Forcing Children to Take Sides Before, During and After a Divorce — and the Harm it Does

Since putting children in the middle and using them to hurt the other parent is the biggest challenge of divorce, the following pledge can make parents aware of the mistakes they must avoid in order to protect their children.

When parents consider a divorce, they almost automatically fear they will mess up their children. Fortunately family psychologists have discovered how parents can avoid damaging their children when they divorce. Experts compared groups of children who were doing terribly following the divorce of their parents, and compared them with groups of children who were reasonably well-adjusted after the divorce. They discovered that children who adjusted well to their parents’ divorce had 3 crucial experiences:

  1. They still had access and involvement with both parents. In other words, they had not lost a parent because of the divorce.
  2. Their relationships with relatives, especially grandparents on both sides, continued after the divorce.
  3. Their parents stopped fighting in front of them and stopped putting them in the middle.

The child who did poorly after divorce had parents who inspired the child to take sides and break off from one of the parents. They lost access to important relatives they loved. And these children had parents who continued to fight for years, and to put the child in the middle of their ongoing conflict.

Note, however, that in situations where one parent is emotionally or physically abusive to a child, different guidelines apply. In such cases, the non-abusive parent must protect their children from the abusive parent. Often children must be distanced from, and in some cases sever all ties with, the abusive parent. It may be necessary for authorities such as Child Protective Services to become involved, or a restraining order may require parental visits to be monitored after the divorce.

A pledge for parents who are divorcing

The following pledge can help parents (in a non-abusive relationship) prevent putting children in the middle of their divorce:

“I am a responsible parent. I love my child(ren). Though I’m getting a divorce, it is my responsibility to place my child’s needs first. I know children do best when they have 2 parents available to them. I promise that I will avoid the following mistakes so I will not damage my child:

  • I will not use my child to carry messages about money back and forth between parents. Money is an issue for adults to handle, not children.
  • I will not be late picking up or returning my child without notifying the other parent in advance.
  • I will not play around with the schedule that has been worked out for sharing our child. If I pick up my child late, I will not extend the time when I bring him back. If my child is returned late, I will not subtract this time from the next visit.
  • I will not involve my child in attractive activities just before the other parent is to pick her up so she will not want to leave me.
  • I will not block the other parent from school-related activities. A child’s education involves both parents.
  • I will not program outside activities for my child, which cut into the other parent’s time. Recreational activities are important, but time with parents should take priority.
  • I will not make an issue in front of my child about unpaid bills. Like money, bills are for adults to handle, either between themselves or with the help of their lawyers.
  • I will not inform my child if the other parent serves me with papers or takes action to require my appearance in court. Confronting children with issues they are helpless to deal with serves no constructive purpose.
  • I will not change my child’s name. If my child‘s name or his actions upset me because they remind me of the other parent, then I will seek professional counseling.
  • I will not use my child’s clothes, schoolbooks or play equipment as a way of giving the other parent a hard time. I will make every effort to communicate with the other parent concerning what my child will need to bring along on a visit.
  • I will not leave all the driving up to the other parent. I realize that by sharing the driving, I am giving my child my permission, through my actions, to be with the other parent.
  • I will not keep the other parent away from my child when she is ill. I will ask myself, “Is my child really too ill to go out with her other parent?” If the answer is yes, then I will see if her other parent can visit with her in the house or speak with her on the phone.
  • I will not expect the other parent to raise and handle my child exactly the way I prefer. I will recognize that as parents we have big differences and that each parent has the right to parent my child in his or her own style. Daddy has his rules and Mommy has her rules.
  • I will not intrude on the other parent’s family life. One phone call a day is acceptable and advisable to my child. Several phone calls a day to my child can be disruptive to the other parent’s family life.
  • I will not hold information back from the other parent on the welfare of my child. School grades, conduct reports, health, accidents, moods, etc. need to be passed on to the other parent so my child has a sense of continuity as she goes from one parent to the other.
  • I will not speak badly about the other parent to my child. This does not mean that I will deceive my child but that I will make every effort to help my child arrive at his own conclusions. I will use balanced statements when my child complains about the other parent. For example, “I’m not sure why your father did that.” “Why don’t you tell your mother how she made you feel?” “I don’t blame you for feeling upset.” “You need to work that out with your dad.” “I think your mom is going through a difficult time.”
  • I will not agree to a plan of sharing my child where one parent is reduced to the status of a visitor. I know that for a person to be an effective parent, a block of time is needed for the child and the parent to be together. Parents need blocks of time to nurture and fuss with their children, not an hour here or there for a quick movie or ice cream. An involved parent needs time to bathe the child, to feed the child, to help with homework, to take him to the doctors, read her stories and to do all the wonderful things that children love from their parents.
  • I will not miss the opportunity to see my child just because I think my seeing her will be a favor for the other parent, whom I still resent. I will take my child, even when it means helping out the other parent, because what is important is spending time with my child.
  • I will not keep my child from making phone calls to the other parent when he is with me. One phone call a day to Mom or Dad is acceptable.
  • I will not degrade activities or values to my child that the other parent holds dear. A statement such as the following is helpful: “I don’t agree with your dad (mom) but when you’re with your father (mother), you follow his (her) rules.”
  • I will not keep phone messages from reaching my child. I will let my child know when the other parent called and pass on any message.
  • I will avoid playing the game of one-upmanship. I will not try to out-do the other parent in order to put that parent in an unfavorable light with my child. I will make every effort to collaborate with the other parent about my child’s birthdays and holidays.
  • I will not communicate to my child that she is not to like or love the other parent’s new friend or new spouse. I will not instruct my child to refrain from calling her stepparent “Mom” or “Dad.” I will do this because I recognize that my child is making a good adjustment to the divorce when she can feel close and connected to her stepparent.
  • I will not give gifts to my child with strings attached. A gift is for my child to take to either parent’s home.
  • I will not quickly and eagerly accept the negative stuff my child tells me about the other parent. I will not behave like this because I know that children in a divorce situation tend to play one parent against the other. Children often know that parents do not like each other. Therefore, they try to endear themselves to each parent by carrying a certain amount of “gossip” back and forth between parents. Children normally have gripes about each parent. So I will be cautious in responding to what my child tells me about the other parent. I will not pump my child for private information about the other parent.
  • When parents take this pledge they become aware of the kinds of behaviors that can hurt and eventually damage children, and they do their best to avoid these common mistakes.By Kenneth N. Condrell, PhD [Source: ]

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