Co-Parenting: Children Caught in the Middle

kids in the middle

Have you ever been in a tug of war and you were the rope? Ouch! If you and your co-parent are putting your child in the middle of your divorce, that is exactly how your child feels. Most parents are so overwhelmed by their own stress and hurt that they do not even realize how their behavior affects their children.

Children are caught in the middle of divorce in many ways.  In fact, research shows nearly 9 out of 10 parents engage in one of the following behaviors that put their child in the middle of the divorce and these actions put children in no-win situations:

  • Asking your child to keep secrets from their other parent.
    • “Don’t tell dad I let you have ice cream for breakfast.”
  • Making your child feel guilty for not being with you.
    • “I am lonely when I don’t get to see you all weekend.”
  • Complaining about your co-parent in front of the child.
    • “If only your father paid child support, then we could go to the movies.”
  • Having your child deliver messages to their other parent.
    • “Will you tell your mother I won’t be able to pick you up from school tomorrow?”
  • Quizzing your child about their other parent.
    • “Has dad started dating yet?”
  • Engaging in conflict with your co-parent in front of your child.
    •  This can be in person, over the phone or via media devices.
  • Sharing too much information with your child about the divorce.
    • “If mom had not gone off with that guy, we would still be together.”
  • Setting your child up to choose sides.
    • “Do you want to spend time with dad or with mom this weekend?”

To learn more about what NOT to do, check out this fact sheet: 10 Things You Should NOT Do. 

Fortunately, there are many things parents can do to put their children first. Here are some ideas research has shown to be effective:

  • Create a vision for your child and stick to it despite what the other parent does. In other words, know what you want for your child, so you can help them achieve it.
  • Be proactive through being strategic, loyal to yourself and in control. Do not let intense emotions cloud your judgment. Focus on the things you can control, instead of trying to control your co-parent.
  • Create win-win situations for both parents, because in order for the child to win, both parents must win. Parents generally know what is best for their children, thus finding the win-win compromise ultimately allows your child to win.
  • Keep trying even when it is difficult. You do not have to be a perfect parent, just a good enough parent for your child.
  • Have a support group that can help you achieve your goals. This may not always include your closest friends or family because they likely have strong feelings about the divorce. Find people will you can trust to give you objective advice and tell you the truth.

Children deserve the opportunity to love and be loved by both their parents. Creating win-win opportunities between co-parents allows your child to flourish! You can choose to put your children first by creating situations where the parent-child relationship can be strengthened with both their parents. Healthy parent-child relationships result in better child outcomes.

To learn more about thing you should do following divorce check out this fact sheet: Tips for Working with an Uncooperative EX!: 10 Things You Should Do.  


Need more help? Co-Parenting is hard. We are here to help! Learn more about the Co-Parenting for Resilience Program, part of the Extension mission of Oklahoma State University’s College of Human Sciences.



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