For many children going through a divorce, they suddenly find their world in pieces, their foundation uprooted and their parents consumed by a tug of war. Divorce is not easy and co-parenting post-divorce is never simple and smooth. But the biggest indicator of successful divorce recovery for children is whether their parents can manage and minimize their conflicts AND keep their kids out of the middle.
In my daily work-life, I specialize in child counseling and family counseling for those dealing with divorce and custody issues. What I have learned in helping families and children through these tumultuous times is this primary notion–
Kids feel safe, supported and nurtured when the adults in their lives work well together. They feel guilty, anxious, angry, sad and hurt when they are caught in the middle of their parents’ conflicts.
As parents, nobody doubts that we love our children and want to make the best decisions for them. But sometimes, divorce brings out the worst in even the best parents. They get so distracted and consumed by the conflict that they can’t see how that conflict is harming their children. One of the biggest indicators that children are in the middle of their parent’s conflicts is the presence of loyalty binds. A loyalty bind is a no-win situation for a child. If the child is forced to choose a side, then he is essentially unable to love both parents and feels forced to reject one of them. This can happen even if custody is shared!
So, how do we know when we are putting our child in a loyalty bind? Let’s look at some common behaviors:
- Criticizing the other parent—How can a child stay neutral when one parent is insulting the other? If they agree with your insult then they are saying something bad about their other parent—who is someone they love.
- Forcing the child to choose only one parent at important events—The child only invites one parent to the event out of fear they will fight, so therefore hurts the other parent which hurts the child.
- Playing the victim—In this situation, the parent uses guilt to pull the child closer. The victim parent will talk to the child about how lonely and sad they feel when the child is not there. The child then tries to make that parent feel better by showing “more” love to that parent.
- Splitting hairs—When parents are preoccupied with making everything exactly “equal” (time, affection, attention etc. ) or won’t allow material goods to go back and forth between homes, the children will feel like everything is being measured and they can’t express love to both parents naturally.
If you can identify some of these behaviors in yourself, it’s not the end of the world. But, now would be a good time to start looking at ways to get your child out of the middle. Acknowledge to yourself and your child (if appropriate) that you recognize that your child needs to be able to love both parents. That is part of what makes him feel whole. Consider ways you can make these custody changes easier for your child by letting him take his favorite toys to the other parent’s house, or stay with the other parent a few hours longer to finish a play date. It’s not your co-parent who wins something in those examples, it’s your child.
Above all, take care of yourself during these difficult times. Divorce can bring out the worst in everyone, so be gentle on yourself. Do something to take care of yourself and build up your depleted reserves. The more you nourish yourself and create a practice of awareness, the easier it will be to stop a loyalty bind behavior in its tracks.