Divorced parents with broken communication and trust may end up with a little game player on their hands!
Divorce is full of conflict, and even kids know it! More often than they should, kids witness arguments and an on-going tug-of-war about time with them, division of property, and every other sort of spat their parents can dream up. We tend to think of our children as innocent bystanders in all the commotion that goes on surrounding divorce; but, sometimes, they may actually be participants and even the cause of some of the chaos!
Kids run in the middle between co-parents and their homes. They see things, hear things, and are often asked to share what they know, or volunteer information as part of a general conversation or fact-finding missions by parents and others involved. This can place kids in a tricky situation where they risk feeling disloyal if they share sensitive information with one parent, while somewhat rewarded for doing so by the other.
Some kids may crumble under the pressure of such a situation, while others discover that being the one with all the answers gives them a sort of unique power. If a child chooses to use their position to cause trouble, a game player may be in the making!
What might a child do with this power, and how do we help to remove this pressure?
Mommy’s little mole
Some children are put up to the task of being an informant for one parent or the other (or both). Does daddy have a girlfriend? What’s in mommy’s home? Where does daddy go and how often? Who does mommy talk to?
Some of the nosiness is because exes have not yet dis-invested themselves from their former partner’s daily business, and badly need to! Other parents engage in this behavior out of real or imagined concern for the child while out of their sight. In other cases, exes are gathering ammunition to use in court.
Whatever the case, it’s a burden that a child should not be expected to bear.
Setting the expectation for a child to spy and spill lets him or her know that the behavior is condoned, that this act and the information are valuable (especially if offered an emotional response, praise, or in some other way their words inspire action). Encouragement of this practice may plant the seed that they could get creative with what they share or use it to their advantage.
Game player in training
Once a child realizes that they have a captive audience who will readily consume what they have to say regarding one parent or another, it is understood that information is like currency. Information may win favor and reward or simply make the child feel as though they have met the parent’s expectations to demonstrate loyalty.
As with any form of gossip, we always have to wonder what is being said about us while so many negative or private things are said about others. It’s possible that only one parent may solicit intelligence from their children; but, never be so sure that just as much detail about your life isn’t being offered up or that you aren’t also painted in as negative of a light as the other parent! Truth might be irrelevant so long as the child’s behavior is reinforced and everyone hears what they think they want to!
So, what might a cunning kid be able to do with powerful information? Even a child can learn to masterfully manipulate mom or dad by seeking pity, extra attention, rewards for supposed misdeeds of the other parent or for doing a good job of spying. They are successful in pulling a con on their parents because they know that, as parents, we are very protective of them and their needs, and most likely, they have learned that mom and dad don’t communicate well (either the frequency or quality of information exchange).
Knowing that you and your ex don’t get along, distrust, and dislike one another sets the perfect stage to make all sorts of unfounded claims to achieve what they want. Sadly, if they know mom and dad are incapable of a real conversation, they can practically get away with murder and blame it on the other parent in some way!
A kiddo caught playing parents
A friend of mine shared with me her immense frustration when her 10-year-old son was busted for game playing. She now wonders how long the behavior went on undetected before she caught him. She recognizes that the climate between her and his dad helped to create this monster because she and her ex fight almost every time they talk, so they limit their interactions. She also stated that it’s no secret she and her ex don’t care for one another, so their kids could say virtually anything about one to the other and it would be believed.
The moment the behavior was revealed occurred when her son became angry at her for disciplining him when she learned he stole another child’s cell phone at school. As soon as she learned what he did, she revoked privileges, scolded him, and e-mailed the teacher to schedule a meeting. Her son, wanting to avoid punishment, found a way to contact his dad on a sibling’s device and made an impassioned plea to him to come rescue him right away because mom was abusing him!
She was surprised to answer the door that evening to find her panicked ex standing at her door, insisting to see the child at once! She immediately recognized what game her son was playing, but she regrets that her ex does not yet get it. Even when he learned about the theft, he comforted and pitied the boy because of mom’s alleged abuse instead of discussing the theft or recognizing that this was a ploy to avoid punishment.
Because of the climate of miscommunication and mistrust between exes, the children involved learned they could pit parents against each other, manipulate situations to earn extra attention and other rewards, or sit back and watch the show created by the games.
Children playing games between divorced parents can be deterred by:
Parents committing to openly communicate about behaviors and concerns and making sure the kids know that they regularly talk and share. Game players need shadows and doubt to operate, so shedding light and transparency on the situation eliminates many possibilities for mischief!
Not fishing for information from kids or reacting to “scandalous” information in front of them. Ask how their weekend was in a way that shows interest and care for them without prying into your ex’s business. If they volunteer information, try to respond in a calm way that shows respect for your ex’s privacy so that you can set the tone for having your own respected.
Not automatically believing that everything reported is gospel truth. We can’t forget that the information is being relayed by a child, who may not completely comprehend what they have seen or heard, or who may have an agenda in making a report. A child of divorce is not an objective source in such a situation and cannot be expected to speak without a conflict of interest. When necessary, go to the source for clarification!
Not automatically assuming that the child is innocent. Divorce hurts, and a child may feel motivated to soothe pain in any number of ways that aren’t entirely logical. You know your child well; but, consider the possibility that someone may want you to believe something for a reason that is not as obvious as you may think.
Most importantly, a child should not be put in the awkward position to play messenger or spy between his or her own parents! If something of true concern (e.g. abuse, neglect, or criminal activity) is shared, don’t involve the child in the investigation or response to these allegations. Instead, attempt an honest conversation with your child’s other parent or involve the proper authorities.