Hands of parents fighting over their son each pulling him their way.

As parents go through the pain of divorce, it can become a petty competition between spouses, and the children become the rope in an ugly, unfair tug-o-war. 

People going through divorce may get reduced to their own worst, most childlike state. They may project a lot of what’s happening to them onto the children. They may use the children as tools, using the kids as an excuse to justify what they want. 

Here’s a case in point. A mother wanted primary custody of the children. The arrangement she was asking for would actually deprive the father of a lot of parenting time. She claimed he was “out to lunch” when watching the kids, like they could set the house on fire and he would still be sitting there buried in his work.

This mother could have chosen to serve the summons when the kids were not at home. She could have kept it private, but she didn’t think it through, so she served her husband with divorce papers at breakfast in front of their children.

Astonished and angry, he started to engage the children, saying, “Look, Mommy’s trying to make me a homeless bum and kick me out. Who would you want to live with?” It became a round table breakfast discussion. These kids should never have been in that position! 

The wife had been considering divorce for at least a year. The husband didn’t want a divorce. He got served totally out of left field and was in a state of shock. It got quite intense and he became a little bit physically violent — when he had never been before. 

Later the wife kept using the incident as an example, “Isn’t he inappropriate that he was engaging the children and got violently angry?” She had completely lost sight of her own behavior, forgotten that she caused the entire horrible situation with her ill-considered timing. 

People in crisis forget and engage with their children as if they’re adults. They’re so wrapped up in their pain they can’t see that they are acting in immature and inappropriate ways.  

In another case, the husband was doing drugs, getting violent, drinking, coming home and, leaving again. The wife was in a lot of pain but kept saying she wanted to stay because of their child. In truth, she was just afraid. It would certainly be better for the child not to have such a volatile home life. The mother was projecting her emotions onto her child because she felt no sense of control in her life. Children are adaptable; the real issue was her feeling needlessly guilty about saying, “I don’t want this for myself.” 

Another danger is that sometimes when a person loses intimacy with their spouse, they may lean too heavily on their children for emotional support. They may start sleeping in the same bed as their child to avoid feeling alone. They may vent to their children because they don’t want to tell other people about the breakup. It starts to become not what a child and parent relationship should be. 

When a parent is trying to use the child to alleviate all of their feelings of emptiness and loneliness at the end of a marriage, it forces a child into a very difficult predicament. They will be profoundly confused, grow up too fast, or both. 

How Can These Destructive Behaviors Be Corrected? 

First, I have to make my clients see how they are behaving. I stop them in their tracks, while they’re telling me the story, to help the client be self-reflective and perceive their own behavior in order to modify it. 

My clients are flawed just as much as their spouses are flawed. I help them detach from their own issues and concentrate on getting the children through the transition. It often helps to have a child in neutral therapy with their very own counselor who can actively help guide the parents about their behavior. 

When divorcing parents can’t work together for their benefit, children get lost in the shuffle. In these families, the parents really need ways of breaking impasses and processing toxic emotions so they and their children can heal and move forward.

Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 500
New York, NY 10151
Phone: (646) 884-2324
E-mail: cheryl@cherylsteinesq.com