Is Your Ex Turning Your Children Against You?

“They don’t have a relationship problem…
…They have a toxic ex-spouse problem.”

Supervision is very helpful for getting an unbiased, big picture view of a couple’s situation. You see, my job is to roll my sleeves up and get in the trenches with you, and sometimes that means I can lose sight of what might be going on.

So it’s good to discuss my work regularly (whilst protecting your anonymity) with an experienced third party.

During a recent supervision session, I was talking about a new couple I’d started with and the difficulty I was experiencing due to what my assessment had concluded.

And what was that?

Well, according to my investigation of their situation, I’d concluded they didn’t have a relationship problem…

…They had a toxic ex-spouse problem.

Not only is the ex being controlling and manipulating of their ex…

…They’re also actively engaged in poisoning the children’s perception of the other parent and their new partner.

So much so that history is being rewritten.

It’s a terrible situation.

So how can I help them, when the source of their relationship troubles is completely out of their ability to control?

Fortunately, my supervisor helped me to see a valuable way forward in my work with them.

It revolved around:

  • Getting clear on what they hope to achieve from working with me.
  • Exploring how the strain of the toxic ex is affecting them relationally.
  • Finding and providing evidence based solutions to the situation
  • Educating myself and passing on my findings to them about toxic ex-spouses.

My research was eye-opening.

And I’d like to share it with you in this post, especially if you’re also experiencing strain in your relationship because of a toxic ex. I would also point out my focus in this post is on dealing with a toxic ex specifically where children are involved.

Many of the insights on this subject come from this study:

Summers, David M., and Collette C. Summers. “Unadulterated arrogance: Autopsy of the narcissistic parental alienator.” The American journal of family therapy 34.5 (2006): 399-428.

And if this is a subject you’re struggling with, I highly recommend you do a Google search and read the full study.

It’s 31 pages of pure gold on the subject.


…Here are the notes I pulled from it along with a few other sources:

Unadulterated Arrogance Autopsy of the Narcissistic Parental Alienator

“if the target parent does not have a problem,
then create one for them.”

Narcissistic Parental Alienator?

Yup, that’s quite a term and one which we’ll be making frequent reference to, so let’s make sure you fully understand what an NPA is.

Here goes…

… A Narcissistic Parental Alienators (NPA) is a person who feeds alternate versions of reality to their children to get them on their side, giving them a sense of control over their children and having their attention to themselves.

Okay, now let’s take a closer look at how an NPA operates:

NPAs often desire to “divide and conquer” by drawing in as many third parties as possible to be “witnesses” in order to collectively lay blame on the target parent for committing any alleged abuse. As a master of spin, the NPA often proves exceptionally adept at delegating blame. If something is worked out, then by virtue, it was their idea. If it does not fulfil their needs to their liking, it was somebody else’s fault.

The same study shows that children in this situation can develop Parent Alienation Syndrome or PAS. Children with PAS start to have an inner conflict with themselves, doubting the target parent and trying to match up the version of them that they hear from their alienator parent with the version that they see in real life.

Symptoms of PAS include:

  • Unfair criticism of the target parent with no specific evidence for those criticisms
  • Unwavering support for the alienator parent
  • Feelings of hatred toward the target parent and/or their family members
  • Usage of adult terms or phrases
  • Refusal to talk to or see the alienated parent

Make sure to pay special attention to: ‘Methodical Tactics’ on page 412 of this study.

It starts:

At given times during our lives, Narcissists and often parental alienators are all around us and they have the uncanny ability to really push our buttons. To understand them, we must know how they use their cogitative skills in order to not be harmed by them.

Researcher Joanna Ashmun, work Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD): How to Recognize a Narcissist reveals:

The most telling thing narcissists do is contradict themselves. They do this virtually in the same sentence, without even stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they’ll deny ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only seconds since they said it—really, how could you think they’d ever have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will contradict FACTS. They will lie to you about things that you did together or about what opposing counsel and judges state. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them, they’ll say you’re lying, making stuff up, or are crazy. (Ashmun, 2004)

Much of the literature regarding parental alienation recommends legal and therapeutic interventions. This largely depends upon the category of alienation mild, moderate, or extreme. The categorisation or extreme extent of the alienation also depends on the psychopathology of the loved parent, that is, narcissism. Most therapists recommend for mild parental alienation cases:

…that court orders for visitation are the only intervention necessary. These orders are assumed to reassure the primary caretaker and the child that their bond will not be threatened, that the order for visitation will alleviate the child’s guilt, and that clear and precise court orders will lower the conflict between the parents. The loved parent is not assumed to have any severe emotional problems. (Lund, 1995)

Here is a list of other suggested solutions for managing a toxic-ex:

Manage conversations by staying on matters of parenting – Be polite but firm when talking to your ex. You can’t let them see that they’re getting to you. You can’t reason with an unreasonable person. Remember, you can only control what you think and what you do. If necessary use pre-written scripts when talking with your ex.

What’s my part in this? No matter how thin you slice it… There are always (at least) two sides. So be sure to notice your own part of any ongoing conflict.

Reality – Keep a record of hostility and poor behaviour. You’ve got to remain confident that your version is reality.

Don’t bottle it up – You and your partner need to communicate with each other about the situation. It’s hard for both of you. Share how you feel, share what’s on your mind about the situation, and share what you think the next steps could be. You’ve got to be on the same page, create a shared plan and work the plan together. Showing a united front is powerful and it’s also good for your kids to see.

Accept your ex isn’t going to change – Acceptance doesn’t mean you agree or suddenly become okay with what’s happening. It simply means you accept a situation for the way it is. You stop swimming against the tide. Your ex doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with them or their behaviour which is why they won’t change.

Stop giving your ex any unnecessary attention – Starve them of your attention, even negative attention. Many toxic ex’s thrive on attention so make sure they don’t get it from you… Hopefully, they’ll seek it elsewhere.

Realistic Expectations – Your ex is in a position to massively influence you children’s perceptions. As a result, you may never be able to form the kind of relationship bonds you want. Studies suggest this can be especially difficult (possibly impossible) for a step mum. Your positive outlook and love may not be enough to overcome the influence your ex has on them. You need to have realistic expectations. Give up the pressure of trying to be the family miracle worker.

Possessiveness – With a preadolescent or adolescent girl, possessiveness and jealousy will pose an even bigger problem, psychologist Mavis Hetherington found. In her Virginia Longitudinal Study of families who divorced and remarried, preteen and teen girls especially described the stepparent as an interloper in their world and an obstacle to intimacy with mom or dad. A stepmother may encounter particularly fierce resistance from a teen girl, both because she is close to her father and because teen girls tend to model the feelings and attitudes of their mothers.

Present a united front to the children – Be clear on shared boundaries and expectations of behaviour. Here’s a snippet about the dangers of Permissive Parenting:

Permissive Parenting

Research consistently shows that children do best with authoritative parenting, high levels of warmth, and high levels of control. But post-divorce, permissive parenting (high warmth, low control) frequently prevails. Why?

Mom is likely to have primary custody, and if she’s single, that can mean a lot of work and stress. She might let the little things, and then the not so little things, go. Dad likely fears that if he angers his ex or the kids, he won’t see them as much, and feels guilty that the kids went through a divorce.

And so an “Always ‘Yes’ Dad” is born.

Against the backdrop of permissive parenting, stepmom’s normal expectations about manners, scheduling, and respect may seem draconian, rigid, and “unfair.” And kids with permissive parents understandably don’t have much sense that it’s wrong to be rude to an expendable-seeming and “overreaching” (in their view) stepparent. This ticks off stepmom, who then seems even less likeable and fun to her stepchild.

The bigger picture – Why are you here? What’s your mission? What are your shared goals and ambitions? Focus on supporting your family and set a positive outcome for it.

Get your children to spend time with you, so they get to know you more as a person separate from your ex. And learn to listen to them well when they speak. It’s easier for children to believe your ex’s version of you if they don’t have a true one based on their own experience. Spend time with them and ground them in reality.

Don’t disrespect your ex in front of the children – Bad mouthing them will only deepen the ideas planted in their heads by their other parent. Remember… In spite of how you feel, they love and trust their mum/dad. If you speak badly about someone they trust, they won’t be able to trust you.

Let your stepchildren know you’re not there to replace their mum/dad – If necessary reassure stepchildren they’ll always have their mum or dad, but they’ll also have you – not to take their place – but as an additional adult who cares about them and who they can trust. They won’t hear this from the toxic ex, so it’s good to hear it from you. Make an effort to talk to them about how they’re feeling and open up your feeling to them so that they learn to trust and open up to you too.

Watch This Video: Treating Stepfamilies Conference – Dr Patricia Papernow to get a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t work in “Blended Families”


“…for the target parent happiness is the best revenge, as the real fault lays with these emotionally devoid impedes who refuse to compromise and acquire the much-needed therapy due to their unadulterated arrogance.”

If you’d like my help with your relationship…

Go here next to book your first session.