When Stepkids Talk About the High-Conflict Ex-Wife: Say This, Not That

Updated on December 30, 2017

I have been an active part of online communities for stepmoms for nearly a decade. A few problems seem to surface over and over again. One of the most common questions and problems I see posed by stepmoms is: What do I do when the children constantly mention their mom, the ex-wife?

In many of these situations the ex-wife is high conflict and is a constant source of anxiety and drama for the stepmom, her husband, and the children. Unfortunately the advice most often offered to this type of query is: Tell the kids they can never mention their mother. Punish them until they stop bringing her up! You tell those kids, your house, your rules. You don't have to listen to anyone mention HER in YOUR home!

A high-conflict ex-wife can be a soul sucking experience, even for a veteran stepmom. Though it is tempting to banish every last word or thought of the ex-wife from your house this article will describe a better way to handle this common stepfamily issue. If you are truly dealing with a personality-disordered,high-conflict ex, you are also likely dealing with an abusive parent. Children from abusive homes need a safe space to disclose their experiences.

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Take the High Road

If you are reading this article and deal with a high conflict ex-wife in your life, you probably rolled your eyes when you saw: Take the High Road. In this article I am going to re-frame for you what the high road means in this specific situation. The high road is not letting everything go for the sake of happiness. If you deal with a high conflict ex-wife you cannot achieve the Brady Bunch. It is not possible to go back in time to give the children a different mother. The ex-wife is the one and only mother they will ever have and she is not going away, therefore you might as well make the most of a less than stellar situation.

What you can do in this situation is take back control of the conversations around the high conflict ex-wife. That is what the high road looks like in this scenario. As a stepmom you have little to no control over most stepfamily related issues , but you can take some control by proactively asking about the ex-wife. The goal is to make the ex-wife a part of your every day conversations with the children.

By incorporating the ex-wife into the every day conversations you have with the children (and I do not mean literally speak about her every day, I mean speak about her naturally the way you would any person in the child's life) you give the children the opportunity to relax in their own home. Giving the children the opportunity to speak about the other parent, who they love, is the decent human thing to do. A relaxed child is also more likely to tell you what is really happening in the other home. If you deal the kind of high conflict ex-wife I do, you know there is likely verbal and emotional abuse in the other home. There may also be physical and sexual abuse. You will never know, and will never have the opportunity to know, about the abuse if you shut down any mention of the ex-wife.

The high road.
The high road.

As stepchildren get older and become more aware of the adult dynamics they may naturally stop mentioning the ex-wife. If there is any type of abuse in the other home, the abusive parent will often train and condition the children to not mention what happens in that home. Even very young children can be conditioned in this way. If you, the stepmom, are able to incorporate the ex-wife naturally into conversations you have a much better chance of the child opening up and sharing what they experience over time.

Remember that an extremely high-conflict ex-wife is not only abusive to her ex-husband and you, but also she likely abuses the children either behind closed doors or openly. A high-conflict personality does not abuse, stalk, and harass and ex-husband and then become an excellent mother to the children as soon as she is not speaking to her ex-husband. .

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Walk Beside Them

After a disclosure of abuse by a stepchild there are several legal avenues to be considered. The first option is to make a report to Child Protective Services in your state. The second option is to file a motion with the courts to change custody. In most cases neither the first nor second option will result in any change for the children. The third option is for the children to receive therapy by a licensed professional. It is highly likely that a high-conflict parent who abuses their children will never let this happen unless it is court ordered.

Walk beside them
Walk beside them

The final option is to offer emotional support for the children in your home. This may be all you can do. As the stepmom you may not feel comfortable offering this type of support to your stepchildren and this is ok. The father of the children should take an active role in emotionally supporting the children and providing them with skills and tools to manage their thoughts and emotions. I feel it is my ethical duty to suggest that the adults find a licensed therapist to guide them in emotionally supporting children in abusive situations.

What to Say?

It can be daunting to incorporate the ex-wife into your every day conversations. It's never, ever ok to interrogate the children about what goes on in the other home. When the children return to the house of high conflict it is likely they are grilled about their every move in your home. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to ask the children genuine questions about their activities, what they enjoy, and how their mother was involved in that activity or how she helps to make it special.

Here are some examples of natural ways to incorporate the high-conflict ex-wife into the conversation:

  1. What is your favorite food? When your Mom makes it, what does she do that makes it taste so yummy? Has she shown you how to make it? I bet she would love to show you!
  2. What did you play yesterday? Oh that sounds like fun! What part of the game did your Mom play? Oh, she didn't play? What was she up to?
  3. Does your sister like this movie? Do you watch it with her? I bet your Mom likes to watch it with you two! Oh, she doesn't watch it? Was she doing her own hobby?

I found in my own life when I, the stepmom, was the one to engage the children in conversations where the ex-wife was mentioned the child was more likely to open up to me than when my husband, the father, engaged in the same types of conversations. Even very young children are aware of the turmoil that exists between Mom and Dad. A stepmom can be a neutral party in the situation for the children to talk to. One of the most powerful conversation tools we can use to communicate with children is respect. If you respect the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of the children they will be more likely to share with you in the future.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers


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      • Misty Taylor profile image

        M Taylor 

        12 months ago from USA

        He has obviously been instructed to NEVER mention her or anything that they do. It would be a complete betrayal to her if his two worlds ever mingled. If we were to ask those questions, it would be very uncomfortable for everyone involved.

        He actually came at me at 6 years old and yelled "never talk about my mom!".

        Ironically, she drills him for an accounting of every moment he spends with us, complete with menus and nutritional values. She will then send nasty emails addressing anything she perceives as "bad" that happened while he is with us.

        Just last weekend, she acted like we had poisoned him when she learned that we gave him (at 100lbs) a 1/2 kids dose of allegra and Tylenol for a sinus headache he was having. Turns out she was texting him regularly to monitor him and told him to drink caffeinated black tea rather than take the meds we had provided.

        On the very rare occasion she does come up in our house, we are totally chill and supportive. It's not hard to rise above for the greater good. I do hate the hypocrisy of it all though.

      • profile image

        Breathing again 

        13 months ago

        Great insight.

        I did this with my stepchildren when they were young. Asking them 'did you have fun while you were gone (at mom's)' or 'what did you guys get up to while you were away'. Around the age of 10 yo they each had a wall that went up. Any time I asked about if they had fun it was none of my business and that I was doing something to them. WOW! How powerful is that mother. Just conversation, no digging or asking what they did with mom or anything further about mom... 'did you have fun'. None of my business. Even now they don't talk about their mother, but they will ask me questions about my work, money, my children, parents and follow it with 'oh mom wanted to know.' The dynamics with these children are so odd and off-putting.

      • profile image


        15 months ago

        Love this article; it is beyond exhausting, I’m drained and I don’t have much fight left in me.

      • profile image

        A mom 

        22 months ago

        I like your article but it shouldn't be ex wife. It's mom to them. Sometimes step moms fail to consider a woman wanted to be the ex and is fine being the ex; what remains is she is always mom.

      • profile image

        Not my circus or monkeys 

        23 months ago

        I agree with this. It's so much easier when you let the kids love their parents. I had to let go of a lot to protect my kids, but while my step child was here, I never banned talk of mom. Other family members were always amazed at the things the child would tell me.

        It was because I didn't slag off on the ex, the child's mother. I had no dog in the fight, and I didn't care if the child wanted to talk about life in their other home.

        I learned a lot of things I would rather have not known...but it helped my husband to work with his child, before the child gave in and became a soldier in ex's army.

        It also helps you to let go of the rage a high-conflict ex will incite in you. That's their goal - to get you angry, to make you react and interact - and even though you know it, we're human - you can't stop being angry when you know someone behaves badly all the time.

        But it helps to remember this is the kid's parent, and they can't change that. I've never understood the SP who won't let the kids talk about their other parent. Policing that seems to cause more problems and stress than just letting it be.

        No matter how annoying (I can remember, even now, being told all the ways that I was not as good as doing *insert whatever the task was here* as ex because ex did things differently. I merely said, well people all have their own ways of doing things, and we all like our ways best. There's no one right or wrong way - it's what works for you.) the talk may be.

        There's so much stress involved with a high-conflict ex. This isn't one of the places to bring in more. It will allow for greater peace in your home, even if ex is batshit and the constant references are annoying.

        LOL, no more annoying than your kid detailing the latest gamer YouTube video play by play.

      • Leomer R Bueza profile image


        23 months ago from Angono, Rizal

        Let your kids talk about their mother. You may even join the conversation. Do not say any bad comments about their mother. Time will come that they will seldom talk about it. Do not let them see you very hostile instead a calm mood.


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