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Parental Tug-of-War

When parents divorce, it is most important to assure that the children involved are not caught in the middle of continued, post-divorce, conflict. This may be difficult, considering that if parents were completely at peace with each other, they might not have divorced in the first place. However, while normal and mild conflict from time to time arises in any relationship, moderate to severe conflict between divorcing parents can cause harm to the children involved.

Children of divorce struggle with a sense of grief and loss which longs to be validated. Yet, when divorcing parents are constantly in conflict with each other, the children often feel torn loyalties between the two that they love. In addition to the instability of the child's family environment, parental conflict at this stage in time only further negates the child's sense of safety and a stable home. This is why it is extremely important for parents to monitor their speech and actions both to and about their ex-spouse in front of their children.

It is exceedingly important for parents to put their children's needs above their own interpersonal conflicts with each other. Children need to feel that they are allowed by each parent to grow closer to, spend time with, and provide love and respect for, the other parent. Demanding loyalty to one parent over the other, or pitting one side against the other, is unfair to the children who need to feel that they have permission to care for each parent and to build upon their relationship with each. Unless there is severe conflict, where there is the possibility of parental alienation by one parent's manipulation of the children's loyalties toward the other parent, or there is the possibility of physical or emotional harm coming to the children, it is important for children to be encouraged to spend as much time with both parents as is possible.

When severe conflict or harm is an issue, parents will do best to request that the court appoint a Parenting Coordinator who can draw up a specific parenting plan for visitation and parental rights, and who can also mediate between the two sides if necessary. Under such circumstances, it is often best for the parents to limit contact with each other as much as possible, as it is more beneficial for the child to experience peaceful parental transitions for visitation and other activities than to see the parents together when conflict is present. Continued parental conflict between divorced parents can compromise the developmental welfare of the children involved, and professional intermediaries should be sought whenever such moderate to severe conflict is present or alienation from one parent or another is suspected.

Garrity, C. & Baris, M. (1994). Caught in the Middle: Protecting the Children of High-Conflict Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.