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Co-Parenting: Playing One Parent Against the Other

Parents in Divorced Families

I was eight years old when I first realized that I could play my mom against my dad. I have a very specific memory of asking my mom if I could go outside and play by prefacing it with “Dad said it was okay with him if it was okay with you” and then doing the exact same thing to my dad. It worked like a charm until the day my mom overheard my conversation with my dad and put an end to my manipulation once and for all. It is natural for a child to attempt to play her parents against one another at some point. It is, however, only a matter of time before the parents become wise to the scheme- after all, the parents are usually on the same team.

Co-Parenting as a Team

In divorced families, however, parents are rarely on the same team and the children often attempt to use this fracture to their advantage. Very often a child of divorce will play one parent against the other to get material possessions or in an attempt to bend the rules. Co-parents are often racked with guilt over the failed marriage and the back and forth position the children often find themselves in. Sometimes co-parents are insecure about the family dynamics and make it their goal to be the “favorite” parent. Because of this guilt and/or insecurity, it is very tempting for co-parents to try to please the child at all costs, become excessively indulgent and refuse to respect the other parent’s household rules. Every co-parent has heard from their child or stepchild some version of the following statement: “I don’t have to pick up my clothes at my mom’s house” or “At my mom’s house she lets me eat cookies for breakfast” or “At my daddy’s house my bedtime is 9:30”. It is fair to say that your child is probably stretching the truth here in an attempt to put you and the other co-parent in a race for the “favorite” parent. While a certain amount of manipulation is normal, if it occurs constantly it may indicate a major co-parenting problem. If your child is constantly attempting to pit you against the other parent or stepparent, then she is likely internalizing the tension she feels between you and is acting out accordingly. No matter how you feel about the other parent, the worst thing you can do in this situation is give in to the child’s attempts. If you do, you are sending a clear message to the child that your conflict with the other parent is more important to you than establishing security and predictability for the child.

Rules and Co-Parenting

As co-parents, you should work diligently at communicating your reasonable expectations regarding routines and household rules in an attempt to get on the same page. If you cannot effectively communicate or if your parenting styles are not in the same book, let alone on the same page, you need to arm yourself with some appropriate responses to effectively combat the child’s manipulation attempts. One way would be to acknowledge to your child that you understand that there are different rules at the other parent’s house but while she is at your house, she must follow your rules, no exceptions. Your child will be reassured when you fail the test she is putting you through. Children need to feel secure. Children seek predictable limits. It is safe to say that if your child or stepchild is constantly playing you against the other parent that child is feeling insecure and needs some reassurance that you care more about parenting her than you do about fighting with the other parent.

Anderson Keuscher PLLC
Reno Family Law and Divorce Attorneys

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