Coparenting Issues: Disparaging Comments

Posted on May 20, 2024 by Katie Carter


One very common provision in custody agreements (or separation agreements, if your custody case is part of a larger divorce action) is that neither party will make disparaging comments about the child’s other parent in the presence or hearing of the child.

Sounds easy, right?   Don’t talk badly about each other.  Full stop.

It’s not necessarily that easy, though, especially if – when? – your child asks questions about what’s happening.  Keep in mind that most of the time divorce and/or custody cases kick off an atmosphere of heightened tension.  Whether it’s part of the break up (or, again, divorce – depending on your marital status) or issues that have come to the forefront, even very little kids will pick up on it.

You may not be able to just completely NOT address the issues.  But you also have to be super careful, after – and even before – you have an agreement or court order containing a provision regarding making disparaging comments.  It’s not so much that I think one isolated comment (even a particularly nasty one) is going to give rise to a situation that warrants a change in custody, but rather that my concern is that a lot of these “little” issues will create a coparenting relationship where you both constantly seek to undermine or discredit each other.

High conflict divorces can just exist; when you’re married or have a child with a narcissistic, abusive, or otherwise high conflict person, the conflict may already be there.  There may be absolutely nothing that you can do about it and, however reasonable you are, the conflict will still exist.  These types of people can manufacture conflict out of thin air.

But high conflict divorces (or custody cases) can be created, too.  In cases where there are “pitbull” lawyers who make settlement all but impossible, where the parties continually undermine each other (and then feel compelled to address the perceived wrongs they experienced), and where ineffective court orders or agreements incompletely address the issues that the family is dealing with, high conflict situations can be created, too.

So, all that to say: you really want to be careful about what you say and how you communicate with your children, before, during, and long after your separation, divorce, or custody case.

What is a disparaging comment?

A disparaging comment is anything where you portray the child’s other parent in a negative light.  It can be super obvious – “well, your dad is a idiot, so…” – or less immediately obvious – “Daddy’s always late, isn’t he?”

It can also be things that are said in the child’s hearing, but not necessarily in front of the child.  An eye roll during an adult conversation, or just a conversation (even in another room) that the child happens to overhear can be a problem.

Be mindful of the things that other people are saying around you, too!  If your mom can’t be trusted not to suck her teeth or roll her eyes when your child’s father is mentioned, have a word with her.  Ultimately, these things dial up the level of animosity between you and your ex – and, even more importantly, hurt and confuse your child.

It’s not possible to contain your emotions at all times of day – and, really, nor should you.  (Hey, parenting has come a long way!)  You’re allowed to be sad, or angry, or depressed, or whatever you feel.  You’re even allowed to discuss your feelings with your child – in a healthy, age appropriate way that does not damage the child’s relationship with his other parent.  It can be tough to know where to draw the line, and it may be helpful to engage the support of a therapist (whether for you or the child or both).  That’s a little bit beyond the scope of my abilities, but I do think it can be helpful to work through the things you’re feeling in a therapeutic and productive setting.

It can be really healthy to talk to your kids about the divorce, especially if you and your child’s father are able to discuss their feelings and talk through potential solutions in an age appropriate way, but it may be more difficult to achieve this balance on your own – especially if you are already struggling to regulate your own emotions.

What if he is making disparaging comments about me?

 Disparaging comments often don’t warrant a change in custody – but that doesn’t mean that they are not incredibly harmful to the children and damaging to your current and future ability to coparent.

If your child’s father is making inappropriate comments, or allowing other people to make inappropriate comments around the children, I would document them each time.  I would also try to talk to the child about what she is hearing and how it makes her feel, and make every effort to help her deal with those feelings in a healthy way.

You don’t need to absolve your child’s father of all responsibility, but you can help you child see that her father is struggling to regulate himself emotionally and that he’s dealing with big feelings, too.  It’s important to be age appropriate and to not disclose anything on your end that rises to the level of being disparaging.  Focusing on the child’s feelings will help you do that.

Again, if you’re totally at a loss for how to handle the situation, you should consult a therapist.  Probably, even if you’re feeling pretty confident in your ability to handle the situation, you should STILL consult a therapist.  For the most part, judges and Guardians ad litem seem to feel that any comment beyond, “Mommy and daddy love you, and we’re working on doing what’s best,” is too much information about the court case.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to a recording that my client has triumphantly provided only to be shocked at what she said in it.  Make sure you’re able to maintain enough distance and objectivity to not further damage your child’s relationship with either you or her other parent.

Is it parental alienation?

Maybe!  That’s always a concern.  And it isn’t even so much a question of whether something that is happening is unequivocally parental alienation but, instead, whether one parent will try to make a case claiming that it is.  These kinds of claims can be costly to pursue, not to mention damaging, so you really do want to avoid heading down that road if at all possible.

Sometimes, claims of parental alienation can come up in a retaliatory capacity – like because you’ve alleged that he committed some kind of abuse against you, or because he feels that you’re unreasonably denying access to or visitation with the child, in violation of the best interests of the child factors – but it can also come up in connection with these sorts of disparaging comments.

Obviously, you want to focus on your child and how he is handling all of the changes in life – not on your divorce and/or custody case.  But you’ll need to tread carefully in how you communicate with your child about what’s to come, too.  For more information, to request a copy of our custody guide for Virginia moms, or to register to attend an upcoming Custody Bootcamp for Moms seminar, give us a call at 757-425-5200.