being played

Are You Being Played By Your Kids?

My wife and I had these beautiful plants in our living room. When my son was eighteen months old, he was drawn to them. Probably because we were new, uptight parents, we had stern rules that he was not to touch them. Every time he walked over to them, we consistently told him, “no.” Eventually, he got it. Being naïve, I thought the issue was solved. Then I watched him methodically and nonchalantly walk backward until he “happened” to be next to the plants seemingly by accident. Without looking at the plants or us, he moved his hand down and began touching the leaves. I was amazed. It was all so calculated, brilliant, and scary.

Kids are smart and, like all humans, inherently self-focused. They want what they want and will do what they can to get it. Some tactics are somewhat innocent, like “the wear down strategy”—simply asking over and over again until you finally break down and say “yes.” Others, like lying, are more detrimental. However, there is a way parents are being played by their kids that is particularly dangerous and can cause marital issues. This is how.      

Playing Parents Against Each Other

The strategy is simple: To divide and conquer. One parent says, “no.” So the child attempts to make an ally with the other parent. Then they either go with the approving parent’s answer or count on them to convince the disapproving parent. You and your spouse end up divided and arguing with one another. Why? The disapproving parent feels undermined, untrusted, disrespected, and alone. All of us are susceptible to it, but it is much easier for kids to pull off in blended families and with divorced parents.

How It Hurts The Kids When They Win

When kids succeed in playing parents against one another, they achieve their own self-destruction. [Tweet This] Dissension between parents makes children feel unstable. That instability leads to heightened anxiety levels and insecurity. A friend of mine watched her husband and son get into an intense argument. When the husband left, she went over to console her son. Her son turned to her and said with amazing wisdom, “I don’t need that. Dad and I are going to be fine. I need you to be on his side.” They all need that. When they succeed at playing the parents against each other, it also teaches them that the best way to get what they want is to manipulate.

Your Game Plan

Never contradict your spouse or ex-spouse in front of your kids. Disagree in private and hash it out, but make sure you come to a mutual agreement. It is perfectly acceptable for a parent to change his/her mind after talking to the other parent and communicating that to the child. Always present a united front. This is much more difficult in a divorce situation, particularly when your ex-spouse is immature. Do your best to set up rules with your ex-spouse about supporting one another’s decisions and being unified for the sake of the child. You may have to choose your battles.

Sound off: What have you and your wife or ex-wife done to counter the divide and conquer?

Huddle up with the child’s mother and commit to never allowing the kids to divide you.