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'90s Family | REAL LIFE

Pitting Mom Against Dad Just Comes Naturally

June 16, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost no one wants to implicate children as a cause of their parents' fights. But in real life, several experts acknowledge that the natural tendency of children to pit one parent against the other can drive a wedge between unsuspecting parents.

Children learn as early as 4 years of age that they can get what they want by flattery, manipulation or triggering a fight between their parents. Whether or not they succeed depends on the vulnerability of parents to be seduced by compliments or sucked in by accusations against the other parent.

New York psychotherapist Ron Taffel describes one 6-year-old girl who wanted to watch "Barney" instead of getting ready for school as her mother was urging her to do. Repeating what she had heard her father say, she screamed, "Get off my back!" Pleased that he had an ally, the father jumped in, saying, "She's right. You're always on top of everyone." While the parents subsequently fought, the girl settled back to watch TV.

Children will commonly express a preference for one parent over another when they are sick or going through developmental transitions. But sometimes they will snuggle up to one (often the lenient father), while berating the other (often the disciplinarian mother), because they are angry that they didn't get a toy, a treat, or a later bedtime or curfew.

This phenomenon, called "splitting," occurs in children--as well as childish adults--before they develop the ability to see both good and bad in people they love, explains Dr. Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles psychiatrist.

"They split the range of emotions into all good and all bad," Goulston says. "They will attribute all the bad to one person and all the good to the other."

One 7-year-old girl was unhappy that her mother did not let her out of the house to say goodbye to her grandparents at their car after a visit, Taffel recalls. "Don't touch me! I only want my daddy," she told her mother. If the father, who often felt left out, felt gratified, he could easily have encouraged his daughter with a conspiratorial wink.

In more extreme cases involving divorce, some counselors say children sometimes go so far as to fabricate charges of sexual molestation against one parent to please the other.

But even when parents are getting along, they can easily be baited into false power struggles when children, especially teens struggling with identity issues, devalue one parent while idealizing the other.

The experts say parents can tell when children are manipulating them or engaging in "splitting" when the original issue is forgotten while the parents fight, when old grievances surface, or when a triangle develops pitting a parent and child against the other parent.

Goulston says parents can try to reduce their vulnerability by expressing their appreciation and positive regard for each other as often as possible. They can also plan in advance how to appear united when children inevitably try to play them against each other.

If the "good" parent honestly believes the child has a legitimate complaint about the other parent, it is important to try to straddle the issue, validating the observations without ganging up against the other parent, Goulston says.

Actually, he says, children appreciate it when the parent who is momentarily in favor stands up for the one who is out.

For instance, Goulston says, when his own children were once engaged in berating their mother, he told them, "I won't let you talk to my wife that way."

He says they were surprised, but also pleased. "When Mom and Dad are seen to be loyal and committed to each other, it makes the house seem much safer," he says.

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