Monthly Archives: December 2012

Separated and Divorced Parents: What a Winner Does

Separated and Divorced Parents:
What a Winner Does

I often see separated or divorced parents who cannot manage to make co-parenting work. They just cannot seem to come together and establish productive communication on behalf of their children. Why is this? And what does it take to successfully meet the challenges of this difficult relationship?

The following are my observations, based on my work with separated or divorced parents.

One winner can change the game and make it work acceptably well for the benefit of the kids. Even better, two winners can literally transform the game and make it work remarkably well both for the kids and for themselves. Together they ensure that the children are not “emotional footballs.”

What constitutes a winner? A winner is a parent who wins the personal challenge of getting the best of his/her own ego. A winner does not win a battle against the other parent. A winner wins the battle against his/her own self – specifically, his/her own ego, or the “little me,” as Eckhart Tolle says. A winner changes the way s/he plays the difficult game of co-parenting by consistently treating the ex and the children with integrity.

Here are some of the more important positive characteristic behaviors of a winner.


• Acts civilly, even respectfully
• Maintains personal integrity
• Does what s/he says
• Follows through
• Avoids the past
• Focuses on present and future
• Provides suggestions for making it work
• Provides verifiable information
• Agrees to disagree
• Agrees to compromise
• Puts kids first
• Readily makes concessions
• Leaves grandparents out of squabbles
• Exercises self-control at all times


• Make snide remarks
• Criticize, scold, or belittle the other
• Criticize the other to the kids
• Bring up past hurts
• Discount the other’s statements
• Avoid the other’s questions
• Make negative interpretations
• Avoid decisions and commitments
• Use the kids to communicate
• Make money the priority
• Exaggerate, lie, or distort
• Argue the “facts”
• Use the past to denigrate the other
• Give decision-making power to the attorneys

In short, winning is the process of overcoming one’s ego, as opposed to overcoming the other parent.

For a detailed presentation of the 9 key relationship skills needed in all healthy adult-adult or parent-child relationships, see the details of my book, 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony.

Learn More

Children Are Not Emotional Footballs: Part 2, What Can Be Done?

Children Are Not Emotional Footballs:
Part 2, What Can Be Done?

In my mind it is no wonder that children of separated or divorced parents often exhibit behavioral problems in the home, school, or community. High levels of stress between warring parents immediately and directly spill over onto their children, almost inevitably.

So the question arises, What can possibly be done to reduce the pain and suffering of all involved in the family? How can these parents, who bear the responsibility of finding ways to cope with their own considerable hardship, reduce the hardship that their children endure?

Obviously, each parent needs emotional support – and perhaps other forms as well – from trusted allies. It goes without saying that each deserves, and hopefully can find, caring people who can help them through one of the most difficult life transitions that humans can experience.

In addition to taking care of themselves with support from their personal, informal networks, separated or divorced parents also bear the awesome (shall I say daunting?) responsibility of caring for their children as well. And not just during the separation or divorce process, but for years afterward.

Mediation classes or counseling, often required by statute, can do much to help separating or divorcing couples look comprehensively at their very complex situation and come to practical agreements that both parties can live with.

Social service agencies, churches, and informal self-help support groups often provide support and/or classes that offer guidelines on how to handle specific aspects of this complex life transition.

Numerous books and articles are available to provide parents with detailed advice on these very challenging complexities.

Therapists and coaches who have training and experience in dealing with communication and other relationship issues can be found to help separated and divorced couples explore their unique situations. One size doesn’t fit all, certainly, and it might take a couple of exploratory meetings to find someone who can help well-intentioned former partners arrive at difficult decisions that benefit both themselves and their children.

From My Perspective

My own experience – some thirty-plus years as a therapist, followed by numerous years as a relationship coach – has taught me that so very much depends upon the maturity, strengths, and weaknesses of each parent. It rarely happens that one parent is clearly and decisively “to blame” for the failure of their relationship, although alcohol and/or drug use and criminal behavior heavily weight those odds and tilt the playing field. But even in those cases, the maturity, strengths, and weaknesses of each parent become the predominant factors in determining the outcomes for the couple and for their children.

In my coaching work with separated or divorced couples in the Milwaukee area, I have found that each parent is always partially responsible for the failure of the relationship and the suffering incurred by themselves and the children. Without a willingness to look at self and honestly assess one’s own weaknesses in terms of behavior patterns and the underlying motivating feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, there is little that one parent, no matter how well-intentioned, can do to help self or the children. I have found that some parents have the strength and desire to look at their own weaknesses and work to correct them, while others do not.

On the other hand, if both parents can find a reservoir of humility and determination, very significant gains can be made that both lessen their own pain and suffering and also reduce the angst and confusion of their children. But it takes work, and a real commitment to putting forth the effort. I have found myself “getting tough” with couples who want to harp on the past and who convince themselves that nothing will change because the ex has “always done this or that in the past.”

As Michael Josephson has said, “It is too easy to give up on ourselves when we let who we are today prevent us from seeing what we can be tomorrow.” To discount the other parent because of what s/he has “always” done in the past is a sure-fire way to discount oneself and what one can do in the future.


Don’t let your children suffer the fate of being emotional footballs. Know how that happens, reach out for the help you need, and embrace it with courage and integrity. If you know what a winner does, YOU, on your own, can change the way this difficult game is going to be played from now on. You may or may not have significant influence on your ex. But you can certainly have a strong positive influence on your children by maintaining your integrity and not treating them like emotional footballs.

For a detailed presentation of the 9 key relationship skills needed in all healthy adult-adult or parent-child relationships, see the details of my book, 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony.

Learn More


Children Are Not Emotional Footballs, Part 1: How Does That Happen?

Children Are Not Emotional Footballs:
Part 1, How Does That Happen?

After separation or divorce, adult family members are often too invested in hanging on to their children’s allegiance at the expense of the “ex.” When this happens children become “emotional footballs” between separated or divorced parents and warring family factions.

Emotional Footballs

By “emotional footballs” I mean that children can become tantamount to a football that is used as a prize between two competing rivals. In a football game, both sides fight for possession of the ball and use it to score points. The ball is carried, thrown, or kicked to produce points, ultimately resulting in a win for one team over the other. Sadly, separated or divorced parents sometimes unwittingly use their own children (whom they love more than anyone in the world) as objects similar to footballs: things that become the central point of focus in an ongoing strategic power struggle against a bitter rival.

The following are some of the key aspects of the emotional power struggle between separated or divorced parents that can hurt children and in effect turn them into emotional footballs.

First, placement, visitation, and shared custody arrangements can be intensely conflictual for separated or divorced parents. Compromise on these points might become too difficult as each parent fights to gain possession of “the ball” at the expense of the ex. This can also be, however, at the expense of the children’s need to have an develop a positive, loving relationship with each parent.

Second, when divorced or separated parents don’t effectively keep their own emotions in check, or are intent on punishing each other, or reducing each other’s influence on their children, serious emotional wounds can be inflicted on the children. These hurts can have negative behavioral consequences, both short term and long term, and it can be seen in multiple areas of the child’s life.

For example:

a. Emotional wounds. Emotional wounds resulting from the parents’ constant fighting over them can include feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear, guilt, shame, depression, helplessness, confusion, conflicted loyalties, and/or anger. In some cases children can even develop feelings of hatred towards on their children. I’ve seen it happen.

b. Behavioral problems. A whole range of behavioral consequences can develop, including hyperactivity, inability to focus, poor grades, bed wetting, combative behavior in home, school, or community, and any number of other forms of unlawful or anti-social behavior.

c. Damaged relationships. Parent-child relationships can become stressed and severely damaged for the long term. Although the conflicting parents rarely stop loving their children above everyone and everything else, children can develop deep and long-lasting feelings of resentment that can dampen or destroy their love for one or both parents.

d. Social functioning. Children under stress – perhaps more so than adults under stress – are likely to let that stress “leak out” and express itself in social situations outside the home. I cannot tell you how many times, in my years as a family therapist, I learned that school dysfunction (both academically and interpersonally) had its roots in the home. The same is true for children’s violent behavior in the street or at school, for stealing and lying, for drunkenness and other forms of antisocial behavior. As I tell participants in my Anger in the Family course, violence in the street cannot be eliminated by the police or the correctional system. It can only be eliminated by parents – parents who practice the relationship skills that turn conflict into harmony. And this goes for separated and divorced parents, too.

A third area of difficulty for separated or divorced parents can be memories of past history – the hurt, pain, and anger – between the separated or divorced parents can completely distort their willingness and/or ability to work cooperatively for their children. If allowed to, these memories can continue to fuel intense anger and distrust between them, making it almost impossible to deal with each other civilly – much less respectfully – for the benefit of their beloved children.

Fourth, money is almost always a major focus of tension in and of itself that can serve to intensify lingering past hurts, anger, and animosity. The process of separation and divorce from each other can inflict on one or both parents damaging, even devastating, financial consequences. Attorney fees and court expenses, support and alimony, housing and transportation, child care, schooling, recreation, and the myriad other costs of day-to-day living can dramatically burden separated and divorced parents, creating both current crises and long-term debt.

Fifth, other people – family members, stepparents, friends, and/or significant others (boy friends, girl friends) – can become key players in the sad and painful drama that rages between warring separated or divorced parents. For better or worse, often for worse, these other people can be intensely emotionally involved in the contest between the parents. Their behavior can significantly contribute to the suffering that the children are already experiencing, and fan the flames of mutual enmity between the parents.

You Can Do It Right

Know what can be done to prevent the mistake of making your children emotional footballs. By learning and practicing what a winner does, you can make the pain less intense for your children, and provide them with the structure and security they need and deserve.               ******************************************************

For a detailed presentation of the 9 key relationship skills needed in all healthy adult-adult or parent-child relationships, see the details of my book, 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony.