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


  1. Emelyn Lybarger says:

    Thank you for this! Because my son’s father & I have a good relationship, I usually talk to him if our son is upset about something. I will explore trying just listening instead. Didn’t even occur to me, lol. Thanks Cat!

    • parenting says:

      You are most welcome Emelyn. I am glad that my blog offered you another option for how to handle these tricky situations. And how sweet to hear that you have a good relationship with your former so that talking with him doesn’t build resentment or the like. 🙂

  2. Debra Healy says:

    My experience involved my daughter coming home and bursting into tears and/or calling in tears from her father’s home. This happened off and on (and definitely more “on” at times) from the time she was 5 until she was 15. Actually, it continued after that, but by that time, she had discovered ways to deal with her father in ways that wouldn’t necessarily resolve anything on the spot (ignoring, refusing to engage, for example), but might eventually lead to a conversation and better understanding between her and her father.

    My daughter was primarily fearful was of father’s explosive reaction/anger/destructive words regarding relatively minor issues. She needed him to hear and understand her, but couldn’t figure out an approach that would achieve this and avoid the explosion and damaging words. For example, at times her father would make decisions for her without asking or listening to her needs. She would then be fearful of letting him know that she didn’t want to do something (such as take ballet, spend spring break away from her friends, etc.).

    Yes – at times, I involved myself. I appreciated my ex was under a lot of stress due to his new family situation and attempted to approach him in a way that wouldn’t make things worse. What it generally did was shift some of his explosiveness toward me, rather than toward our daughter. Although it certainly wasn’t the best way to handle things (and at times very harmful to my emotional well-being), I wouldn’t necessarily say that it caused greater harm. It may have even played a part in his coming to a better understanding of our child’s needs as an individual. (Or I could be fooling myself. . .!)

    Those were very painful times. I am so happy to see both my children, now as a confident and very competent adults, being able to approach their father and have difficult conversations when necessary. Their relationship with him has flourished – which makes me happy. 🙂

    Thanks very much.

    • Thanks Debra for sharing your experience and story. It is helpful for others to know about success stories, even things were very painful and difficult at times. It sounds like you provided the support needed for your daughter to be heard and also for her to learn how to navigate her relationship with her father and that at times you intervened when you felt it necessary to do so. It is so hard to sit by when our kids are in pain and not take direct action and intervention and I certainly support doing so when necessary. I have coached parents in how to coach their kids when struggling in interactions with their other parent.
      Blessings to you ~ cat

Speak Your Mind