Bonnie Carroll: Protecting Children From The Tragedy of Ugly Custody Battles – March 16, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

You once loved your partner and had children with her or him. But now things are not working, and for whatever reason one or both of you have decided to separate from the relationship. But where does that leave the children?

Children love both of their parents and identify with each of them. Parents are typically the most important people in a child’s life. Parents teach us how to deal with conflicts, how to deal with stress, and how to treat the ones we love.

With the exception of extremely abusive parents, children always look up to, love and/or want a relationship with their parents. Each parent is important to the growing and developing child.

Some parents are able to separate with respect and honor. Other parents may be resentful or angry with their past partner, but they are still able to understand, respect and support the child’s ongoing relationship with their ex.

However, there are a few parents who separate on bitter and resentful terms and are unable to separate their pain, anger, and relationship with their ex from their child’s relationship with their ex. They think that if they need to leave the relationship, so does the child.

Either consciously or unconsciously, the parents start to project their own feelings and experiences into their child’s feelings and relationship with the other parent. And then the ugly custody battle may ensue.

Ugly custody battles are extremely harmful to children. The children become confused and torn. They lose part of their trusting relationship with each parent and they lose part of themselves.

It is critical for your child’s emotional growth and development that their relationship with their other parent is honored and respected.

It is important to differentiate your own issues with your ex from your child’s relationship with your ex.

Don’t discuss your frustrations and feelings about your ex with your child. Every child identifies with each of their parents. Half of your child’s identity is with their other parent.

When you make negative statements about your ex, your child will either consciously or unconsciously translate that into a negative statement about themselves.

Very few of us are perfect parents, and some of us struggle more than others. It’s important to remember that many of us have had trials and tribulations with our own parents. Many of us are still trying to work through those issues. And that’s OK. But very few of us actually think we would have been better off if we didn’t have contact with one parent or the other, regardless of the strained nature of our relationships.

Of course there are exceptions. Some children do need to be protected from abuse or extreme neglect.

If you suspect your child may be experiencing abuse, then make sure you are providing a safe place for your child to talk about what they are thinking and experiencing, and make sure your child knows that you will provide a reasonable and rational response to whatever they tell you (children know this through experience, so make sure to set the precedent early).

It’s important that if a child does disclose abuse, that they be protected. Child abuse can be reported in Humboldt County by calling Child Welfare Services at (707) 445-6180.

However, even when there are issues of abuse or neglect, it is important to keep in mind that children need, love and often idealize even their abusive parents.

It is important to provide counseling services to help the child understand and work through their feelings and develop resiliency.

Moreover, the abusive parent may need professional help to develop an understanding of their child, learn to control their responses, and begin to develop the trust and consistency that is important in their relationship with their child.

Children experiencing parental separation will do better when they know that their parents will still be their parents and will continue to be active and involved in their lives even though they are no longer together.

Long custody disputes and pressure on a child to choose a side can be really harmful and traumatic for the child.

Children who are being caught in the middle of a custody battle will often experience low self esteem, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, social conflicts, significant behavior problems, temper tantrums, self injury, and/or drug and alcohol use.

We know that children do better when their parents can set aside their differences, work together, and support each other on behalf of the child. So remember that your children should come first and deserve their parents to be the best they can be.

If you’re having a hard time separating from or co-parenting with your ex and those problems are affecting your children, please consider seeing a therapist in our community to work on your feelings and address these issues.

The North Coast Association of Mental Health Providers has a fairly comprehensive list of local therapists.

Visit its website at to search for a therapist that will be a good fit for you.

If you have any questions of dilemmas in your own life, feel free to send them in and I’ll try to share my thoughts about them too.

Bonnie Carroll is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a counseling practice in McKinleyville. Contact her directly at