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Divorce Pitfalls to Avoid, Part One

Retaining your family when ending a marriage

The following seven pitfalls terminate healthy family relationships and introduce complicated dynamics into a child's lives. They highlight common traps for blurring the boundaries between parent and child, which can affect both the parents' relationships with the child, and the child's ability to build successful relationships with others.

1. The Good Cop/Bad Cop Challenge

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Most of us have witnessed the good cop/bad cop model of parenting, which paints one parent as the fun-loving, adventurous, and permissive friend and the other as the strict, boring disciplinarian. I’ve seen this dynamic play out several times with divorced couples whom I counsel, as parents compete for their children’s affection.

Statistics indicate that more than 25 percent of children are raised by single parents (1). Some of these children have visitation with noncustodial parents who struggle to establish a meaningful bond with their kids. The good-cop role is especially appealing to the noncustodial parents because it offers enticements to children.

As noncustodial parents often struggle with how to effectively express their parenting role, they may shed the time-tested qualities of firm and loving guidance and resort to the role of playmate and friend. These stand-in efforts fail to serve either child or parent. The good-cop parenting dynamic is inappropriate because children require clear boundaries to internalize discipline. The good-cop option can also reinforce damaging behaviors.

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Kids are willing magnets for excessive privilege and rewards and can learn to manipulate these circumstances to their initial advantage—and ultimate detriment. When children see their parents split (something they don’t enjoy), they are prone to engage in splitting behaviors themselves for immediate gratification (something they find attractive and seemingly rewarding).

These behaviors frequently occur at a critical time in a child’s physical and cognitive development. Children require firm and loving support to avoid misdirection, ideally from authoritative parents—parents who are emotionally mature, reasonable, and loving and prudent. The authoritative parenting style supports a child’s growth through healthy guidance, despite the child’s preference for the path of least resistance. Research confirms that permissive parenting, or parenting that is laissez-faire, results in children who are not well regulated, perform poorly in school, and experience problems with authority (2).

It’s worth mentioning that considerable research has found two other parenting styles to be detrimental. The first is the authoritarian parenting style that produces children who behave obediently but who rank low socially, in both self-esteem and confidence; these children also tend to feel unhappy in response to oppressive parenting. The other is uninvolved parenting that results in kids feeling unwanted and insignificant, creating children with the poorest outcomes in personal development. Ultimately, children seek authoritative parenting guides, which lead to maturity and leadership. Your parenting style should be shaped with consideration to healthy guidelines that meet your children’s specific needs.

2. Winning a Child’s Favor

Noncustodial parents use gifts and special privileges in an effort to create positive responses from their children and to gain more access to them, especially when their time together is limited to weekends or less. A more manipulative motive may be retaliation against the ex-spouse. By creating disruption, noncustodial parents may feel they are getting back at their exes, undoing their former spouses’ efforts.

When parents try to win favor with their children and abandon an authoritative posture, they create an imbalance in their role as a supporting parent. They shift to a deficient—permissive or uninvolved—parenting style, focusing on their own agenda and not on the best interests of their children.

3. Splitting

Splitting occurs when parents destroy the unity of those in control and enable children to pit parents against each other. Research makes it clear that children seek firm and loving support from a parent who demonstrates the authoritative parenting style (3). Of course, splitting occurs not only through a division between parents, but as a further division within the family that intensifies during the breakdown of loss, structure, and values.

(To be continued).

(1). Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),“Families Are Changing”, in OECD, ed., Doing Better for Families (Paris:OECD Publishing, 2011), 28.

(2). A. Milevsky, M. Schlechter, S. Netter, and D. Keehn, “Maternal and Paternal Parenting Styles in Adolescents: Associations with Self-Esteem, Depression and Life-Satisfaction,” Journal of Child and Family Studies16.1 (2006): 39–47.

(3). R. E. Larzelere, A. S. Morris, and A. W. Harrist, Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing Nurturance and Discipline for Optimal Child Development (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2012), 27).

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a part time lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce. For more information visit (link is external), and