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Manipulation of Children: Emotional Abuse

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Need help dealing with high conflict ex-wife of boyfriend. They share custody of 3 teens; divorced 7 years. He let her stay in his house while between apartments after getting evicted, but then stayed 8 months longer while all the kids lived there and she continued to collect child support and stay overnight with her new bf. She has bad credit and dogs so this was her excuse for not being able to find a home. When he insisted that she leave she got angry and left her dogs behind. This is the second set of dogs she has abandoned and one set has lived with my bf for 7 years now. He refuses to keep another two dogs and has told her she must take them. Her solution was to take them to the shelter with his 14 year old son, telling him his father was forcing her to do it, that his father is selfish for not letting her leave the dogs “for just another few weeks.” My bf’s son, who is a “young” 14, is sad and angry at his father, which is typical of these scenarios. This isn’t, as you might imagine, just about the dogs – boundaries that are enforced are punished through the kids. I encourage him to keep strong boundaries and he does increasingly so. In the big picture, I think it is the right thing to do for him and his children, but the stress of these constant “punishments” is making him physically sick. He spent years bending over backwards so as to keep some kind of relationship with his children, but they are older now (and he is late 50s and exhausted) and is really trying to change the dynamic. Yesterday, she stole his EZ pass out of his car and had her oldest daughter text him that they needed to go on a college visit (note that she already receives 40k a year post tax for the kids, works part time, so desperate for $ is kooky). I would call the police for even small infractions to make a point, but my bf knows only his kids will suffer and he just can’t stand to watch. The kids cling to “mommy” and crave her affection — the more inconsistent she is the more they cling. Sad. Any advice? Help.

A: Your sensitivity and encouragement for your boyfriend to have stronger boundaries sounds like the right advice. His ex-wife’s instability and lack of boundaries suggest that firm limits and consequences be implemented. You may both want to see a couples counselor to talk about how to help your husband implement these changes. You can support him doing so, but he has to do the work of setting clear boundaries with her.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral

Manipulation of Children: Emotional Abuse

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Manipulation of Children: Emotional Abuse

Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Manipulation of Children: Emotional Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018 (Originally: 16 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.