Divorce Abuse: When Children Get Caught In The Middle

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By Spirit, LPC, P.C., Guest Author - January 18, 2014

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Cooperative parenting...for many former couples, their parenting styles can be best described as
anything but. However, for children who live in a two home family, cooperative parenting is the best gift that their parents can give them in order to minimize the stress, confusion, and anguish that many children experience during the divorce process, and (for many) the years that follow.

While there are varying reasons that separated and/or divorced couples have a difficult time keeping their children out of the middle of their conflict, at the heart of the issue lies their inability to remain, “child focused.”

Instead of focusing on what is in the best interest of their child(ren), they become enraptured with the sense of power, satisfaction of revenge, reward of playing the victim, desire to stay connected to the other parent (even if only through conflict), and all too often, by the pleasure of being right/winning that typically comes with their ongoing struggle.

There are times when this feud spills over into the parent-child relationship, which is known as, “Divorce Abuse.” This type of abuse includes intentional acts or omissions engaged in by parents that have caused, or have the potential to cause, serious behavioral, cognitive and/or emotional distress in their child(ren) during/after their divorce. Although not as overt as physical abuse, this form of emotional abuse is no less dangerous for children.

Examples of Divorce Abuse include:

  • Using your child to manipulate the other parent.
  • Making negative comments about the other parent.
  • Involving the police when there is no physical threat.
  • Telling your child “the truth” in an attempt to align them with your cause.
  • Video or audio taping your child for court purposes.
  • Using your child to communicate messages with the other parent.
  • Overindulging your child in order to become the “preferred” parent.
  • Interrupting or blocking your child’s time with their other parent.
  • Withholding your child’s possessions to control or punish the other parent.
  • Neglecting to take your child to their activities to upset the other parent.
  • Interrogating your child for information about the other parent.
  • Withholding parenting information so that your child misses opportunities to share activities with both parents.

Untreated, Divorce Abuse can cause long-lasting damage in the lives of those affected. While this distress may vary from child to child, here are some common signs of suffering:

Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers:

  • Loss of developmental accomplishments (return to waking in the night, bedwetting/soiling self, delayed verbal communication)
  • Clinging to parent, refusing to separate from parent, separation anxiety
  • May cry frequently, seem easily upset, or express anger through biting, hitting, throwing toys

School Age (6 yrs. – 8 yrs.):

  • Complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical complaints
  • Decline in school performance
  • Attempts to actively reunite their parents (sometimes by having problems that force parental involvement)

Preteen (9 yrs. – 12 yrs.):

  • May take sides and choose one parent over the other
  • May engage in stealing, lying, or refusing to go to school
  • Tends to feel alone, and frightened, but since they are easily embarrassed they may act unaffected


  • Temporarily withdrawn to cope with feelings and emotions
  • May become sexually active (if they didn’t at the preteen stage)
  • May use drugs or alcohol as a means to escape

How do you protect your child from Divorce Abuse?

Allow your child(ren) to love both parents.

  • Permit them to spend meaningful, one-on-one time with each parent as often as possible.
  • Encourage open, honest communication between your child(ren) and each of their parents.
  • Reassure them that the divorce was not their fault, and that they will continue to be loved and taken care of.
  • Allow them to express their fears, concerns, and complaints, and provide them with honest, age-appropriate answers void of “adult information,” that would cause your children undo stress, or vilify the other parent.

A great first step in avoiding Divorce Abuse is getting parents to agree to “Divorce Rules,”
as provided by the Cooperative Parenting Institute. Rules similar to those typically utilized by Parenting Coordinators.

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