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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Don’t Put Your Kid in the Middle

Being in the middle hurts kids; how can you prevent that?

Key points

  • Co-parents should shield children from parental conflict, not make them witness it.
  • Putting a child in the middle means inappropriately placing a child into roles that should not be theirs.
  • A child who feels their needs are unimportant can lose self-esteem, self-value, and a sense of security.
Source: Kiwis/Stock Photos
Source: Kiwis/Stock Photos

"Don't put your child in the middle."

You've probably heard this phrase if you have been in a co-parenting relationship. But you may not realize how frequently it occurs, under what circumstances, and with what results.

For example, Norwegian researchers reported that about 46 percent of children in their sample of high-conflict divorce families were at a heightened risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS). Divorce and breakups are difficult, but putting a child in the middle of parental issues causes increased ongoing stress and confusion and affects the child's ability to heal.

You may think of a child put in the middle when the co-parents are overtly fighting, but putting a child in the middle in less obvious ways is also harmful. Consider the case of co-parents Sonya and Ron. Both are busy with their jobs and have never established good communication channels between them. Because they prefer not to deal directly with each other, they rely on 11-year-old Sam as their go-between.

Sonya may say, "Honey, don't forget to remind your dad he needs to sign those papers from school."

Ron may say, "Hey Sam, can you tell your mom to be on time Sunday? I can't miss my plane."

These co-parents fail to notice that their child is increasingly anxious and stressed. Sam is not only taking on the role of messenger but has to receive and manage the other parent's reaction.

How Co-Parents Put Their Children in the Middle

Even conscientious co-parents may unknowingly put their child in the middle. I define this dynamic as a child being inappropriately placed into roles that should not be theirs. This happens when one or both co-parents prioritize (consciously or unconsciously) their own emotional or physical needs over their child's needs.

The following are common ways co-parents put their child in the middle:

  • The child has to witness, overhear, or mediate ongoing parental tension or conflict.
  • The child has to serve as a messenger.
  • The child has to hear judgments or disparaging comments one co-parent makes about the other, the other's parenting ability, or the other's role in the divorce.
  • The child is "parentified"—that is, they have to become their parent's confidant or therapist, soothe or take on their parent's emotions or perspectives, or take on parenting responsibilities for their siblings.
  • The child becomes a pawn in court battles or is fought over much as one would fight over property.
  • The child has to hold secrets, act as a spy, or be interrogated about the other parent's private life.
  • The child is caught in the middle concerning financial issues.

How Being Put in the Middle Affects Your Child

Putting your child in the middle causes ongoing stress and pressure for the child, which has both physical and emotional negative consequences. Constant stress causes the body to go into survival mode: the fight, flight, freeze response. Instead of finding homeostasis, the body stays on high alert, affecting blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, affecting serotonin levels (e.g., causing depression), and even altering brain regions (e.g., hippocampus) essential for learning and memory.

Sleep issues and health problems (e.g., stomachaches, fatigue, headaches, and frequent illness), as well as emotional (anxiety, depression) and behavioral issues (aggression or withdrawal), and difficulty with self-regulation can result and even lead to longer-term health and emotional issues in adulthood (Russell and Lightman, 2019).

When your child is in the middle, the focus moves off their needs and onto your and your co-parent's needs. Your child may adapt by becoming overly sensitive to your moods and emotions or by withholding their own needs and feelings because they sense that showing they are sad, mad, or afraid may hurt your feelings.

For example, if one co-parent tells a child the other parent is bad or doing things wrong, the child may think, "I love that parent, and they're part of me, so does that mean I am also bad?" They may think, "For me to be worthy of love, I must behave a certain way so I don't get judged." They may also feel they have to protect their other parent. All this is confusing and stressful for the child.

If your child feels their needs are less important, they can develop negative beliefs about their value and lovability. This can lead to shame about being unworthy or not good enough or to unhealthy ways of interacting and relating with others. These adaptive strategies can result in an insecure attachment with that parent, creating long-term patterns of behavior that follow them into their adult relationships.

How to Help Your Child

Here's the good news: Because of the brain's natural plasticity, you can work to shape and nurture your child's development in healthier ways, even if they have encountered adverse experiences. Suppose you or your co-parent has knowingly or unknowingly put your child in the middle. In that case, I recommend the following actions to help them regain a sense of security and minimize the stress and confusion of a breakup or divorce:

1. Behave and interact as if your co-parenting team is a nonprofit or a business whose sole purpose is to raise a child. Be respectful and cordial when interacting to decrease conflict.

2. Become aware of ways you may put your child in the middle. Decrease and eliminate situations and behaviors that put your child in the middle.

3. Do your healing work to understand how your emotions, needs, and past experiences might lead you to put your child in the middle.

4. Keep the focus on your child, their needs, and the memories you want them to have. Be present and empathic and help them process any feelings they may have. Listen and give your child a voice.

5. Work toward presenting a united front with your co-parent so your child doesn't have to pick a side or protect either of you.

6. Allow your child to love both their parents.

7. If your co-parent still puts your child in the middle, ensure they don't feel in the middle when they are at home with you. Instead of trying to justify or prove you are right, model and teach respectful communication, cooperation, healthy boundaries, and safety.

8. Create direct lines of communication through phone, text, or email, a parenting app, or, if need be, a mediator or lawyer so you can make agreements and discuss scheduling changes and requests directly with your co-parent instead of through your child.


Lange, A. M. C., Visser, M. M., Scholte, R. H. J., & Finkenauer, C. (2021). Parental conflicts and posttraumatic stress of children in high-conflict divorce families. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 15(3), 615–625.

Russell, G., & Lightman, S. (2019). The human stress response. National Review of Endocrinology, 15, 525–534.

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