A Kibosh on the Conflict

One of the most serious and most common burdens children face is the emotional "tug of war" which occurs when one or both parents try to get the child to side with them.

Some parents may try to brainwash their children into seeing the other parent as the villain or as the sole cause of the family's problems.

In this emotional war the losers are the children who are caught in the middle. According to research, “Creating loyalty strains was the single most consistent predictor of worse adjustment for children.”1 The same research shows that parental conflict is especially harmful when the children are young (under nine in the research), or when the conflict is persistent or violent.

While conflict may be inevitable — you wouldn’t be getting a divorce if everything was okey dokey — conflict that manifests in terms of arguments and fighting are a choice.

Those couples who manage to contain their conflict, focusing instead on creating a new co-parenting relationship — those mature enough to let go of their frustration, anger or disappointment — create an environment that is safe for their children. So while you may think your ex is a jerk, you do your children no service by saying so. And if you’re venting for the sake of “honesty” or “open communication” with your children, you’re fooling yourself.

Your children have the right to a relationship with both their parents. They have the right to develop their own opinions. And it is not your job to manage their relationship with their other parent. Anything you do that adds to conflict between your child and your ex you do for yourself, not for your child.

Some parents are completely unaware of their own emotional state or the effects of their alienating behaviour on their kids. And in cases where alienating behaviour is just borderline, identifying the behaviours can be difficult. See if you recognize yourself in any of these statements:

  • It’s no big deal if you miss one visit with your mom.
  • No, I don’t want to hear what you did at her house. What you do there isn’t my business.
  • If you want to call your father, do it from another room.
  • No, I can’t come to your hockey game if your dad is going to be there.
  • Tell your teacher we will need separate parent teacher meetings.
  • I can’t believe your father is having more children. See you’re replaceable too.
  • Who do you want at your dance recital, me or your mother?
  • I’m not driving you to your father’s. You want to go he’ll have to get you and bring you home.
  • How can you think about spending the holidays with him. He has his new wife and I’ll be all alone.
  • If she’s late back with you once more I’m going to teach her a lesson.
  • I know your mom disappoints you a lot. She disappointed me a lot too.

Just in case I haven’t said it clearly enough yet, here’s the short story when it comes to conflict in your divorce. While you and your ex may be entangled in an emotional Gordian knot, you do not have the right to make life hell for your children.

They do not want to be caught in the middle of a vicious fight. They don’t want to be yelled at. The divorce isn’t their fault. They don’t want to be asked to choose. They love you both and they have a right to a relationship with both of you. They do not want to be overlooked. They wish to remain the centre of your universe.

As parents, both you and your ex have a responsibility to give your children what they need to be healthy and happy. You may be tempted to become mired in your own misery or hatred. And you have a right to your feelings as you work through this very difficult change in your life. But you do not have the right to inflict the stench of your decaying relationship on your children, to soil their relationship with their other parent or extended family, to spatter their lives with hurt and resentment as you drag yourself through the bog of your divorce. So heads up. It is your obligation to keep your divorce and your parenting as separate issues.

1 Stewart, Abigail, and Anne Copeland, Nia Lane Chester, Janet Malley, Nicole Barenbaum, Seperating Together, how divorce transforms families (the Guildford Press, 1997) p. 236

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