“Divorce causes tremendous loyalty issues in kids; they feel very uncomfortable about acting as a go-between. When you fight you put your child in an impossible position. …You and your co-parent may hurl pain at each other, but the person you are hitting most squarely is your child.”
– Mary Ellen Hannibal (2002, pp. 37-38)
When parents are fighting with each other, there is an almost inevitable tendency to drag the kids into the middle of it. This can be done in a number of ways:
Using the children as go-betweens
One all-too-common yet extremely inappropriate thing that divorced couples do is use their children as go-betweens. Either they use the child to eavesdrop and spy on the other parent, or they use the kids as messengers to send provocative statements to the other party:
- What is your mother saying about me?
- Is your father dating anyone?
- You keep an eye on your mother and tell me if she has any men over.
- You tell your father that I’ll call him when he wants to treat me with some dignity.
- Tell your father he needs to get his ass in gear and start sending your child support payments on time.
Asking a child to pick sides in disputes
“Who would you rather be with, mommy or daddy? Who loves you more? Who do you like better? Isn’t it way more fun at my house? He should (fill in the blank), don’t you think?” These types of statements put a child in the uncomfortable position of having to pick sides. Never ask a child to pick sides in parental disputes. Do not ask your children, either directly or indirectly, which parent they love more, or which parent is acting in a more reasonable manner. Support your children’s need to love both of you, and to love both of you in different ways. They have a right to an opinion of their parents that is free of your persuasion.
Arguing your grievances to your kids
Along the same lines as picking sides, parents often use their children as an audience to argue out their grievances or issues with the other parent:
- “Don’t you think it’s unfair for him to keep doing this…”
- “I have a right to be upset with her. You should have seen the way she treated me the other day…”
- I’m so sick and tired of waiting for your father. Why can’t he ever be on time?”
- “I wish I could count on your mother.”
“A parent can never win points with a child by denigrating the other parent, no matter how strained the situation may be or how accurate the comments.”
– Slaby & Garfinkel (1994, p. 142)
Intentionally undermining the other parents authority
There are several things parents commonly do that undermine the other parent’s authority:
- Telling children to ignore what their mother/father says, or suggesting that the kids don’t need to listen to them.
- Saying (or implying) that the other parent is full of it, or talking in ways that undermine their parental authority: “You can’t ever trust what your father says; Your mother, she’s just no good.”
- Circumventing the other parent’s discipline attempts.
- Buying something for your kids that your ex explicitly told them they couldn’t have, or otherwise intentionally doing precisely the opposite of what they tell the kids in order to circumvent the limits they try to set.
Not only does this fuel additional conflict and interfere with a positive co-parenting environment, but it often comes back to bite you later. “By undermining the other adult, you send a message to kids that they don’t need to respect him,” says Christina McGhee, author of Parenting Apart. “What you may not realize is that your child may eventually apply that same logic to you.” (Johnson, 2010; emphasis added)
All of these dirty deeds will drag your children into the conflict and result in more stress, pain and suffering for them. So don’t engage in such behavior. If you absolutely insist on quarreling, keep the kids out of it.