Getting on the Same Parenting Page with Children Who Divide and Conquer
Children learn to divide and conquer several ways.
Whenever a parent says, “Go ask your [other parent],” the child instantly learns the parents aren’t on the same team and are ripe for exploitation. Sometimes it is one parent not wanting to play the heavy, hoping the other parent will play the heavy and sometimes a parent while not wanting to allow the request, wants to blame the other parent if the request is granted and the outcome of whatever happens next is poor.
Another way kids learn to split parents is by capitalizing on conflict between the parents.
During times of parental conflict some parents still want to be perceived well by the child, so caving to the request of the child is meant to curry the child’s favor and is used as a weapon against the other parent. However, this is a knife that cuts both ways and both parents can then be exploited by the child with the child increasingly learning to pit one parent against the other for their own gain.
These issues and ploys create havoc for families. These ploys create children who rather than experiencing love, limits, expectations and consequences, learn how to be inter-personally exploitative for their own gain. It must be understood that particularly when appropriate attention is scarce, gaining access to objects and special privileges is experienced as a valuable consolation prize to the child. However, as the parents become increasingly split, then their disdain for each other grows as does the blame game in terms of who is the worse parent. With this, the child checks out of the relationship with the parents and the child’s chief mission becomes doing as they please while their parents are distracted.
To stop the madness, parents must eventually get on the same page.
Liking each other or not, getting on the same page really means comparing notes and discussing the behavior and requests or demands of the child. It also means that the parent must not seek to have their role of parent validated by being the one their child likes most only by virtue of being bought.
In these situations, it is wise for parents to forever compare notes and discuss ANY request made by the child and before either parent signals their views of the request whatsoever. So there is a wrong way and a right way to do this. For example:
Child asks for a sweet before bedtime:
Wrong way: I think it would be OK, but go ask your [other parent] first.
Right way: That is something I will ask your [other parent] and after WE decide, I will let you know.
Child asks to go to a party:
Wrong way: One parent makes a unilateral decision and grants the child’s request. The other parent learns of the decision and doesn’t agree. Child is caught in the middle and parents are at war with each other. No matter what happens, someone will remain angry.
Right Way: I’ll have to discuss that with [other parent] and get back to you.
Think of these examples from the child’s perspective. With the wrong way of responding to the child either the other parent is set up as the villain and/or someone is going to be quite upset in the end. However with the right way of doing this, then the child learns that the parents cannot be split or exploited and that the parents are united in their parenting.
The question that remains though, is what are parents to do when they don’t agree on the answer.
The challenge is to resist all or none thinking – that way of making problems and solutions an either/or debate.
Rather than those circular arguments based on either/or thinking, parents can:
- Get more information to better understand the request and what may be at stake;
- Generate more alternative options;
- Share the dilemma with the child.
For instance, although a child may want a sweet before bed, perhaps with more information, one can determine what kind of sweet and how much of it the child wants. That sweet may either be a little treat or a full meal supplement! With more information, some decisions make themselves or alternatives can be self evident.
With the discussion of the party, it may be that both parents also need more information and may need to speak to a parent where the party is supposed to take place. By seeking more information, better decisions may be made. To add, more alternatives can also be generated. Perhaps parents agree to pick-up and deliver the child to and from the party; perhaps a parent agrees to chaperone; perhaps there is a curfew place on attending. So the magic here is not to get caught in a knee-jerk yes or no, but to more fully understand what is at stake and to develop alternative suggestions to facilitate solutions.
Sometimes though parents may still not agree. However, rather than telling the child which side of the fence either parent is on, both parents advise they are together undecided and speak with the child about their concerns. Maybe in speaking with the child, the child can then generate alternatives or options to make the request acceptable.
Lastly, parent can seek the guidance of a trusted family member or friend or seek professional input. These options are still better than being split by the child and creating family divisions, divided loyalties and interpersonal conflict and animosity.
Conflict in and of itself is not harmful to children, assuming non-abusive. What is harmful is unresolved conflict and conflict that leads to animosity and people taking sides. Children who are exposed to parents sorting out conflict learn how to resolve conflict themselves; how to collaborate on solutions; and how to live harmoniously versus exploitively.
I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.
Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
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.
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Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships