Kids Playing Favorites in Divorce

When Kids Play Favorites in Divorce

“Playing favorites” is an age-old pastime for toddlers through teenagers. It can be enormously frustrating for parents—even those who are happily married. You’ve probably heard some tips for dealing with your child during these bouts of favoritism:

  • Don’t take it personally: play it cool so that they don’t pull further away
  • Try together time: look for activities you can all do together to simply dodge the choice
  • Find your niche: become the go-to parent for certain activities
  • Make a date: plan a special outing or activity that will be shared by just the two of you
  • Stay calm: this journey can be extremely frustrating, and sometimes you just need a breather or a break

What’s interesting about these tips is that they’re as much for the parent as they are strategies for dealing with the child. What’s great about that is that it acknowledges that some of the bad feelings come from your own reaction to a perceived slight—even from a child.

So what can you do to keep your feelings and your reactions in check?

My guest this week tackled that question. Julie Ross is founder and Executive Director of Parenting Horizons, an organization devoted to enriching children’s lives through parent and teacher education. She is a psychologist and author of a number of books including Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex.

Ross turns the spotlight on how the child is experiencing this predicament. She suggests that children inevitably feel that they’re choosing “against” a parent when they express a preference for one’s home or advice or company. “That creates a tremendous amount of guilt, anxiety and even despair because they love each parent equally,” she says. In order to avoid putting the children through that, it’s important that divorcing parents not put the children in the position where they have to be loyal to one parent over the other.

The Child’s Role

One of the toughest things about this dynamic is that children can be pretty expert at playing favorites. They can be very good at strategizing how to pit parents against each other to get what they want. Ross recommends treating your relationship with your ex like a business partnership and the child like a challenging situation you must confront together.

Your Role

Whether you’re the favorite or the enemy, the role you play in your child’s life can be treacherous. If you’re the favorite, you may find yourself asked to bend and compromise more and more as you try to hold onto that coveted role. And as the enemy, you may find yourself ping-ponging between trying to please and resenting your own child. Neither is a tenable position. But what’s most important is that it puts you in the reactive role. You aren’t in the power position of parent who has the authority. That undermines the whole parent-child relationship. Presenting a unified front is key and makes for good parenting.

If you’re considering divorce but would like to try an approach that might mean a brighter future, call my team to schedule a confidential consultation.