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Normal Behavior Misconstrued Between Separated Parents

March 27, 2016

You are separated and worried about the behavior of or injury to your child.

There is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. So too of childhood behavior and incidents; they may be simply within the range of normal childhood life. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, the simple explanation can get transplanted with extraordinary suspicions and theories.

Normal childhood development has toddler-age children exploring their bodies, discovering the genitals and anus and taking pleasure from self-touching. They are at the toilet training stage of life and hence are drawn by normal parenting behavior to attend to these body parts. In intact families as children are observed to engage in self-stimulation and genital play, they are simply redirected to either stop, or to engage privately at appropriate time and place. In the context of high conflict separated parents, there is a risk to ascribe these childhood behaviors to sinister behavior on the part of one of the parents. So a parent may inadvertently bring greater attention to the child’s behavior and thus actually reinforce the concerning behavior themselves while at the same time alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the other parent.

As preschoolers, children take flight on playground equipment. They may be learning to ride their two-wheeler. Hence this is a time of childhood injuries, particularly bruises, bumped heads and broken arms. In the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may be suspicious of child-abuse in view of injuries and use the situation to allege physical abuse or at least neglect. However, and again, even in intact families, children can get hurt; bump their heads and fall from bikes and playground equipment.

As school age children try to get their own way, they naturally try to pit parents against each other. They will use whatever strategy works. Kids may tell you that other kids are getting or doing what is desired or they may tell you that the “other parent” let’s them do as requested. In intact families, parents simply call their children on manipulative behavior or at least check with the other parent to determine if what the child is saying is true. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may take what a child says at face value and believe that the other parent is undermining their own parenting or the values of the child.

In intact families or even between separated parents with good communication, normal childhood events tend not to escalate with suspicion and drama. Issues are nipped in the bud and children are redirected to appropriate behavior. Injuries are attended to without additional fanfare. A parent may feel guilty for a child’s injury, but not blamed per se.

In the context of high conflict separated parents, normal childhood behavior and incidents can take on epic proportions. Otherwise normal behavior can lead to suspicion or be used against a parent to undermine care and custody. As one parent cries foul, the other cries parental alienation syndrome. The fight is on and heats up to the point of boiling over. The child is caught in the middle and their behavior escalates as a result. Both parents then use the child’s behavior as evidence of their own claim against the other.

Here is where a closed clinical evaluative consultation can be helpful particularly when resolving matters through mediation or Collaborative Law.  The evaluator will tease out normal from abnormal childhood behavior and incidents and determine how much of a child’s behavior is attributable to just the conflict between the parents versus truly sinister behavior deliberately aimed at harming or neglecting a child.

Parents beware though. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, despite suspicion.

Know someone who might benefit from this information? Please scroll down and share this article. To view my list list of peacemaking strategies to facilitate settlement, check this out.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships


  1. Great advice, Gary. Too often this gets overlooked or misconstrued by parents leading to unnecessary grief and conflict.

  2. Gary, good article. Recently I worked w/ a separated/divorcing couple who share a
    3 year old daughter. The father is a college professor while the mother is speech therapist. Both had researched online the question of what parenting schedule is best for children, especially younger ones. They drew different conclusions, focusing on different findings. She was concerned because on Skype when child w/ father she is at times angry at mom & won’t come to the chat. Mom favored the psychological home theory which she felt supported her view that child should be w/ her more. He pointed on an APA meta-study which concluded that children should spend the maximum time possible w/ each parent. They each tried to persuade me, as mediator, to side w/ them. I said that research findings often conflict & this area is controversial, which satisfied neither & they need to decide on what was best for daughter. I suggested that they look at creative schedules online to expand their options.

    • Yes – confirmation bias – when people only select information that supports their own conclusions. I see this frequently. I have also experienced these same people then blaming me of selection bias when my clinical judgement conflicts with their point of view.

  3. A great article Gary. V. true

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