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The Dangers of Putting the Kids in the Middle

Divorce is very difficult for parents. It is even worse for children, and avoiding parental alienation is always the parents’ responsibility. Most adults have the experience to realize that even when they make mistakes, they will likely be able to recover and move on. Most divorcing adults also recognize they will soon regain control of their lives.

Children in divorce, on the other hand, seldom have the wisdom to see beyond what is happening to them. Moreover, they recognize the have little or no control over the process. To children in divorce, the only family they have ever known is disintegrating. Their primary source of safety and protection is slipping away. In divorce, probably more than at any other time, children need parents who can comfort and reassure them, who can let them know they are loved, and who will emphasize that both parents will be there for them.

Unfortunately, divorcing parents are usually in the midst of such emotional turmoil themselves; they have lost much of their ability to be what their children need. Worse, they may put their children into the middle of the divorce, treating them as just another card to be played in the battle with their spouse.

Parents who use their children as bargaining chips in a divorce are usually not nearly as clever as they believe. The divorce itself has clouded their judgment. Judges see this behavior every day. They do not respond well.

Parents need to recognize just how much the divorce has undercut their ability to provide emotional support for their children, and then find the strength to separate themselves from what is happening and be what their children need. This means parents will need to talk to their children and provide them the love and attention they require.

A divorcing parent’s most immediate challenge is to assure their children they are not responsible for the divorce. When bad things happen, many of us tend to ask ourselves whether we are responsible. A child under the stress of divorce has even less ability to make sense of adult behavior than do the adults. A child has a dangerous tendency to blame him or herself for the divorce.

Because financial survival is usually a primary issue in divorce, custodial parents are very tempted to deny parenting time to a parent who is denying them money, especially child support. Colorado law explicitly separates the issues of child support and the exercise of parenting time. This is because judges and the Legislature recognize the importance of children having frequent contact with both of their parents, particularly when they are divorced or divorcing. Parents who manipulate parenting time in this manner demonstrate for their children first hand the potential dysfunction of a married relationship. As such, the parents risk significantly damaging their children’s own abilities to create cohesive families when they become adults. There are plenty of legal strategies for dealing with unpaid child support other than making the children pawns in ongoing divorce battles.

Some parents faced with being alone for the first time in a long time may turn to their children for comfort and support, even relying on the children to act as counselors. First, by being put in this position, the children learn more about the divorce than they should; and second, the pressure of being given this role adds even more stress to the child’s divorce experience. Divorce is an adult problem, from which the children should be protected. There are clearly healthier therapeutic options for lonely parents.

A remarkable percentage of divorced and divorcing parents fail to see the damage they cause their children and their relationships with their children by communicating with each other through the children. Parents may even use their children in attempts to gain information about each other. In such communications, the children again see first hand the dysfunctional relationship their parents have created. Additionally, the children may feel they are being forced to choose sides between their parents. Witnessing such turmoil makes the hope of ever finding a healthy relationship, as an adult, seem even more remote.

Making the children active participants in the divorce also provide them opportunities to play the parents against each other for the children’s own purposes. What may have been relatively good parent-child relationships can deteriorate as children seek to meet their own heightened needs at their parents’ expense.

A frustrated divorcing or divorced parent is often tempted to disparage the other parent to the children. They forget they are talking about one of only two biological parents their children will ever have. No one, even a parent, has the right to destroy a child’s relationship with another parent, no matter how inadequate they believe that parent may be. The day will come when the child is capable of making his or her own decisions about the parents. The parents should leave those decisions to the child.

The parent who fails to protect his or her children from the ravages of a divorce may be condemning those children to repeat the mistakes of their parents. While divorce may not be genetic, it most likely runs in families. It is a difficult cycle to stop, but keeping the children out of the middle is the first step.

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