How Do I Convince My Ex to Talk to Our Child When They're With Me?

Co-parenting with an ex adds challenge to an already difficult situation.'s "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says using effective communication strategies and keeping your eye on the best interest of your child can help you navigate the inevitable differences of opinion.

Illustration of mother and son on an unanswered FaceTime
Photo: Mehroz Kapadia

Let's Talk

I have split custody of my toddler with his dad (my ex), but his dad is not good about communicating with our son when he's with me. How do I encourage him to reach out more?

—Let's Talk

Co-parenting in an intact partnership is hard enough, but co-parenting with an ex adds even more "fun." Sharing decision-making throughout a child's growing up is a great responsibility, and rife with potential conflict. I have heard from some single parents that despite the many burdens of solo parenting, they do appreciate being the only person in charge of parenting decisions!

As common as it is for parents to have differing approaches and ideas about parenting, we know that the more consistent the parenting environments are, the better for kids. It sounds like the dilemma here may be that you view this communication as critical for your son when he is apart from his father, but his father sees it differently.

Staying In Contact When Apart

So, how important is it for a toddler's father to stay in communication? I think it depends. You don't mention the details of the custody arrangement, so I'm not sure how much time passes between stays. Assuming "split" means an even share of half and half, what's probably most important is that your child's routine of which days he is with which parent is predictable. Toddlers thrive from routine and knowing what to expect. Their brains can't yet think too far ahead in time, but if he knows each night when he goes to sleep what happens the next day, that helps a young child feel more settled.

The other consideration is how much your son is expressing a desire to talk to his father when they are not together. Is this your wish, or his? If he is asking for Daddy and seems to be upset about being apart from him, I agree that figuring out a strategy to maintain communication is in your son's best interest. On the other hand, if he seems content and isn't asking, it might not be as important to him as you worry it is. Especially if he is seeing his father every week. If you prefer staying in communication when he is at his father's (I know I would), that should be respected, but it may not mean Dad has the same need.

Communication with the Ex

If indeed staying in touch with his father between stays seems to be in your son's best interest, effective communication to address this also depends on the nature of your current relationship. Knowing that separated and divorced parents can vary in how amicable or hostile the co-parenting relationship is, this tenor matters in how to approach issues the most effectively. If a relationship has more tension with unresolved issues, bringing up any point of disagreement could be fuel for a fire that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. In this case, you may want to weigh how the act of bringing it up could add stress to the co-parenting situation since this stress certainly trickles down to your son.

If you have a generally positive state of communication, and this could simply be a matter of differing perspectives, that's a clearer situation. It's helpful to tune in to what would motivate Dad to change his mind: does he pride himself on being a loving, involved father, and hearing that his son is crying for him would make him feel special and important? Think about what your ex values in his life and how he sees himself, then focus on how communicating with his son more would fit what's important to him.

The key here is framing the communication in a way that makes it meaningful for him and his relationship with his son, not something you want him to do differently. Especially in a dissolved partnership, but really in any relationship, the second approach usually goes nowhere quickly! For example, you can probably see the difference between: "You should be FaceTiming him when he's with me;" and "He really misses you when he's with me, and I bet talking to you even for a couple minutes would help him."

All About the Kids

Even when both parents are invested in their child's best interest, it is not uncommon to define "best interest" differently. These differences will undoubtedly come up throughout your son's childhood, so learning how to handle it now will serve you all in the future. Tips from mediation experts designed for the unique challenges of co-parenting include:

  • Make requests instead of demands.
  • Give your ex the benefit of the doubt that they are coming from a well-intentioned place, even if they are acting in ways that don't make sense to you.
  • Keep it all about your child. This includes remaining focused on the child's best interest, even if you have to figure out differences in what that means to each of you.
  • View your co-parenting relationship as a different entity from your personal relationship with each other.

A final note about successful communication between co-parents: each parent needs to be as emotionally healthy as possible, so prioritize your own emotional support. The above tips will work best for two parents who have internal resources to best cope with stress, which makes it more likely to also approach conflict with skill instead of emotion.

The Bottom Line

Co-parenting turns out to be a lifetime situation, so better communication now is a worthy investment in harmony later. Since your son is a toddler, he will only know his parents in a co-parenting instead of co-habitating relationship. If you can practice prioritizing and effectively addressing problems and differences of opinion now, the stronger this communication later. This gives your son the best chance of growing up with involved and connected co-parents, which sounds like your ultimate wish for him.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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