When a divorce has been amicable or parents can agree to get along for the sake of the children, the awkwardness that is inevitable when kids live in two homes can go reasonably well. But when the divorce was caused by abuse, betrayal or constant conflict, navigating any contact or decision-making that involves the kids can become the grounds for another round of fighting.

Sadly, it is often the children who suffer the most from the unresolved issues between their parents. Their parents’ anger, even hatred, toward each other spills over onto them. Even some of the best-intentioned parents can inadvertently pull on their kids to be allies in their ongoing conflict with the other parent. Each attempts to get the kids on their “side” as a way to justify the divorce or shore up their parenting decisions.

Being in the middle of the fight between the two parents they love can emotionally tear the kids in two. Ask any children’s caseworker: Even when a parent has been abusive, kids generally have strong feelings, even loyalty and love, for that parent. It may be what they need to talk about in therapy but until those feelings are resolved, being asked by the other parent to join forces against the abuser only increases their distress.

It’s also hard on kids when a parent hasn’t been abusive but wasn’t able to be a partner with the other parent. They love both parents and don’t really understand why those parents can’t love each other. If asked to ally with one against the other, the kids can become anxious or depressed or develop behavior problems.

Unless there has been abuse, children need to be allowed to develop their own opinions about each parent’s character. They need to feel safe when with either parent. Both parents need to recognize that the parent-child relationship can be much different from, and sometimes even better than, the relationship the parents had with each other.

Common ways that bitterly divorced parents put their kids in the middle

If your divorce was bitter, do your very best to resist the temptation to involve the children in your anger. Don’t indulge in the Poison P’s, the most common tactics that parents who are hurt and angry can fall into. They hurt the kids. They do nothing to resolve your fight with your ex. Ultimately, they keep you stuck in a contentious relationship with your ex instead of free to move on.

  • Pumping. A parent pumps the kids for information about their other parent’s life to collect ammunition for another round of accusations and recriminations. After every visit or phone call, the parent insists that the kids share what they know about how money is being used or how the other parent is spending time, looking for something new to dislike. If there is a new romance, the parent insists on learning as much as possible about it. The kids want to please the inquisitor (if only to stop the relentless questioning) but they don’t want to “tattle” on their other parent. It’s an awful bind.
  • Poisoning. The parent misses no opportunity to tell the kids how awful their other parent was and is. They may remind the kids of past and difficult history. They may make sarcastic remarks about the other parent’s values and morals. They may inappropriately share legal difficulties they are having with the other parent. The parent hopes to ensure the children’s loyalty by making the other “side” look as bad as possible.
  • Privileging. I don’t know if this is really a word but it is a behavior. One parent attempts to win the kids’ alliance by giving them privileges or relaxing basic rules just to make life harder for the other parent. He or she buys the kids things they want or takes them on vacations or outings the other parent can’t afford.

    Alternatively, he or she lets the kids get away with not doing chores or homework, or lets them play video games all night or doesn’t ever discipline them. When the other parent tries to get the kids to behave, the kids, being kids, are bound to say “Mom/Dad doesn’t make me do that! Why should I have to do it here?” The children then think the parent who is being the more responsible parent is the bad guy.

  • Passing messages. Divorced parents who can’t stand to talk to each other sometimes try to get the kids to pass information back and forth. Children often don’t remember accurately or avoid conflict by “forgetting” to mention it. They may learn they can manipulate their parents by skewing the message. The parents then blame and accuse each other for bad communication. Worse, the kids often get the brunt of parental upset when the parent doesn’t like the message.

For the love of the children

The challenge for parents who divorced bitterly is to love the children more than they hate their former partner. Even when the anger and bitterness are totally justified, it is psychologically damaging to kids to be asked to side with one parent against another. Instead of using the kids as informants, go-betweens, or allies in hate, each parent needs to resolve their feelings about their ex and the divorce. Ideally, they become the allies in parenting that they were not able to be in their marriage. When they do, everyone can recover from the divorce and move on.

Parents fighting photo available from Shutterstock