So Your Child’s Upset with Your Former . . . Now What?

I often hear from parents that they don’t know what to do when their child comes home from the other parent’s house complaining about the other parent.  It is so hard to know how to respond so that you are supporting your child and not putting yourself in the middle.  And sometimes you are so upset about what the child has told you that it is all you can do to not call or go over to the other parent’s house and lay down the law!

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Your child may have a very legitimate complaint about the other parent – kids often do!  (Rest assured, your child also has very legitimate complaints about you that he is undoubtedly also expressing to your former!)  She may come home from the other parent’s house and be upset about something that happened there. Or, your child may call you from the other parent’s house to complain about something the other parent is doing. Sometimes you may even notice your child’s complaint about the other parent is the exact same complaint you also have about them – making it extremely challenging for you to remain neutral!

Because parents care so much about their children and want to support and make life better for them, their responses usually range from giving the child advice about what to do, telling the child that the other parent didn’t mean it, agreeing with the child as to how awful the other parent is or calling up the other parent in an attempt to fix it! 

 There are a couple very good reasons why you should ditch these approaches to the problem.  First, when you try to fix the problem for your child, you teach him that you are going to fix every relationship and deny him an opportunity to learn how to deal with disappointments and discomforts in life.  Children need to learn how to navigate the waters of relationships and no relationship is more important for him to figure out than how to navigate his relationship with his parents.

Here’s the thing; children need to have their OWN relationship with both parents, not a relationship clouded by the other parent’s relationship with that parent. This is a great gift for your child – one full of essential life lessons.  They learn how to tell their parents why they are upset, to ask for what they want, and to deal with things that did not work out the way they wanted them to.

So what exactly do you do in these situations? The way to help your child is to be present with what is going on for your child and just listen.  I like to call this “holding the bucket.” (I got this from Alison Armstrong who does workshops for women on understanding men!) Imagine holding a bucket for your child to simply let out all that needs to be said.  This moment with your child is not about your child’s relationship with the other parent, this moment is about the opportunity to build your relationship with your child. 

Example:  A child comes home after being with his dad for a few days. He jumps into stories about his life at his dad’s.  Sometimes it is just the frustrations and sometimes it is the joy and many times it is mixed.  All you want to do is listen, reflect back what you’re hearing and make empathic guesses as to what might be going on for him – what it is he might be needing.  He then gets it all off his chest and is more able to be present for his time with you.  When you are able to do this, the coolest thing happens. Your child gets the message that you fully support his relationship with his dad and that he can always tell you anything he wants and you won’t turn it into a conversation about your relationship with his dad, or try to fix it for him.  It is important to trust that if he wants your support, he will ask you. 

This is similar to the transition many adults experience when they come home from work; you just want to get things off your chest.  You don’t want or expect the other person to do anything other than listen. 

By responding in this way and choosing not to jump to a solution, you allow your child to build their OWN relationship with their other parent.


In support and service ~


Signature for Cat J. Zavis, Coach for divorced parents




CatProfileCat J. Zavis is an Attorney, Mediator, Child Advocate and Coach for Parents co-parenting their children after divorce. As a divorced mother of 2, she deeply understands the challenges, trauma and opportunities divorce provides. She has been practicing Nonviolent CommunicationSM, Mediation and Collaborative Law for 7 years. She conducts workshops and trainings in Nonviolent CommunicationSM for parents, lawyers, teachers, students, spiritual centers and professionals. In 2009, she was awarded a Peace Builder Award for her business. Her combination of personal experience and professional expertise give Cat a unique perspective and ability to help co parents learn to communicate effectively and powerfully to transform their relationships and interactions with their former after divorce so they and their children can thrive.

Cat can be reached at

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