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How Children Contribute To Custody Disputes (Part II)

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

Testing Love

Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) have pointed out that both parents are frequently emotionally unavailable to their children for about a year following the separation. During this phase, children often feel emotionally neglected and will occasionally test their parents’ love for them.


Behavior: A five-year-old boy who lives with his father calls his mother on the phone frequently and, in a driven manner, repeatedly tells her he loves her. Throughout his stays with her, he repeats this utterance.

Underlying emotion: Fear of rejection by his mother for wanting to stay with, and feel love for, his father.

Function: To find out, in a child’s characteristically backward fashion, whether his mother still loves him. The statement is really intended as the question, “Do you still love me, Mommy?”

Mother’s interpretation: Child desperately wants to live with mother; he is probably afraid of his father or is not being nurtured enough by the man; custody should be changed to mother, since father obviously cannot satisfy the emotional needs of a young child.

Father’s interpretation: Child is just trying to make mother feel better because mother has been complaining to the child how unhappy she is. Mother must stop encouraging and using the child to satisfy her own needs. Contact between child and mother should be restricted until she stops burdening the child with her own problems.

Proving Loyalty

The emotional unavailability of both parents can frighten a child enough to sacrifice a relationship with one parent, at least temporarily. The child feels tremendously torn between her parents and feels that she cannot love both of them if they do not love each other. She feels that she has to choose between her parents, withdrawing love from one and investing it all in the other. She allies with that parent and proves her loyalty by actively participating in the ongoing marital conflict. This results in the development of a dysfunctionally close relationship with one parent and a dysfunctionally distant one with the other.


Behavior: A nine-year-old girl refuses to have any contact with her father and spends a lot of time and energy disparaging him to her mother and agreeing with and supporting the mother in her own disparagement of the father.

Underlying emotion: Fear of being totally neglected by both parents.

Function: To prove to her mother that she will fully support mother in her feud with father, in exchange for being taken care of and loved by mother. Child also assumes that her father will somehow understand and be patient until she feels reassured of her mother’s love, at which time she can then reestablish an affectionate relationship with him.

Mother’s interpretation: Child knows the truth about how rotten her father is; contact between father and child would be seriously destructive to the child and should therefore be terminated.

Father’s interpretation: Mother has poisoned the child’s mind against him and should be forced to stop this; custody should be given to the father so that he can undo the damage and normalize his relationship with the child.

Seeking Fairness

Children of almost any age will often attempt, to the point of self-sacrifice, to make everything come out exactly even between their parents. They will take it upon themselves to monitor fairness for both their parents no matter how embroiled the parents may be with each other. They feel burdened with the task of keeping parental peace and pressured to balance concessions to each parent. They fear confrontation between their parents and repress their own needs and sense of individuality in order to keep their parents from overt conflict.


Behavior: A fourteen-year-old boy insists on staying exactly one week at his mother’s house and one week at his father’s, even though his parents live a sizable distance apart; this creates considerable inconvenience and distress for the boy, and his schoolwork and friendships suffer markedly, but he maintains the preference.

Underlying emotion: The boy wants both his parents to keep loving him equally well; he is afraid of losing one of them.

Function: To make the time-sharing arrangements so perfectly equal that mother and father will stop fighting over the boy and resume showing their love for him.

Mother’s interpretation: Son is unquestionably afraid of confronting his father because father may have a temper tantrum and intimidate him; boy’s own life is suffering from this bouncing back and forth between houses, and the arrangement must be changed; boy should live at his mother’s house and visit his father every other weekend only if he wants to.

Father’s interpretation: Son understands what is fair and loves both parents equally; his problems at school and with friends are natural for children following divorce and have nothing to do with the time-sharing arrangements; the arrangements should remain as they are.

Protecting Self-Esteem

Unfortunately, some parents are quite insensitive to the feelings of their children. Because children often hide their own feelings, some parents mistakenly assume that children either do not have significant feelings or are so resilient that they can easily recover from any hurt feelings. In the case of divorce, when parents are just looking for places to vent their anger, children are easy, available targets. And if such anger is exacerbated by a parental style that is already insensitive to children’s feelings, the emotional ambiance for a child can be quite threatening. This problem is complicated further by the fact that children often have difficulty identifying, let alone vocalizing, the source of their discomfort when around a parent who threatens their self-esteem. Hence they will commonly resort to strategies that protect their self-esteem.


Behavior: A ten-year-old girl resists going to her father’s house and develops psychosomatic illnesses whenever time with him is anticipated; when asked why it is that she resists, she says, “I just don’t feel like going today.”

Underlying emotion: Child fears being criticized and teased by her father; she loves him but always feels uncomfortable and guarded around him.

Function: To protect child’s self-esteem and hopefully persuade father to change his style of dealing with the child.

Mother’s interpretation: Father is denigrating child just the way he used to denigrate mother; child should not have to tolerate such abuse from someone whom she does not even care about; until father changes, contact between father and child should be restricted.

Father’s interpretation: Mother is once again poisoning the child’s mind against him; child and father used to have a very good relationship, which mother is clearly trying to sabotage; child needs more contact with father to get her away from her mother’s influence.

Protecting Parents’ Self-Esteem

Children often are acutely aware of the fragility of their parents’ self-esteem, especially following a marital separation. Partly out of genuine empathy and love for each parent, but mostly for their own emotional survival, they will make efforts to protect the self-worth of each parent. Such efforts are particularly characteristic of children who tend to be more sensitive to their parents’ feelings and thereby get “caught in the middle.” Children using these strategies generally are not aware of the resulting inconsistencies of their actions toward their parents.


Behavior: An eight-year-old girl, when with her father, tells him that she really wants to live at his house and see her mother once in a while. When with her mother, the girt tells her that she really wants to live at her house and see her father once in a while.

Underlying emotion: Child feels badly for each parent and is scared that something bad will happen to each of them unless the child emotionally supports them; also, child fears being emotionally abandoned by either or both parents.

Function: To boost self-esteem of both parents so that they will remain emotionally strong enough to care for and love the child.

Mother’s interpretation: Child wants to live at mother’s house and is afraid to tell father; father should give child to the mother.

Father’s interpretation: Child wants to live at father’s house and is afraid to tell mother; mother should give child to the father.

Permissive Living

A mediator may occasionally come upon older children and adolescents who appear to deal with the divorce by manipulating the marital dissolution to their own immediate advantage. They appear to be in little or no emotional distress and state preferences for their living arrangements that tip the marital balance into conflict. Although these youngsters may actually have repressed their emotional distress over the divorce, it is very difficult for the mediator to ascertain this. The motivation for their strategies may be a lack of any particular bond with either parent, an exceptional degree of manipulative skill or self-centeredness, a simple withdrawal in response to feeling trapped between conflicting parents, or any combination of these. In any case, these youngsters appear to push a decision that will work to their own advantage.


Behavior: A sixteen-year-old boy consistently states a preference to live at his father’s house and see his mother every other weekend. When asked why, he gives a variety of inconsistent reasons.

Underlying emotion: The youth has withdrawn his emotional investment in his parents and now wants the most comfortable lifestyle that he can get.

Function: To structure his postdivorce living situation so as to maximize his financial resources and minimize daily responsibilities and demands for conforming behavior.

Mother’s interpretation: Father clearly has made unrealistic promises that life will be easy for his son if he lives with him. This is just another of the father’s tactics to get revenge on the mother; father sets no example of discipline for his son; the son should live at his mother’s house, where he will learn responsibility and self discipline.

Father’s interpretation: Son loves his father more than he does his mother and does not want to live with her; he is old enough to make his own choices and should live with father if he so wishes,

Certainly, each of the children’s behaviors in these examples is open to differing interpretations. Still, they exemplify the vast range of misinterpretations of which conflicting parents are capable. The unfortunate consequence for the children is the pain and anguish they must suffer as a result of not having their real feelings recognized or their emotional needs met. Moreover, the children may unwittingly contribute actively to the leftover marital feud by fanning their parents’ flames of wrath and mistrust with behaviors that are confusing and unintentionally provocative to the parents.

The mediator is in a position to utilize this information to reduce acrimony between parents. By offering a thorough, detailed explanation of the general nature of children’s strategies and by discussing the particular ones used by their child, the mediator can help parents unravel the sequence of events that led up to the present custody or visitation dispute. Sometimes it is most effective to carry on this discussion after interviewing the children, to confirm the data and muster further confidence in the mediator’s perspective. It is not uncommon for a couple to be drawn together by a shared recognition of their child’s innate cleverness in initiating these strategies. It should be repeatedly emphasized by the mediator that children’s strategies are not malevolent or blameworthy but merely their way of taking care of their own needs. This emphasis is intended to reduce any tendency in a parent to displace his or her anger at the ex-spouse onto the child for contributing (however innocently) to the dispute.

It is of great significance that the parents’ various misinterpretations of their children’s behaviors are exactly the arguments that would be utilized by the parents’ respective attorneys in court. The lawyers build evidence to support each misinterpretation and then construe this as reality. They then portray this construction, built on distorted assumptions, as “in the best interests of the child.”

It should by now be clear that such legal maneuvering frequently has little to do with what is in the best interests of the child and much to do with what is in the best interests of the adult client. Ultimately, however, even this approach is likely to backfire on the parents, for if the legal argument presented by the parent’s attorney is based on false assumptions of the child’s needs, pursuing that position in court may yield an unhappy child. Certainly no parent, no matter how motivated by anger, could feel satisfied at winning such a bitter victory.

Once in a while, the mediator has occasion to observe children who are in such severe emotional distress that they seem in need of psychological treatment. However, before making a referral for such treatment, the mediator should consider several factors. While it is possible that the child’s emotional difficulties predate the divorce, it is more probable that they are a reaction to or have been exacerbated by the ongoing parental conflict. Treatment for the child alone may therefore be of only minimal help if the spousal feud continues. In fact, because a child would have some implicit hope that the therapist will make things better, when the conflict between the parents remain unresolved even with therapy, the child may lose hope that anyone can help and perhaps even lose trust in helping professionals altogether. Moreover, the child’s therapist may unknowingly add to the problem by siding with one of the parents (typically the one who brings the child for therapy), thereby escalating the conflict.

Because the child’s problems are embedded in the family’s dynamics, it is important that those problems be viewed in the context of the family system. Thus if therapy seems appropriate, it is helpful for the mediator to refer the child to a therapist who will deal with the child within the family perspective. Ideally, the therapist should be sensitive to and experienced with the systemic nature of custody and visitation disputes. This will help ensure that the therapist will remain neutral with respect to the parents while treating the child’s distress. A sensitive, knowledgeable therapist can support the child through the crisis of the divorce and custody dispute. In addition, if the parental feud continues, the therapist may be able to help the child develop coping strategies that take a less severe psychological toll than the ones the child may already be using. Finally, support groups for children going through divorce have been quite helpful, as talking with other children going through similar experiences can be therapeutic. These groups typically use an educational approach incorporating age-appropriate games and activities to help the children learn most effectively (Di Bias, 1996).


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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