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Divorce: Children playing parents against each other

It is typical behaviour for children to play one parent against the other, and would probably occur even if you and your spouse were happily together. Children often say things like "Mom always lets me," or "Dad said it was okay." Children of divorced or separated parents may escalate this a bit by saying "I won't visit you if you don't let me do such-and-such," or "I'm going to live with Dad/Mom because s/he's not always bugging me to do my chores and homework."

If the two of you, as parents, can agree in principle on what you expect from your children and back each other up, this shouldn't be a problem. You can't control what expectations and rules your ex-partner will have for the child you share, and it's okay for one parent to have somewhat different expectations or rules for a child than the other parent has.

Fundamental differences, however, can confuse your children. This is when it's time to meet with your ex-partner and try to plan a set of guidelines for your child that both of you can support. Point out to your former partner how much easier it will be for the children if they don't have to cope with two completely different sets of expectations.

Meeting and setting guidelines may make it easier to agree on consistent parenting and rule setting. Maintain an open, honest, supportive and cooperative relationship where the upbringing of your children is concerned. And keep the focus on the children, not on your feelings about each other. This way you can discuss your children's behaviour and come to decisions together as to what is best for them.

If you have tried your best to reach an agreement with your former partner, but failed, then recognize that your child may have to spend time in two households with different sets of rules. If you can accept that as a reality, you can help your child accept it too. Don't complain to your children about the rules - or lack of rules - in the other house. Just make it clear that this is how things are done in your house. The more you get hung up on the lack of co-operation and the unfairness of it all, the harder it will be for your children to adjust.

Here are some suggestions for helping your children to cope with this situation:

  • Try to avoid putting your children in the middle by asking them to pass messages between the two of you.

  • Try not to criticize your ex-partner in front of or to your children. Your ex-partner is still their parent, and still has much to give them - he or she has some fine qualities.

  • Let your children know that it's okay to love both parents and that this won't make you unhappy. Don't let them feel this is disloyal.

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