WTF Wednesday: I’m afraid my kids will love my ex more than me

single mom advice

Dear Emma,

WTF?! I have been a single mom for five years, after a nasty divorce during which my husband took off with what turns out was his longtime girlfriend and managed to successfully hide nearly all of his income. Our daughters, now 9 and 11, live primarily with me, visiting their dad just every-other-weekend (the girlfriend is no longer on the scene). The are delightful people– bright, fun and talented in their own ways. I am responsible for them 90 percent financially, 80 percent when it comes to logistics and time, and emotionally …. well, that’s where things get dicey. 

My daughters are 9 and 11 and they adore their father. “Dad days” are always full of amusement parks, beach trips, movies and mall exploits. All fun, all the time. With me? It’s a lot of homework, shuttling to ballet and soccer and violin, and an exhausted mom trying to get her act together. 

My pubescent kids are moody, teenagery and, frankly, manipulative. When we have an argument, the first thing they say is: “I like staying with dad better!” or “Dad would let me do that,” or “I love daddy more than you.” My relationship with my ex is polite, but certainly not warm. 

I try not to take these jabs personally, but how can I not!? In the heat of a fight with them I have come THIS close to telling them what a douche their dad is, but thankfully I stop myself. But I already feel so deflated trying to raise these kids essentially on my own, only to have them take me for full granted and pit their affections for their dad against me. HELP! 

Devastated in Dayton

Dear Devastated,

Your letter resonated with me personally. Recently my son, 4 , went through a particularly  dramatic bout of moody fits (not once but on two separate occasions he took a full glass of freshly blended smoothie, looked me stone-cold in the eye and dumped the entire contents right. on. the. table.). I asked my daughter, 6: “Does Lucas do this at Daddy’s house?” to which she replied, “No. He thinks Daddy is a better parent than you.”

Cue the sound of my heart shattering while black smoke whistled as it blasted from my ears.

There are two things going on here. One is that you must manage your relationship with your kids. They cannot speak to you like that. They are entitled to feel how they feel, and you must respect how they feel, but they are not allowed to intentionally try to hurt anyone’s feelings. And that is what they are doing: Trying to hurt you.

They’re kids. They are not malicious or demented people. But they are indeed trying what they can to manipulate the situation, push your boundaries and buttons and get an emotional upper hand here. As the parent you must maintain your upper hand.

Here is what you can say:

“You are entitled to feel however you feel. Sometimes you will have more loving feelings for Dad than you do for me, band that is totally normal. But you must always, no matter what, think about the person you are speaking to when you express yourself. And I will be honest with you: my feelings are really hurt by what you said. I forgive you, but I am sad about it.”

But that is not enough. This is a tough time, and you must work very hard to keep your family dynamic in synch at this stage of your girls’ lives. You have a lot going on, you’re overwhelmed and under-supported and you see your girls slipping away from you. That is scary as shit, it makes you anxious and reactive and that only drives them away.

This is what I suggest. Start talking to your girls. Really talking to them. You are only the parent you are. But not “only” – because that suggest that you are sub-par. You are enough mom for them. More than enough. So first you must focus, value and appreciate all that you do for your kids. Despite all odds you have created a stable, loving home led by a hard-working committed parent who clearly adores her children. This is more than many, many people in this world know. And that your kids have turned out so well thus far is a testament to your doing something right.

But until you own this as truth your kids will not. They sense your guilt and resentment and play it like that cheap kid-size fiddle you paid too much for. The more you let go of any sense of inadequacy about your parenting, the less room your kids will have to squeeze in there and exploit it.

But there is something else at play, and that is you want to know how to inform your kids about how you perceive their father. This is tricky, but it is necessary. I never advocate for sugar-coating or lying. You owe it to all parties involved to share with your daughters your true feelings and understanding of events surrounding your marriage and divorce. The question is the how and the when.

I would start with explaining why you are stressed out. Be honest. Check what you are saying. Make sure it is from your heart, and not in any way intended to manipulate their feelings or revenge your ex-husband. Start with how you feel.

“I know I can be really grumpy and I am working on that. My job has been really stressful and taking care of you guys and the house can be a lot of work to do by myself! I wish we had more time and money to do expensive stuff on the weekend, but I don’t have that at the moment. Instead I chose to spend extra money on things like sports and music lessons, or fixing things around the house. Let’s brainstorm some really fun things to do every Saturday morning that don’t cost a lot of money.”

That is a start. Kids get it. You will not have one conversation about this. With your children you will have many, many conversations about your marriage, divorce and relationship with their dad And, of course, he will be having his own conversations with them. Their feelings about both of you, their perception of your family and history will likely change throughout their lives. You cannot control it. But you can be honest and vulnerable about your feelings. And when you are vulnerable — really, truly vulnerable — people automatically trust you.

Which brings me to the last script I will offer for your discussions with your daughters, and that is this: “I love you and I love our life together, and it is the most important thing in the world that we have a good relationship. I’m not a perfect mother, and you’re not a perfect daughter. But we love each other and we have to commit to working on our relationship. Can you do that with me?”




Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

14 thoughts on “WTF Wednesday: I’m afraid my kids will love my ex more than me

  1. I find this interesting because I have this same issue yet my husband and I are married. This makes me think you’re framing this in terms of the divorce when really, it’s just the struggle of raising tween-aged kids. Dad is the fun one. I’m the one who spends more time with the kids, demanding that they do their homework and clean their rooms. When Dad comes home it’s like a marching band just paraded through the house. When I come home — let’s just say I’m glad we have a dog because she’s the only one who gives me any attention. Also, considering your girls’ ages, I think at that age they just have a Daddy thing going on. At that age they start to reject mom and are all about Dad. I’m sure there’s some developmental reason for that. Be glad that they have a strong relationship with their father, realize that, as tweens, if it weren’t this issue they’d find something else to turn the knife with, and know that when all the carnivals and ferris wheels are done, you’ll be the one they come to with their real problems. Truth.

    1. Yes, I was going to say this is not just a divorce issue. Many married couples slip into the fun/not-fun parent category. Of course if you are married and on good terms than you can have a discussion about it and try to create more opportunities for mom to have fun and dad to have some of the discipline responsibility. Also, homework is one thing but if kids really hate practicing an instrument it might be worth letting it go. It’s a nice idea but if they don’t like it and you don’t like making them do it, that’s one thing to get off your plate.

  2. Where this certainly is a divorce issue, and a particularly difficult one to navigate, is when you’re dealing with an ex who is (a) not pulling his weight logistically; (b) not pulling his weight financially; (c) the result of one or both yields stress in the primary home; (d) kids feel that stress alleviated, however infrequently, when at the other home.

    This is further exacerbated when you are walking the tightrope of not speaking a truth that treads into “trashing the ex” or even parental alienation.

    Married couples with tweens and teens certainly deal with (the usual) manipulative behaviors as kids in these stages test and twist. But the back story and stresses are very different.

    (Excellent post.)

    1. Thanks D.A. I agree that while most families deal with this kind of tension, it is something else in divorced families. There is nearly always a tension there, and the kids feel it and often play off it. I see it happening in my family.

  3. I have really mixed feelings about directly telling the kids that their comments are hurting you, b/c that’s exactly what they’re going for. And b/c, while it’s easy to say, “your kids should not be allowed to say hurtful things to ppl,” it’s next to impossible to enforce or control what comes out of a kid’s mouth.

    Kids are going for the shock factor. They’re trying to get what they want through manipulation. And they’re trying to deal with 2 very different lives and homes too. Remember: the divorce drastically re-ordered their world too. I’ve found that when my kids say stuff like, “we like it at dad’s house better,” what they’re often referring to is the fact that he has more TV channels and a better video gaming system. And you know what? From their perspective, those things DO make dad’s house a more fun place to hang out. So we talk about that. I might say, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool to get to ride the 4wheeler,” or something like that — something that validates what they’re saying and keeps the lines of communication open.

    I’ve also found that a lot of times, comments like, “I like staying with Dad better,” or “Dad is better at…” have absolutely nothing to do with how my kids feel about me. My kids love me, period. They also love their Dad, and his continued involvement in their life is a good thing.

    When I sense that kids are being hurtful, and throwing around those kinds of statements with an intent to hurt, I tend to ignore them, at least in the moment. Usually, the kid is merely trying to express some extreme frustration. I ignore the kid and the equivalent of a toddler tantrum and then, if needed, talk about it later, emphasizing the need to show respect for other people. Often, I won’t need to do that, b/c with some time to cool off, the kid might say something on his own.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this entire post. You’re advocating way TOO much conversation about what is typical tween/teen manipulative – let’s try this and see what happens – behavior. The more you – the adult and the hands-on parent – react, the more this hurtful [definitely] behavior will escalate. It’s attention seeking and, if you reward this behavior, it will persist and escalate. This goes for all kids – not just kids raised in single parent homes.

    Try the silent stare and walk away. In short, don’t react.

    As the responsible parent doing the homework, brush your teeth, eat your vegetables routine you’re given a privilege. You’re the one who is shaping your children into the adults they will become. It will be your values instilled.

    Very little meaningful influence is exerted by “fun parents” who stuff kids with junk food and think of little else than showing their kids a good time.

    1. There is reacting and there is reacting. Exploding or crying is not the same as staying calm and addressing the behavior.

      Yes, the hands-on parent shapes the kids, but that does not mean that they will have a happy or close relationship in the end. I think of one friend whose parents split early in her childhood — her school teacher mom raised the kids without financial help from the lawyer dad who to this day parties like a rock star — coke and hos and all. The mom was responsible but just a grumpy and unhappy person whereas the dad was completely irresponsible, selfish and fun and nice. Now the kid are grown with families of their own, reasonable people and they simply like their dad better.

  5. I actually find it interesting in the comments that many commenters believe in communicating less with your teens/tweens. I advocate lots of communications especially when children are expressing thoughts or feelings. Never take it for granted they are going to talk to you. That is the reality of our feelings. When my daughter tells me she doesn’t love me or whatever, I always tell her those words hurt. Then we explore and I ask her WHY does she feel that way? How would she feel if I someone said those things to her? I don’t believe in NOT having the conversations since as adults we need to have these conversations with each other. Whether you are married or not I know far too many married couples that DON’T know how to have these conversations either. I am a single/divorced mom and when my partner gets jealous or has a difficult time expressing his feelings he will do a form of “transference.” I understand this about him and I allow him to express what’s bothering him. The reason we divorce in the first place sometimes is because we are not effectively communicating.

    1. Thanks for this, Heather. I am all about talking to kids like people. If a colleague were verbally abusive would you simply ignore them?!

      Kids/people say hurtful things because they can’t express their feelings. It is our jobs as parents to help them dig into what is really going on, which much of the time they can’t decipher themselves.

  6. I also have mixed feelings about both the post & the comments, but I was glad to read all of it because it reinforces how none of us are alone in what we’re facing – there’s always somebody out there with their own equally strong internal battle – and the specific dynamics are always different.
    My ex-husband fits the same bill for not pulling his weight, not pulling his part of the finances, being a douchebag in general (LOL), and worse – to the extent that after fighting through 2 expensive custody battles, he finally just decided one day to stop showing up, and to date he has (by his own choice) not seen our son in over a year and has only spoken to him by phone 3 times since. I get your pain. With this, I don’t face some of your same current issues – i.e. my son doesn’t say “I like going to dad’s better” because he doesn’t go to dad’s – but he does frequently say things like “When I’m with my dad, we go do [xyz]”. I know in my heart, my son is trying to hold onto memories & not feel the pain of rejection. He even said one day “I can’t figure out why my dad doesn’t want to spend time with me – I’m a lot of fun!” (;o), and yes, yes he is :o)). But in that moment, as the parent taking all the weight of raising the child alone, you won’t to lash out “Your dad does NOTHING for you except send a small amount of money and that’s because the court makes him and he certainly doesn’t take you anywhere”. But I think all of us would agree that helps no one. When I don’t have it in me to find the best therapeutic response, my therapist has taught me to just let him talk – that’s really what he wants to do. And let’s be clear here – not let him be hurtful or rude – but just let him talk. Because he’ll eventually talk out whatever it is. And she’s taught me to ask very generalized questions that help him think through it himself. For instance, he’ll say “my stepbrother [C] likes soccer and is {this} much taller than me”. Instead of me pointing out that douchebag hasn’t seen him in a year so he hasn’t seen his stepbrother in a year (children are smart, my son knows this deep down), I say something like (with a smile) “I wonder what [C] is interested in now and how big he is now?” and “You like soccer, too! You want to sign up for a soccer league?” This does two things – makes him talk through the realities himself without me saying them and also refocuses to something positive about himself. I’m not sure how this applies to the child who, in their own trying to figure out the world & life, lashes out to purposefully hurt you – but there’s got to be something there that would help i.e. – refocus, don’t lash out the pain, speak what they can think through themselves – “Because of how the timing works, you tend to be at dad’s on the weekend when you don’t have homework. Is there any work you can think of that we get done together during the week that you could accomplish there on the weekends, instead, so that we would have more time to do something fun together during the week on a more regular basis?”
    It’s so hard – I know it is. There are those times I hear stories like this and I want to yell out (from the hurt side of me) “at least the dad’s involved!! At least your kids don’t feel the pain of rejection!! And at least you don’t do EVERYTHING yourself 100% 24/7!! At least the little tiny bit your own douchebag does is SOMETHING!!”. But you know what – I’m thankful for my own circumstance because at least I don’t have to deal with some of the issues that you guys are dealing with just like in this post. On the other hand, maybe your hearing my internal pain response will give you something (even a tiny something) to be thankful for from another person’s perspective – imagine not having to deal with the Disneyland Parent issue because you do all of it 100% of the time, not 90% or 80%, and imagine your children are suffering through feelings of rejection because of that and you’re trying to help them grow through it. Just another perspective.
    I think the advice about owning your own guilt & appreciating yourself is enormous. It took me years to get to that place and it’s SO TRUE. What a difference it makes and what a difference in how it leads you to have conversations with the child and also what a difference in their responses!!! I promise it is good, sound, correct advice. Once you get to this place, you can say to them when necessary “You know what – it’s my job to make sure you grow into the best person you can be. And doing all the things that requires isn’t always fun. And I don’t always get everything right – mommy is not perfect just like no one else in this world is perfect. But I do my very best. And most of the time, I do a really good job. I love you and I care about you and you’re a really good kid, and I want to make sure you become everything possible that I know you can be. If I don’t do that, I’m not doing my job. And I love you that much”. And then you can leave it there. They think about it, they know it’s true, and it helps. This helps my and my son’s disgruntlements more often than anything else, I believe.
    Finally, I also agree with the person who commented that lessening your reaction is advisable. Yes – often they are looking for a reaction. Lessening your reaction doesn’t necessarily equate to talking to them less or allowing unacceptable behavior. It does mean sometimes taking the steps recommended – taking a breather, being gently honest, and sometimes keeping your response short until you can have a better conversation.
    Last thought – do you have other family who can assist? My mom is a tremendous help in these things – she and my son have a very very close relationship, and often times he will talk to her about things he won’t talk about to anyone else, and from there she can help him see things a different way and deal with them a different way. And because she’s done this a time or two (;o)), she often has great experience at tackling it in a way I never would have thought to do. Lean on family and friends who care, wherever you can! Some of my closest friends have been through these exact same issues – some of their kids even moved out in their teen years to live with the other parent – and it hurt like absolute hell. But you know what? Every time, every.single.time., the kids grew up and in a few years recognized everything all on their own and came back and things were better than ever. Life has a way of doing that. Trust the experience of others :o).
    At the end of the day, I have learned that no matter how frustrated I am or how bad I think I have it, someone out there always has it harder or worse, & my son and I are actually so very blessed. Maybe that’s a good lesson for all of us, here, no matter our life situation :o). Parenting is HARD! But those of us who commit & invest can do a kick-butt job in their important little (big) lives, and I’m proud of us for it! (ps – my sincere apologies for such a long response!!! But the post brought up passionate feelings for me :o))

  7. First, let me say I like Emma’s emphasis on “boundaries”. I am very boundaries oriented, and I aim to respect other boundaries. I think that is an important point for kids in these times to clearly understand for others, and set for themselves.

    Each kid’s personality is different, and often one kid simply “clicks” with one parent better. While I’m sure some of this perceived parental “competition” or kids manipulating can seem unique in a divorce situation, I would say, in general, kid/parent interaction that occurs in intact marriages as well. My parents stayed married to death. My dad was not the “fun” dad, but he was affectionate, had a sense of humor, and cared about we kids. While my mom has her strengths and cared about us in her own way, she could nag the proverbial paint off the walls, had no sense of humor with her children, and didn’t try to have fun with us. Naturally, we were mostly drawn to my dad, although he was also the harsh disciplinarian . For all four of we kids our father’s personality meshed with each of us much better. Sometimes it may be less about some competition or kid manipulation, and simply that the kid simply gets along with one parent.

    As for manipulation, any time kids sense there is a wedge between the parents, they will try to pry it. I had an aunt who was a serial cheater (Shocked that a wife might be capable of being a piece of crap?! after all the dad bashing I’ve read here.) and blatantly undermined my uncle in front of the kids. My cousins were regularly undisciplined, grew up wild and irresponsible, all because they knew they could push and pry at that wedge. My aunt and uncle remain married (Barf), so divorce wasn’t a factor in these kids’ manipulation tactics. On the other hand as a kid my dad backed my mother, and vice versa. I’m sure me and my three siblings tried some prying, but much less so than my cousins because of the united front presented by my parents. Is that same “united front” possible after divorce? Very difficult in the best situations, but doable if both divorcees want something better for the kids, and some level of harmony for the mess they’ve created. I suspect in some divorce situations it is simply impossible as much because the mom is an asshat as much as the dad.

What do you think? Please comment!

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