What to do when coparent puts kids in the middle?
October 10, 2018 6:20 AM   Subscribe

My coparent often fills our 2 children in on details of fights that we are currently having between ourselves, and then the children start to talk to me, weighing in on their opinions of the fight. I know that the general advice is to stay above this and not talk to the kids about ongoing conflict between my coparent and myself. Under what circumstances should I say something to the kids (possibly bringing them further into the drama)? Under what circumstances should I say something to my coparent?

My coparent fits the profile of a personality disordered person. To avoid coparent's unpredictable and hurtful rage-attacks at me, I follow the 'grey rock' method. I have not yet said anything directly to coparent about putting kids in the middle, because I don't want to be yelled at, belittled, and called names. I have made requests to cease this behavior through our attorneys, but the behavior continues.

The particular fight that I am asking about right now is as follows: My coparent has declined to allow the children to travel out of state to a family gathering. Both parents must consent to out-of-state travel for either child. This is following multiple angry threats to disallow out-of-state travel. I did not tell the children about the planned trip, because I didn't want to insert them into this argument. However, my coparent has told the children about the trip, which I surmise because I'm receiving texts from the children stating their reasons for not wanting to go. Note, neither the children nor my coparent know why I want to make this trip nor who will actually be there, because I didn't tell my coparent about the nature of the trip.

Now that the children are in the middle of this, I'd like to tell them that the trip isn't just to visit grandma and grandpa. Rather, all their aunts, uncles, and cousins will be there to celebrate grandpa's retirement. Is this acceptable, or should I just keep my mouth shut and not discuss the trip that my coparent is disallowing?

Again, I have involved attorneys in this conflict, and we will see if there is any resolution through that route. Such resolution may not occur before the date of the trip.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How old are your children? I think advice will differ based on their ages.
posted by yawper at 6:44 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

personally I'd tell them. But only in a matter of fact way "actually, the gathering will be the whole family. But since coparent prefers you to not to leave the state, you won't be going." Not go into the personality disorder, reasons, etc.

They're distressed about it one way or another, lies (even of omission) can only increase their confusion.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:05 AM on October 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

I would suggest therapy for the kids, because your ex is doing something really shitty, regardless of their ages, and even though your kids may act like they're handling this fine, you can be sure this can cause long-term damage.

On that note, I think you need to check in with the lawyer again and see what are the options for getting them to stop doing this.

My ex did this as well, except he would lie to the kids while putting them in the middle, and the therapeutic advice I got and am passing along to you is to tell them, "I really love you guys and love your input, but some parenting decisions are between me and ____. I'm really sorry they're bringing you into this because this is something he and I have agreed to work out. Let me know if that makes sense, and if dad brings this stuff up again, you can ask him to leave you out of it (age dependent, of course)."
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:14 AM on October 10, 2018 [22 favorites]

What are you hoping to gain by telling them? Are you hoping that it will make them really want to go? So, then, they will be really sad that your co-parent has said they can't go? So then they're mad at your co-parent?

I just don't see how telling them about the trip ends in a way that is better for kids in any way. It sucks and it sounds like your co-parent is being an asshole, but the best thing for the kids is for you to rise above it, I think.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:20 AM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

I don't see how not acknowledging the true purpose of the trip is rising above it, though. I'd matter of factly state that the trip was for a family reunion but it's up to the adults to decide if they can go, as for any other trip.

Don't go on the defensive and don't attack your coparent, but that doesn't mean you can't set the record straight.
posted by lydhre at 7:37 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The value of accuracy is that it will let these kids know that there is one parent at least for whom they can go to get facts. The situation they're in, with a parent who attacks the other parent, is inherently distressing and confusing, and this won't be the last time your co-parent tells them untrue things. It's fine for them to realize that sometimes your co-parent is mistaken in the things they say. But be careful not to editorialize.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:46 AM on October 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

My ex lied and lies about stuff to the kids to make me look bad. They've learned to double-check with me for facts but it's still hard years on. What I've done is been upfront with them for information, kept discussions to email (paper trail!) and stuck as far as possible to the custody agreement. I don't discuss their dad with them aside from being blandly polite and amused when they bring him up.

I would not have kept the info about the trip from them, but phrased it as "There is a possible trip to state XYZ on dates XYZ to see these relatives. According to the custody agreement, both your dad and I have to agree on the trip details. We will talk about it and let you guys know the decision by day XYZ. This is a parents' discussion, so you guys won't be involved in the deciding but I will let you know if anything changes."

I just don't involve them in decisions about custody stuff. If they make a request like they want to change a weekend date, I say okay, we'll discuss it and I'll let you know.

Occasionally they will ask me to run interference like when their dad is angry with them about something (unjustifiably - if it's justified, I'd tell them to sort it out) and I will send a very bland customer service email to request something, but that's much less now.

When it's a straight lie, I just say this is what's happening. If your dad says the opposite, then either your dad misunderstands or your dad is lying. Depending on the kid, this can end up being a conversation about lies vs truth, or crying hugs, or just a shrug and moving on.

Do not go into age-inappropriate detail. Give them clear boundaries about what they can control - they can't boss you over custody or budget or whatever the tension spots are that your ex likes to poke at. Let them feel like your house is the truthful safe place. His might be more exciting and full of gossipy secrets and promises, but that's actually scary for kids.

It's also a great time to practice boundary-setting and manipulative "friends" with kids under social skills role playing. These are valuable school skills, but incredibly valuable for children with difficult parents. Teaching them how to express their emotions firmly and say no and have healthy boundaries will carry over to time in the other house.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:00 AM on October 10, 2018 [23 favorites]

Oh gosh yes. As the child of one lying and one deeply bitter divorcee, I would have so much appreciated it if one parent had given me straight facts without acrimony.

As it was, I either had to accept the lies without fact checking or risk being cried and raged at for talking about the lies. It did a real number on my ability to trust and on my self esteem.

Tell your kids the deal behind the trip in an age appropriate, calm way. You are awesome, btw. Thank you for asking.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:01 AM on October 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Here's what I've noticed after living in close proximity to someone who has a personality-disordered ex/coparent: the "gray rock" strategy really doesn't work because it really means that you're always strategizing about how you can avoid having a conflict with a conflict-prone ex.

But if your ex is personality-disordered and conflict-prone, then there's no way to avoid the conflicts. And it is painful and crazy-making to keep trying to strategize a way to communicate with someone when, really, if this were any other person in your life -- like a colleague -- you wouldn't think twice about just saying what you mean. All that strategizing turns out to be a waste of time and emotional/mental energy because the conflict has nothing at all whatsoever to do with how or what you communicate. The other person is gunning for a conflict, and you can't control that.

So you thought that by 1) giving coparent just basic information and 2) withholding information from the kids completely, you would avoid the conflict you saw coming: coparent was going to deny travel across state lines. You did not avoid that conflict.

From the getgo, however, it was entirely reasonable to just drop strategy altogether: "Coparent, I'd like to take kids to Town, ST on dates X-Y for a big gamily gathering." And then: "Kids, There's a big family gathering to celebrate grandpa's retirement coming up, and per our divorce agreement, I've asked coparent to sign off on us taking that trip. Will let you know more when I know more."

If kids didn't want to go, they could have told you right away and you could have said: "I hear you, but this trip is important and if we can go, we need to go. End of story."Then, when coparent wouldn't sign off and if the kids asked for an update, you could have said: "Coparent wouldn't approve the trip, so it's a no go" and leave it at that.

What to do now? I would just stop strategizing. Tell your kids the truth, which is really no big deal: "Kids, This trip is important to me because it will be a big family gathering, but I didn't tell you about the trip because I wasn't sure we would be able to go. There will be a lot of family there! As of now, though, coparent says we can't go. I'll let you know if things change. So! how's your day going so far?"

Again, if kids keep getting stuck in the middle, keep it simple and honest: Kid says: "I really don't want to go on trip. Coparent says blablabla..." You say: "I hear you, but like I said, if we can make this trip work, we need to make it work. For now, though, let coparent and me tackle this issue."

Here's the thing; You don't want to get into a habit of communicating with your own children as if they needed to be handled with the same kind of strategy or kid gloves as your coparent. That sends them a weird message about their own fragility or state of mind.

Model healthy boundaries and relationships by talking to your children like they're resilient and capable of engaging with other people on straightforward terms.
posted by pinkacademic at 8:36 AM on October 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

Were you asking her to give consent without knowing the purpose of the trip, who would be there or whether the kids wanted to go? I think there are a lot of people without personality disorders who would balk at that. You know your ex better than we do and may be in a better position to judge her motivation, but from the outside it doesn't seem unreasonable for her to find out whether the kids want to go on the trip before deciding whether to consent to it. (Which means telling them about it.) And it doesn't seem unreasonable to encourage or allow them to communicate with you directly to explain their feelings about it.

This isn't exactly putting the kids in the middle of an adult disagreement. It's allowing them to participate in a decision that directly affects them and that they care about. Of course sometimes it's reasonable to drag kids to a family event whether they want to go or not, but taking their feelings about it into account isn't necessarily terrible. (And remember that your ex didn't know this was a special event, because you didn't tell her.)

I think it would be disrespectful to your kids to just tell them, "This is between me and your mother," when in their minds it's all about them. Now that they've opened a conversation about the trip, I think you should engage in that conversation. Let them know you understand where they're coming from. Explain the purpose of the trip and why you wanted them to go. (Briefly, without strong arming or guilt tripping or saying things that are really meant for their mother.)
posted by Redstart at 9:01 AM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

However, my coparent has told the children about the trip, which I surmise because I'm receiving texts from the children stating their reasons for not wanting to go. Note, neither the children nor my coparent know why I want to make this trip nor who will actually be there, because I didn't tell my coparent about the nature of the trip.

Don't blow the actual event out of proportion just because there's a dispute with your coparent about it. If nobody's on their deathbed, probably whether your kids go or not go is more a matter of how your family would like to see your kids, rather than anything that should result in lasting regrets.

I think it's reasonable to tell them what's actually up with the trip, but that doesn't mean it's reasonable to load up that explanation with a lot of emotional burden about whether or not they're there. That's the point where you're having the argument through the kids. It'd be perfectly normal to say something like, "Your other parent and I are still working out details. Your grandpa's retiring and my family would obviously like if you could be there, but if you can't, we'll stop before the trip and go find a card and we can Skype while I'm out there." Or whatever. Don't make it the kids' problem what the outcome is, because either outcome for them is going to be basically fine. There are options outside of just "complete secret" or "big drama".

Similarly, I get the idea of not wanting to overshare, but having been the child of a divorce between two people who had a lot of trouble afterwards with being secretive in ways that turned out very unhelpful for the kids, this does feel a bit like you're withholding info just to try to correct this perceived power imbalance. It's not that it's wrong if you have a lot of feelings about it, but those feelings are not an inherent part of the information itself.
posted by Sequence at 9:41 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Since you've already gotten a lot of advice about how to handle the purpose of the trip being out of the bag, I won't address that. However, I do want to address the bigger picture of putting children in the middle of adult conflicts. It's wrong!

As a child my divorced parents on occasion used the other parent's behavior or actions as a cudgel in arguments and I hated it. I hated being put in a position of having to choose sides between parents or have to weigh in on their adult issues. It's a terrible place to be as a child.

So I think you also need to say something about this directly to your children. Maybe something like, "Listen, your co-parent and I sometimes have disagreements, that's a normal part of life and as grown-ups we should be able to settle our differences together without involving you. I really don't want you to ever be put in the middle of a disagreement between co-parent and me or feel like you have to choose sides. That's why I didn't bring this trip up right away or sometimes don't talk about other conflicts. If you want me to handle things differently, please let me know.
posted by brookeb at 10:07 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ask your lawyer to get an order to nominate a parent coordinator (or their equivalent in your area) to resolve conflicts pertaining to the children. This will be $$. Get the kind that binds you to a contract and allows the coordinator to make decisions. All matters should be referred to the parent coordinator in the best interest of the children. Also, since your co-parent is alienating you from the children, you should think about reducing the co-parents parenting time to minimize the children's exposure to conflict. These are the sorts of things a lawyer can help you resolve. Asking your lawyer to police behaviour is throwing $$ into a black hole with zero results.

Counselling for the children is a must, as described above. And I agree with telling the children the basic purpose of the trip. Also let the children know if you plan to travel without them if they cannot attend.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:08 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would try really hard not to raise issues about the kids with the co-parent if you haven't talked to the kids about this yet. I'm guessing your kids are least in middle school or high school, if they're texting you. It would be no fun to hear about something you might do with one parent from the other parent. Include them in possible plans and then talk to the co-parent.

I'm also guessing there is a divorce decree involved here. Is there something in the decree about not speaking poorly of the other parent, that sort of thing? I would read it carefully and see if there are some agreements not being followed. Maybe you could go to court to get removed the permission for out-of-state travel? Or press for full custody, even if you share parenting time.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:41 PM on October 10, 2018

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