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How Children Contribute To Custody Disputes (Part I)

Excerpted from: Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, by Don Saposnek.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983; Rev. Edition, 1998, Chapter 8.

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Children’s limited comprehension of the meaning and implications for them of their parents’ breakup creates terrible confusion and emotional upset and generates characteristic attempts to cope with the disruption. However, the limited means they have for expressing their needs makes it difficult for their parents to accurately recognize and address those needs.

For example, in her attempts to control her fear of losing both her parents, four-year-old Kirsten tells her father at his visitation time, “Mommy doesn’t have any more food in the ‘frigerator’could you come over tonight and bring us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” In a characteristically childlike way, Kirsten is trying to convey to her father that she is afraid she will be completely abandoned, no longer fed or cared for (she feels that since Daddy left, maybe Mommy will also). To assure her continuing survival, she tries to mend her parents’ relationship by getting her father to offer nurturance (food) to her and her mother while reuniting them at the family home. However, the parents are unable to understand the emotional basis or functional intent of Kirsten’s utterance; instead they interpret it in accordance with their mistrust of each other. Her father takes Kirsten’s comment as evidence of her mother’s parental incompetence and neglect. Her mother takes it as evidence that Kirsten’s father is continuing to spoil her by letting her think she can get anything she wants from him. As a result of their respective misinterpretations, Kirsten’s father may file a court petition for sole custody and Kirsten’s mother may file a counter-petition for a reduction of visitation times—each believing that he or she is doing what is best for Kirsten.

It is these very fights over differing interpretations of their child’s needs and behavior that frequently drive spouses to court. The complications that arise from these disputes are for the most part not due to parents being callous or uncaring about their children’s needs. The vast majority of parents are very concerned about the emotional well-being of their children and are able to set aside their own needs so that they can try to satisfy the needs of their children first. Even when faced with the pain and anger of divorce, these parents still maintain a sense of fairness, understanding, and compassion and may even convert the trauma of divorce into a growing experience for each of the family members. However, some parents who become involved in custody or visitation disputes have difficulty focusing clearly on the needs of their children. Often the stress of divorce narrows their perception of their children’s needs, and their anger at the ex-spouse clouds their ability to separate their own needs from those of their children. This is particularly the case with couples who are ordered to mediation by the court, but it may also be true of couples who attend mediation voluntarily. Let us now attempt to clarify what becomes so problematic for these families by exploring the nature of the strategies that children use to express their needs.

Children’s Strategies

In intact families, there are some occasions when a child willfully provokes conflict between his or her parents. There are other occasions when a child is merely an innocent victim of parental disputes. However, a third and even more common occasion, in accordance with family systems theory, is when a child is an innocent but functional contributor to conflict between the parents. From this perspective, it appears that the child, in attempting to get his or her needs met, initiates and participates in a behavioral sequence that results in overt parental conflict. The child’s action is neither clearly willful nor clearly an instance of victimization but partly both—hence the term innocent but functional contributor. Such a conceptual formulation does not aim at making children blameworthy but rather focuses on the perspective that, within a family system, all the members are contributors to the interactional process. By maintaining such a view, the intervenor (whether therapist or mediator) has the decided advantage of neutrality over fault-finding and side-taking and maximizes her leverage as a result of her more comprehensive view of the functional rules of the family system. So, for example, when a mother accuses the father of turning the child against her and subsequently refuses to let the father see the child, the mediator may be able to defuse this accusation by pointing out the innocent but functional part that the child may have played in telling his mother that he wanted to live at his father’s house.

Early theories of the etiology of child and marital problems assumed unidirectional cause and effect relationships. That is, it was always presumed that dysfunctional marital relationships caused dysfunctional behavior patterns in children. However, contemporary formulations within the field of developmental psychology point to the unmistakably circular nature of causality in family interactions (Ambert, 1992, 1997; Lerner & Spanier, 1978; Chess & Thomas, 1984). And family systems theorists and therapists have developed such interactional theories to quite sophisticated levels (Haley, 1976; Madanes, 1981; Minuchin, 1974; Minuchin & Fishman, 1981; Nichols & Everett, 1986; Watzlawick & Weakland, 1977; Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974).

From this systems perspective, it appears that children and parents tend to express distress during times of natural developmental family crisis (such as the birth of a sibling, the beginning of adolescence, or leaving home for independent living) and that each family member subsequently responds to the responses of the others in a circular rather than linear fashion. If these interactions are based upon clear communications, understanding of each other’s needs, empathy, and the absence of overreactions, the natural developmental stresses are resolved in a constructive fashion. If, however, the situation is characterized by unclear or distorted communications, lack of understanding or empathy, or blatant overreactions, the stresses escalate into crises that are greater than those typically experienced during these transitional stages in family life. It is out of these negative, escalating, interactional loops that serious family conflicts and, specifically, child behavior problems most often arise. The child’s behavior functions as a strategy to communicate distress and to escalate the family conflict to a climax and resolution. Hence, what may seem irrational, self-defeating, and antagonistic behaviors on the part of the child when viewed from an intrapersonal perspective appear as functional strategies when viewed from a family systems perspective.

The extraordinary crisis of divorce elicits all the strategies that children normally use, but in exaggerated form, to cope with the unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects of divorce. Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) detailed the various characteristic ways in which children responded to the separation of their parents initially, after eighteen months, and after five years. Their responses were clearly developmentally linked and expressed the emotional issues typical of each age range. After the initial marital separation, children three to five years old primarily manifested behavioral and emotional regression (thumbsucking, bedwetting, whining, clinging to caregiver). Children six to eight years old primarily expressed pervasive grief (crying, sobbing, yearning for the departed parent). Older children (nine to twelve years old) primarily manifested intense anger at the parent whom they perceived as responsible for the divorce, as well as a variety of psychosomatic complaints. Adolescents aged thirteen to eighteen expressed grief and anger in a more sophisticated and dramatic manner, blaming their “selfish” parents for leaving them prematurely and hence removing the opportunity for the reverse and more natural developmental event to occur, the children leaving their parents.

These characteristic initial reactions tended to subside within eighteen months and to diminish significantly within five years as more integrated acceptance of the reality and permanence of the divorce took place. However, most custody and visitation plans are made within the first year following the separation, and hence it is on the children’s initial expression of their needs that parental negotiations are typically built. Moreover, while the Wallerstein and Kelly findings have shown us that it is normal for children of divorce to manifest these characteristic responses for up to the first year and a half following the separation, most parents are unaware of this fact. Not uncommonly, each parent will interpret such behaviors as evidence of harm to the child caused by the other parent.

Added to the children’s general manifestations of emotional distress are more specific and individualized reaction patterns, to which we refer here as coping strategies. These strategies are the manifestations of a combination of factors, which include the emotional needs of the child, the social and intellectual skills of the child, the temperament of the child, and the child’s awareness of the emotional triggers of each parent.

To reiterate, these strategies are functional but not necessarily intentional. Their significance lies in the conflict that results from the parents’ interpretations of their meaning. In general, the clarity of meaning of children’s strategies is age linked. The younger the child, the more ambiguous the meaning of the child’s behavior and the more open to differing adult interpretations. However, it is not infrequent that older children (even those well into adolescence) will show behaviors that are ambiguous and open to conflicting interpretation. This can be the case when, for example, the child changes his mind several times about his preferences for living arrangements or when an older child does not easily express herself verbally and consistently says, “I don’t know.” Such instances of ambiguous meaning will often polarize parents.

Because of the importance to the mediator of understanding children’s strategies, I will discuss some of the more typical ones. Although the examples presented here are not comprehensive in scope, they are representative of the common strategies dealt with by mediators.


As stated earlier, it is common for children of all ages to wish to get their parents back together. Even in intact families where there is marital discord, children will attempt a variety of strategies for keeping their parents together even if it necessitates developing symptomatic behavior so that the parents have to remain together to solve the child’s problem. Children of all ages (but especially younger ones) would often rather have their parents fight than have them separate. The child reasons, “As long as my parents are dealing with each other, they are more likely to remain together.” This is a family variant of the more widely acknowledged emotional wisdom of childhood, “Negative attention is better than no attention.” The desire for parental reunion is most intense for the children of divorce, and the strategies for attaining it are quite diverse.

For very young children who do not have the verbal sophistication to express their needs, their behavior is their means of expression.


Behavior. A three-year-old boy, on returning to his mother from an overnight stay with his father, wets the bed, sucks his thumb, clings to his mother, and is excessively whiny and prone to tears.

Underlying emotion: Fear of abandonment, anxiety about his own survival without his mother and father together.

Function: The emotional distress should appeal to both mother and father and urge them to reunite to make child feel better.

Mother’s interpretation: Contact with father is disruptive and destructive to the child; child feels insecure when with father; contact with father should be terminated.

Father’s interpretation. Child misses his father very much and deeply loves him (perhaps more than his mother loves him); mother is not caring well enough for the child; contact with father should be increased.

For school-age children, reuniting strategies are more active yet often still disguised.


Behavior: An eight-year-old girl tells her mother how her father has changed: “He’s so nice now, he has lots of money now, he doesn’t yell anymore, and he takes us to nice places.”

Underlying emotion: Sadness and grief at loss with hope of parental reunion.

Function: Child’s description of perceived changes in father should attract mother to father once again and result in reuniting them.

Mother’s interpretation: Father is trying to buy the child’s love; he is pretending to show real interest in the child but is not sincere; he is conveying a false image of himself to the child; he should have limited contact with the child until his life gets settled and the child can see him for what he really is.

Father’s interpretation: Child really wants to live with him; child will continue to be poisoned against her father if she continues to live at her mother’s house; custody should be given to father.

With adolescents, reuniting strategies are even more active and intense, though, again, often disguised.


Behavior: A thirteen-year-old girl reports to her father that her mother is very unhappy and that she is afraid her mother will not be able to take care of herself or her household responsibilities.

Underlying emotion: Fear of losing nurturance and fear that she will not be provided for.

Function: Father should feel worried about mother and should return home to take care of her.

Mother’s interpretation: Child is just manipulating the parents to get out of doing her chores; she needs firmer discipline, unlike what her father provides.

Father’s interpretation: Mother is unfit and incompetent to parent. She obviously is suicidal once again and it will be harmful for the child to be around her; child should live with the father and have minimal or no contact with the mother until she seeks treatment and is certified by a competent psychiatrist as not suicidal.

Reducing Separation Distress

For some time after the marital separation, young children often experience separation distress each time they make the transition between their parents. Each time such a child leaves one parent to go to the other, he experiences the emotional loss of the parent he is leaving, even if he is going for just a day. Often such a reaction reflects a particularly close bond with both parents, but it can also be reflective of the child’s own adaptability. Children who are less adaptable tend to have a more difficult time dealing with the transition from one parent’s house to the other’s. Because of the increased emotional stress following divorce, tendencies toward nonadaptability are likely to be exaggerated.


Behavior: A four-year-old girl cries each time she is transferred from her mother’s to her father’s care (or vice versa); child appears to be happy while in the care of each parent, after the transition time.

Underlying emotion: Child reexperiences intense separation anxiety each time she has to make this change from one caretaker to another.

Function: To signal distress about these changes so that parents will somehow reduce the number of changes or help her decrease her discomfort in dealing with such changes.

Mother’s interpretation: Child is crying when leaving her because she doesn’t like having to leave her mother so often; she cries upon returning to her mother because she is upset at having to stay at her father’s so much, and she no doubt has a terrible and stressful time with her father; contact with father should be reduced until child feels more comfortable around him.

Father’s interpretation: Child cries when leaving him because she does not want to go back to her mother’s house so soon. She cries upon coming to her father because her mother probably has told her bad or frightening things about him; contact with father should be increased in frequency and duration so that child can enjoy even more time with him.

Detonating Tension

Very often, the tension between hostile separated parents feels to the children like a volcano waiting to erupt. In intact families, such marital tensions are often resolved or at least temporarily reduced by the child providing an excuse—such as disturbing behavior—for both parents to yell and even strike out, thereby diffusing the tension between them. In effect, the child unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) offers himself temporarily as a scapegoat to divert the hostility between his parents.

Children of divorced parents utilize this strategy as well, but in different ways.


Behavior: A seven-year-old boy tells his father that his mother has been sleeping with two different men at the house within the same weekend.

Underlying emotion: Fear that father’s chronic jealousy and anger at mother may result in mother and child getting hurt or killed.

Function: To get father to blow up once and for all; the reality would be easier to handle than the fantasies that the child has generated in response to the chronic tension over his father’s jealousy.

Mother’s interpretation: Child is just angry at mother for the divorce and is jealous that his mother shares her attention with other people in her life. Child needs to refrain from telling father about her personal life, and father needs to keep out of her life. Now there is even more reason to be guarded in dealing with father, since he is so intrusive.

Father’s interpretation: Mother is an immoral person and an incompetent parent; child’s contact with her should be limited or restricted until she gets her life straightened out. She should not be allowed to set such an example for his son.

To read the second part of this article, please click here.


Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody and family mediator and a national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of the classic text, Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How… MORE >

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