If you’re a divorced parent, then your main concern is undoubtedly the well-being of your children. Seeing your child(ren) happy and healthy is a top priority. Unfortunately, it means steering them away from any situation where they could become caught in the middle of co-parenting or suffering from distress. While you may be doing everything you can to protect the children, a high-conflict co-parent may work against you in putting the children first.
Often high-conflict co-parents put their needs first, regardless of whether their children are struggling. This is due to their stunted emotional growth which makes them only consider their perspective and needs. They may even see it as a power struggle if you bring awareness to these signs the children are suffering and say you’re the problem or flat out deny it altogether because they don’t want to deal with it. By keeping an eye out for these red flags, you can protect your children and get them the assistance they need.
Here are signs your children may be stuck in the middle:
Crying Outbursts or Aggression: The child may become easily upset if they feel neglected or disrespected by one parent or are put in a position to reject one parent over the other.
Fearful of Normal Activities: When experiencing distress, children may feel insecure or unable to have the courage and confidence to go after the things they once enjoyed. When they shy away from activities that once brought them joy, there is something deeper going on inside.
Constantly Blaming Themselves: Children may think they are the reason for their parent’s divorce if they hear them arguing about who is responsible for x, y, z. When children hear their parents arguing over them they can begin to internalize it as their fault.
Caring For Parent’s Needs: Sometimes parents will look to their children for emotional support. When this occurs the child will begin to suppress their needs and feel an obligation to care for their parent or deny their needs because they are fearful they will upset their parents. This is also known as parentification where the parent-child role is switched.
Self-Destruction: A child who begins to self-destruct may destroy their prized possessions, like stuffed animals, toys, clothing, etc. Their self-destruction is a sign of unresolved emotion and hidden anger they cannot verbalize.
Panic Attacks: Having to go through so many changes or fearing how one parent may react can typically lead to panic attacks for a child. Often they become distraught because they don’t feel respected or the instability is weighing greatly on them.
Seeking Attention: They will act out at school, in public, or at home to receive attention because they aren’t receiving the unconditional love and affection they need from one of their parents.
Headaches or Stomaches on Exchange Days: Many times kids may up in the nurses office at school and feel ill on days they have to go to their other parents. This a sign they don’t have inner peace and are uneasy about going to one parent’s house or feel stuck in defending one parent over the other.
Struggling With Bowel Movements: When children feel they have no control over their environment they can sometimes seek control through their bowel movements. They may withhold defecation or may constantly need to go due to feeling out of control internally. This could also happen with eating habits too as a way of having control over something in their lives because everything else around them feels unsafe and uncertain.
Wetting The Bed: If a child begins to regress and wet the bed or is past the age of bed wetting, this can be an indicator of distress or abuse. When sleeping the child’s subconscious will take over and the body may lose control of bodily functions due to the distress they have experienced. While it is healthy to rule out medical concerns, most bodily functions or health concerns all have an emotional component to them.
Withdrawn Mood and Disengagement: A child who feels unloved, ignored, rejected, humiliated, or abandoned may retreat to their room and choose not to spend time with family. This can be due to feeling sad or depressed because their family cannot get along or because one parent isn’t fully meeting their needs.
Overly Anxious and Hyperactive: An erratic environment without stability where there is lots of chaos and lead to a child becoming overly anxious. Anxiety is a sign of being unable to control what is going to happen next. The child may also mimic their chaotic environment by becoming hyperactive as a way to keep up with all of the changes they are experiencing.
Poor Concentration: If a child is no longer interested in school or struggles to stay focused this can be a sign they aren’t getting enough rest, are stressing about their parents fighting, or feel overwhelmed by what they are experiencing in their environment around them. Children who have to worry about where they will sleep, whether a parent will pick them up from school, will they be food on the table, etc will most likely show poor performance in school and activities. They are having to worry about adult problems when they shouldn’t have to.
If your child is starting to show any of the signs listed above, it may be time for a check-in-talk with your child to really understand their experiences. Just like every other human, children have an innate desire to feel heard, understood, and respected. Shielding children from the co-parenting conflict is in your child’s best interest. While you cannot control what your co-parent does you can create safety and security within your home, or help teach them boundaries when in the other home.
On the other hand, if the child’s behavior becomes extremely concerning like most of these signs listed above, it’s time to take action. This may look like getting your child into therapy, coaching, or even co-parenting coaching to resolve the struggles the children feel caught in the middle of.