Avoiding Manipulation as Co-Parents

Some children learn fairly early after their parents divorce that they can benefit from playing parents against one another to get something they want. After all, many kids realize from a very early age that Dad saying “no” to something doesn’t mean Mom will, and vice versa. 

This situation can make your co-parenting relationship more strained than it should be, and it doesn’t benefit your children overall in the long run, either. If you suspect this may be going on, here are some red flags that may signal your child is entering dangerous territory.

Going to Each Parent Separately

The most obvious indicator that your child is trying to play you against your co-parent is when he or she approaches you both separately with requests. Your child might even be tailoring the request specific to each parent to increase the chances of his or her success. They will hone in on interests and soft spots that align with the request-receiving parent’s sensibilities to get what they are asking for. For example, when you say “no” to your child staying up late to watch a movie, he or she may approach your co-parent and ask to watch a movie that your co-parent has been wanting to see or would likely be interested in. 

Use of the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” Routine

Sometimes, one parent will be more likely to give into a request, so that teaches the child to focus his or her energy on getting that parent’s approval. If you or your co-parent are pushovers more than you or your co-parent would like to be, you both might want to think about having your child only request things when both parents are present. The more easily influenced parent could also start telling the child that they will consider the request and talk to the other parent about it before giving an answer. In general, important decisions should be made only after both parents have gone over the upsides and downsides together. By working together on major decisions, you can present a united front to your child and avoid unnecessary tension in your co-parenting relationship.

Things to Consider

From a young age, children are often easily influenced by others, especially the adults in their lives. Parents who are divorcing or separating may fall into the trap of trying to “win” their children using gifts. However, this is not a good path to a child’s love and should be avoided entirely.

While some manipulation by a child is entirely normal and to be expected, it can indicate long-term problems ahead if it becomes constant. Pitting you and your co-parent against one another also might be your child’s response to some tension among his or her parents. This is exactly why manipulation sometimes becomes prevalent among children who have separated or divorced parents. 

Sometimes, parents use their kids to apply emotional pressure on one another, and this is not the right way to go. For example, instead of the entire family discussing plans for a weekend, one parent approaches the child and convinces them to support their plan. This only serves to teach a child that it is acceptable to manipulate people.

Children are normally reassured when they are unable to “test” their parents by playing them against each other. The sense of predictable parental limits that failure brings gives children a stronger sense of security. Of course, they still may test you on occasion, but keep in mind that when your child is making his or her most insistent tests, he or she probably really needs some reassurance from you and your co-parent.