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10 Questions to Avoid Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting

Teenage girl in trouble with parents

Your child is hears (and feels) all of those subtle pot-shots you take at your ex.

Everyone knows the basics of co-parenting: stay kid-focused, don’t use your kids as messengers, never use your kids as scapegoats, show up on time, and don’t talk negatively about your ex in front of your kids. It all seems pretty straight-forward and doable — at least it does on the surface.

But real-life isn’t lived on the surface and sometimes, in all of that “trying” to be nice, you’re actually just being passive-aggressive and probably doing more harm than good. Most of the time it’s pretty obvious whether or not you’re taking care of the basics. You know if you’re staying kid-focused, or using your kids as messengers or scapegoats, or showing up on time, but what might not be as obvious is whether you’re putting out more toxic energy and negativity about your ex in front of your children than you realize.

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Communicating positively about your ex in front of your children is probably the hardest part of co-parenting after divorce because “trying to be nice” is often our culture’s weird way of excusing passive-aggressive behavior.

So, how do you know if you’re being a co-parenting angel or a passive-aggressive ex-hole? Lets look at a couple examples of parents who are “trying to be nice.”

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Scenario One: A mom receives a phone call from her ex letting her know that he’s running 15 minutes late. When she hangs up the phone, she lets out a sigh before turning around, smiling at her son and saying, “Looks like your father is going to be 15 minutes late picking you up again.”

It wasn’t so much what she said as that she said it while sighing and putting special emphasis on the word “again.” Yes, her words were factually accurate and polite enough, but her sigh and slight dig at the dad (with a smile on her face) communicate disrespect for her son’s father.

Her argument? I was only trying to be nice and let my son know his father is going to be late, it’s not my fault that my ex is so inconsiderate and not putting his son first like a real dad would. The truth is: people run late sometimes, she’s being an ex-hole.

Scenario Two: A divorced dad picks his daughter up from school and asks how her day was. She tells him it was great because Julie, her best friend, shared her lunch with her. Dad asks his daughter if she shared her lunch with Julie, too. She replies, “No. I didn’t have a lunch.”

Dad’s blood pressure instantly starts to rise as he steams about how selfish, cruel, and stupid his ex-wife is to forget to pack his daughter’s lunch or give her lunch money. He takes a couple of deep breaths before saying, “You must be starving! Let’s stop by McDonald’s and get you something to eat since your mom forgot you need to eat lunch. Then we’ll head home so you can start in on your homework.”

Although this dad did great in asking about his daughter’s day, he lost it when he jumped to conclusions about what happened and how his ex was at fault. Although he was “trying to be nice,” what he really did was tell his daughter that he thinks her mother is a bad, neglectful parent. What he didn’t remember is that kids sometimes only tell part of the story. He was entirely unaware that his daughter had no lunch because she left it in the the backseat of her mom’s car that morning.

When you jump to conclusions (eager to find the other parent at fault) before understanding the whole story, you aren’t being nice, you’re being an ex-hole!

Skip The Passive-Aggressive Behavior: Co-parenting isn’t easy but there is no valid excuse for passive-aggressive behavior disguised as “trying to be nice.” When your words say one thing, but your tone, body language and overall energy say something else, your child picks that up loud and clear. They read and remember every message you send about your opinion of their other parent. Smile all you want, your bitter attitude shines through.

Your job as a parent is to have integrity in every interaction with your child. (It’s not always easy, but the job is the job.) This doesn’t mean that you’ll be a perfect parent or that you should expect your ex to be perfect either. What it does mean is that you are responsible for checking in with yourself to see where you might be behaving like a passive-aggressive ex-hole versus truly being a positive, cooperative co-parent.

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself to help you check your co-parenting integrity:

  1. What did my tone of voice just communicate to my child?
  2. What is my body language really saying?
  3. Did I get the full story from my child before reacting or drawing conclusions about my ex?
  4. Am I sharing facts with my child about my ex or am I layering my own story and feeling on top of those facts?
  5. Am I judging my ex more harshly than I would judge myself (e.g. finding fault in them for mistakes you make, too)?
  6. Am I taking my frustration and resentment with my ex out on my kid (e.g. snapping at your child when the topic of your ex comes up)?
  7. Am I allowing my children their own thoughts and feelings or imposing my own (e.g. “You must feel so disappointed that your mother did that.”)?
  8. Is it really helpful for me to express this thought/opinion in front of my kid right now (or ever)?
  9. Is what I’m sharing age-appropriate information for my child?
  10. Are my words and actions allowing my children the opportunity to love their other parent openly and unapologetically when they are with me?

If your answers to these questions aren’t what you know they should be, then it’s time to stop the disguised passive-aggression.

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How do you turn the tide on this behavior?

Own up to it. Perhaps apologize to your child (or even to your ex) and admit that you’ve been behaving this way and realize it isn’t helpful. Also, seek support.¬†You aren’t wrong for having lingering resentment or unresolved anger about your ex, but you are wrong for letting it seep into your interactions with your child. Love yourself enough to put some support in place for you — schedule an appointment with a helping professional to process and move past that resentment so that you can respond to your children with a smile on your face that is real!

This guest article originally appeared on Why Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting Hurts Your Child.

10 Questions to Avoid Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). 10 Questions to Avoid Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.