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It is not uncommon for children to behaviorally act out as they are adjusting to their new lifestyle following divorce. Most children are able to adapt quickly, and behavior problems last only a short period of time. However, there is a more insidious behavior that occurs long after the adjustment period: splitting.
The concept of splitting originated with Freud’s psychoanalytical concept of defense mechanisms. Splitting was described as a way that a person deals with the ambivalence in her/his environment. In other words, a child of divorce does not know whether to favor her father or her mother, and may alternate between favoring one and having negative feelings about the other. Splitting also refers to the idea of unconsciously diving objects into two categories, those that are “good” and those that are “bad”. These may relate to the “good” and “bad” characteristics of a parent, or of a situation. Splitting has also been referred to as polarized thinking, and “all-or-nothing thinking”, as it focuses only on the extreme aspects. A child may sometimes see his mother as a “good mother”, and at other times as a “bad mother”, but does not view mother in any intermediary way. Splitting has also been used to denote the behavior of pitting one person against another person. In this way, a child may be able to use the extreme understanding she/he has of each parent (ie. Good mommy/bad mommy), and use this to gain what she/he wants, often at the expense of the other parent.
Imagine this scenario. Billy, age 13, lives with his mother 50% of the time and his father 50% of the time. His parents have been divorced for about two years. Billy learns that there is a concert that he wants to attend, but he knows that his mother will never let him go. His father, on the other hand, could be more easily persuaded. Billy talks to his father about the band, and shares his interest with his father. He asks if his father will buy him the band’s latest album, which he does. Billy then listens to this music while at his mother’s home. When she asks what he is listening to, Billy said that it is a new band that he likes. He asks his mother if he could go to the concert, and his mother says, absolutely not, rolls her eyes and leaves the room. Billy then listens to the music at his father’s house, and thanks his father repeatedly for purchasing the music. Billy later approaches the idea of attending the concert to his father, and states that he would like to go to the concert with his friends. His father says, of course you can go, and takes Billy to get tickets to the concert.
In the above scenario, Billy utilized various aspects of splitting when interacting with his parents. Not only did he pit them against each other, he used the idea of the “good father” vs the “bad mother” in order to get what he wanted. This example may seem elaborate and well planned, but it is used because it demonstrates how easily it each for children to use this tactic to get what they want when dealing with divorced parents. It can happen on a much smaller scale, like getting a box or candy, missing a school day, or dying one’s hair a different color. It is important for all parents, but especially divorced parents to communicate with each other in order to prevent their children from engaging in splitting behaviors.
It does not matter how much you like your co-parent, what you think about how she/he is living life now, or how you feel about the new spouse. What matters is that you have to work with this person to co-parent your children, so that they can learn the things that they need to in life. Here are some ways to prevent splitting behaviors in children following divorce.
Consistency between parents is critical for successful coparenting. This would include consistency of rules between houses, types of discipline and how discipline is used, and schedules.
Set aside time each day to check in with your coparent. This could be done via text or telephone call, if not in person. It need not be a long check in- 5 minutes if all is well in the household. Let your children know that you are communicating with your coparent, so that they are aware that you are telling the coparent the things that they have done throughout the day. This will curb thoughts of splitting behaviors, as children will realize that parents are on the same page.
Oftentimes your co-parent may not be your favorite person in the world. You may have strong opinions about her/his lifestyle or beliefs, and you may want to “win” in certain situations in regards to your children. This will only allow for more splitting between the two of you. There are going to be times when you have to compromise. You may not like the way that your co-parent does something, but there is no harm in it. Choose your battles wisely.