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.
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.
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.