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The Politics of Divorce: When Children Become Pawns

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Were your parents divorced when you were a child or adolescent? Did your parents fight for control over you and your siblings? Did one of your parents try to turn you against the other parent? Did you get to visit and spend quality time with both your mother and father each?

Many people can answer yes to the first, second and third questions but no to the forth. With a more than fifty percent rate of divorce in the United States today most people can relate what it was like to live through a divorce with their parents. Unfortunately, they can also relate to what it was like to feel like pawns in the war that was waged by at least one parent against the other.

It is understandable that by the time two people are ready for divorce there are many angry, resentful and bitter feelings accumulated during the course of the marital relationship. Very few divorces are friendly and amicable with the former spouses becoming friends. Of course this does happen but it is more the exception than the rule. Having children to consider and care for does not seem to mediate the types of behavior displayed by many former spouses. In fact, all too often, the most resentful and angry of the two divorcing parents are all too willing to display a vindictiveness directed against the other parent by using the children as weapons in the divorce and post divorce war. These types of vengeful parents do not seem to understand that the only victims of this type of behavior are the children.

During my years as a psychotherapist I have experienced many cases in which parents wage bitter custody battles against one another. In these battles, one parent is attempting to obtain sole custody of the children while severely restricting the visiting rights of the other parent. Under these circumstances you might be led to believe that the battle was being waged against someone who was alcohol and drug addicted and was abusive to the children. At least that would make some sense of the angry situation. However, in all too many cases there is no such addictive or abusive process going on. Rather, the motivation of the vindictive parent is to exact revenge against the other parent for sins having been committed between the two of them and having to do with their relationship and having nothing to do with any legal or violent issues. For example, an angry wife and mother may feel so entirely disappointed by the divorce that she is swept away by anger, rage and the desire to punish the former spouse by demanding sole custody.

Another scenario is when each of the parents places the children in the middle of their conflict by attempting to turn them against the other parent. They will do all they can to devalue and demonize the other parent in the eyes of the child. The wish is to win the child to their own side so that they will be permanently allied with them against the other.

Perhaps the worst case situation is the one in which the divorce takes place, the mother gains custody, the father moves away and a curtain of silence falls between the children and the absent father. While this is less likely to occur today in the age of equally shard custody, it does happen and with tragic consequences for the children. What are these tragic consequences?

First, children identify with each of their parents. If they are made to believe that one parent is evil they will come to believe that this is true of them, as well. How can it not be so? If that is my father or mother and I have been told that he or she is a bad person then it must be true of me as well since I am their child.

Second, it is common for children to misunderstand what is happening between alienated parents and to blame themselves for their troubles. They are also quick to believe that one or both parents are leaving home because he, the child, is not loved. In some cases, a child who witnesses a parent packing and moving may fear that he, the child will be told to leave home forever. Young children, with fragile emotions and dependent upon nurturing and love may pretend that they do not care that the one parent has left and throw themselves even more upon the parent who is present.

For the child who experiences the loss of a parent because that parent has been successfully blocked from participation in the child’s life the consequences are worst. Most frequently but no always the parent who vanishes is the father. The child is left to imagine what became of the missing parent.

In fact, many studies show that divorce can result in children growing into adults who have low self esteem and more depression and anxiety compared to those who were raised by both parents whether the marriage remained intact or there was shared custody.

It is really important that divorcing parents communicate with the children that they are loved by both Mom and Dad and that the divorce is not caused by the children. It is also important to communicate confidence in the other parent and that Mom and Dad just cannot get along together and that these things happen but that they are safe with and loved by each parent.

Divorce is difficult enough for everyone without embroiling the kids in the angry politics of the adults.

Your comments are welcome.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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