and your ex, your child will be involved in the conflict even deeper than before.

It will definitely not improve the emotional state of your children or give them a calm and happy childhood. If your ex is constantly feeding your son or daughter with derogatory comments about you, and you start doing the same, your kids will be confused.

Therefore, the healthiest way out is to resolve the conflict between adults. Talk to your ex-spouse, find out what exactly they are trying to achieve and why, and look for compromises. Both of you need to understand that you are doing this for your child’s sake.

2. Contact an attorney.

If creating a close working relationship with your ex is out of the question, get legal advice as soon as you can. Don’t let the other parent manipulating your child in divorce take away your children because you didn’t find time to seek professional help.

Find a family law attorney who has dealt with similar situations and describe what you are facing at the moment. They are used to hearing their clients complain, “my son/daughter has turned against me.” So, you won’t be the first one.

The attorney will likely ask you to document all the instances of parental alienation in detail so that you can prove it later in court if it comes to that. Another piece of advice they will give is to visit your child on schedule (if you’re a non-custodial parent) and write down every instance that your ex-spouse prevented you from seeing your son or daughter.

3. Maintain a good relationship with your kids.

The next thing you can do is create and maintain positive interaction with your child. Creating a loving and understanding environment will help you fight the effects of parental manipulation coming from your ex-spouse.

The manipulative parent’s relationship with the kids is almost always ego-centered. For example, although they try to convince the children that they are their best friends when they visit, it’s actually only a pretense.

If you always stay on your kids’ side, avoid frustration, and don’t punish them for their behavior under the evil influence, your children will feel safer with you than with the other parent. Plus, according to 2013 research by Dr. Patricia Thomas and colleagues, your support as a family member will help enhance their self-esteem, add an optimistic outlook, and strengthen their mental health.

However, a good relationship doesn’t mean permissiveness. You might want to establish ground rules that a child has to follow even when they’re spending time with your ex. Explain why these rules are essential without the usual “because I said so.”

4. Don’t try to forbid communication with the other parent.

If you couldn’t convince the court or the judge to give you sole custody, it means that you will have to adjust to co-parenting with a controlling ex after divorce. One method that will inevitably come to your mind is to stop your child from seeing your toxic ex-spouse. But if you try to limit the children’s communication with their father or mother, you can provoke even more aggression directed at you.

So, don’t force your kids to choose between you and your ex. Otherwise, you will become the parent manipulating a child and suppressing their independent decisions and judgments.

5. Learn to control your emotions.

Sometimes when dealing with a toxic ex-wife syndrome, the best solution is to let go of all the negative emotions and anger and show her that you couldn’t care less. Don’t get emotionally involved because that encourages them to continue with parental manipulation and punish you for the divorce.

Controlling your emotions doesn’t mean suppressing them entirely. It doesn’t do your child any good if you hide your feelings. A 2019 survey shows that suppressing emotions leads to decreased parent-child interaction quality by taking away warmth and responsiveness from the communication.

6. Accept that you can’t always show the truth to your child and make them believe you.

Children are victims of parental alienation just as much as the falsely accused parent. Their perspective and vision of the situation are corrupted. They believe these false accusations because they come from a person they trust – their mom or dad. So, it’s not their fault that they have come under the lousy influence before or after divorce.

Accept that they won’t always see the truth no matter how hard you try. When these kids become adults, they will likely understand how their lives were manipulated. But for now, all you can do is gently correct their perception of you and the post-divorce life they are now living.

A Final Word

Parental manipulation is a serious threat to your child’s well-being and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sometimes, you can handle it through lightweight intervention, talking to your spouse and kids, and looking for compromises. But if you feel that the situation is worsening and your child’s in danger, contact authorities and get legal help immediately.


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