Children are often thrown into the middle of high-conflict divorces. When there’s no better means of revenge or retaliation with an ex-spouse, children become the unwitting pawns. They can easily become the messengers, the sounding boards, the “replaced parents”(expected to assume the responsible role) and, thus, the unfortunate casualties when their parents do the following:

“Tell Mom to stop manipulating me.”

“What is Dad thinking, being with that stupid new girlfriend?”

“Tell Dad he’s late again on his child support check.”

“Your Mom’s crazy; she’s the reason we’re getting divorced.”

“Your dad doesn’t care about us. I’ll never recover from this.”

“Tell him to stop sending me text messages!” 

And so it goes, with the chronic animosity to which many children are exposed during, and often well after, their parents’ divorce. When children are used as pawns in exacting revenge against the other parent, the damage to them is significant. Unfortunately, almost 15% of couples bitterly litigate over their children, expecting to “win” more parenting time. Using children as ammunition for their parents’ rage and resentment, parents inflict wounds that will stay with kids well into their adult years. This teaches them how to manipulate people, some growing up extremely angry with everyone, while others suffer from depression and low self-esteem. Parents behaving this way are not considering their children or what’s in their best interests; rather, they’re selfishly thinking only of themselves with their need for retaliation. 

When children are exposed to this behavior, they don’t feel heard or understood; rather, their tendency is to believe no one is caring for their needs or keeping them safe. Being treated as parental pawns in the ongoing conflict adversely affects them emotionally and psychologically. However, children who are spared any parental conflict, experiencing respectful, stable co-parenting, are far more likely to thrive. 

A Tufts University study found that “the social behavior of children from both divorced and intact families seems to be related to how the parents cope with conflict and whether they can cooperate as parents. When parents can move beyond their anger, resentment, and blame, their children are in a much better position to come through a divorce well-adjusted. Two years after the divorce, researchers found these children were less aggressive, had higher self-esteem, and formed better peer relationships.” 

Parents must realize their children love both of them. They need to feel secure with counting on their parents to protect, care for and love them; thus, playing games for revenge against their ex-spouse only damages their children. Adults ultimately heal from divorce, moving on to begin a new chapter in their lives; however, children are the casualties of high conflict and ongoing hostility between their parents. Being expected to take sides, carry hurtful messages back and forth, or listen to negative comments about the parent(s) they love only increases the damage. Parents’ battles can be very frightening to children. It’s confusing and distressing for them to see either parent being hurt. Chronic conflict keeps anger and bitterness an integral part of children’s lives. 

Be mindful that what is modeled to children is the legacy parents pass on. Before going to war with an ex-spouse, consider the unresolved burden your children will carry into adulthood. Would you want to handicap their capacity to shape and sustain future healthy, fulfilling, personal relationships?

Please send me your questions.