When my parents divorced, my siblings and I became experts at playing them off each other. We all did it, my brother to get the Sega Playstation he wanted, me to get my ears pierced.
One time, on vacation, I was walking through the mall with my mom. When we passed Claire’s, I said, “Dad said I couldn’t get my ears double-pierced.” Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the piercing chair getting the double set of holes.
This type of behavior is extremely common in children of divorce, but how do you handle it?
You’re stuck in between a discipline situation: Your ex is claiming that your child acted inappropriately at their house and you must get on board with their punishment, your kid is denying the behavior.
The reality is that your ex may be a liar. You may have good reason to doubt their truthfulness based on their behavior during your marriage and after. This can make determining whose side to take really, really tricky.
Ask yourself why your ex might lie in this situation. Maybe they know you’d be upset and are trying to avoid an argument. Or, you’re going back to court and they’re concerned about how something might look.
If you think, or know, that the co-parenting is lying you’re under no obligation to believe them over your child. You can refuse to punish your kid for something they supposedly did at the co-parent’s house, and you’re under no obligation to explain yourself to your ex. Too often, we fall into old patterns and feel like we must justify our actions to an ex. Sometimes, you’ll need to stand up to a co-parent who’s a bully.
In a he-said-she-said situation where the other party is your ex, you’re in a tough spot. When asking your child questions, make it easier for them to tell you the truth by removing the emotional weight. Instead of, “are you lying to me?” which has a lot of negative weight to it, try, “Do you think your dad saw it another way?” or, “Are you sure that’s how it happened?”
Instead of accusing them of lying, or calling them a liar, ask questions designed to get at the truth of a situation.
Children aren’t complicated, and their attempts at manipulation are usually pretty transparent. Are they trying to guilt you into giving them something they want? Acting out, or pitching a fit, in the store because you said “no?” Or, are they flattering you?
“I love you more than Daddy,” “I like being at your house more,” sure, it feels good to hear these things, but what comes next? A request for more screentime? An attempt to get you to change your mind from a “no” to a “yes?” If your child says something that indicates they favor you over an ex, and then follows it by asking for something, they’re probably trying to manipulate you.
Memorize neutral phrases such as, “You don’t have to pick,” or, “I’m sure there are pros and cons to being at both homes,” which don’t reward your child for saying something that creates a “you” versus your “ex” dichotomy. If you’ve drawn a boundary, you must stand firm.
I default to believing my child over my co-parent, and here’s why. I want my kid to feel safe with me, to know that he’ll be believed and listened to. I also want him to feel like I’ve got his back. In the few instances where I chose to believe him, and he’d lied, it usually takes about half an hour for him to shamefacedly admit to the lie.
When you demonstrate trust, compassion, and a desire to support your child, they don’t want to damage that trust. They know they lied. If you give it enough time, the guilt will eat away at them, and eventually, they’ll confess of their own accord. When that happens, I tell him thank you for finally being honest, emphasize that he shouldn’t have lied in the first place, and then give him a consequence for the lie.
Some people might view this as a risky strategy, but I believe that children are fundamentally good. Eventually, they’ll come around to being honest if you’ve given them a safe space to admit to their lie.
Navigating the minefield between a child and co-parent isn’t easy. It’s harder when you don’t trust the co-parent. Default to listening, asking questions, and following your gut when deciding whose side to take. Don’t allow or encourage your child to badmouth the other parent, and definitely don’t reward it. This cuts down on the likelihood that they’ll engage in this behavior to curry favor and get things from you.
What I practice now is called parallel parenting, and I’ve found that it cuts down on conflict and reduces tension in my home. I don’t believe in supporting my ex at the cost of my child. Our homes are different, our rules are different, and I don’t transfer punishments. Unless it endangers my kid, I don’t need to know what happens at my ex’s house, and I tap out of any attempts to drag me into the middle.
This has freed up emotional bandwidth to handle any attempts at manipulation and led to a lot of peace in my life. Whose side do you take? Resist the urge to choose, live your own life, and parent your kid on your own terms.
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