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.

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