Your Child is not your Messenger! (by: Dr. Anne Brown PhD, RNCS)

One would think after going through a difficult, and many times nasty divorce from a contentious (narcissistic, borderline, psychopathic, or sociopathic for example) partner he/she might be done with you and want to move on. You will probably find this will not be the case especially if there are children involved. One reason is the issue of control. This type of personality likes to control everything and with a divorce there is a loss of control. Someone must emotionally pay for the pain of the divorce and the loss of control and who better than the ex. And the one area the CP (contentious partner) still has access to his/her ex is the vulnerable, innocent children. As I have said in a previous article it is imperative you parent collaterally if you are in this situation. Here is one area of vulnerability for you and your child and tactics and understanding to help both of you.


Using your child as a messenger is inappropriate parenting, damaging to the child, and probably not easily proven or prosecuted by the courts. Children know when they are being interrogated and most usually figure out it is dangerous territory for them. When a child gives information to the CP, the information will be twisted and turned around to alienate the child from his other innocent parent. I have seen brilliant creative ways children work to decline being messengers. Boys can be particularly great at one word answers, zoning out, not remembering. Girls are more inclined to “chit chat” so interrogation can be particularly challenging to them. That being said I have seen girls masterfully pretend they had a terrible time when the opposite was true. However, they know if they say they had a great time the CP will have to say horrible things about the other parent. Whatever you notice on your child’s call to the other parent (without being nosy) support and understand what your child is attempting to do-Stay out of trouble. Remember when you gave your ex too much information how you got into trouble. If there is a particularly triggering event to your ex or an event your child doesn’t know how to present to the CP send a robotic email with the breakdown, the solution and the child is safe. E.G. We had a hurricane this weekend, we are safe, we have discussed and all is well. Remember the breakdown, the solution, and the child is safe. If a child is strong enough he/she may be able to say Dad said he told you what happened, I am tired and don’t want to discuss it. If he can’t that is fine he will know the CP has the information. Remember how difficult it was for you to negotiate the waters of giving information to someone who will use it against you.

I personally believe one probable cause of eating disorders (often with girls) is internalizing the conflict of a divorce. When a child is fed negative information about a parent she loves and feels good with, it becomes a conflict. The child fears abandonment, becomes compliant and internalizes the conflict. Your Mom is a bad person “but it doesn’t feel that way for me”; your Dad is a bad person, “but I like being with him” are dilemmas a child shouldn’t have to negotiate. To make matters worse, the alienation is more covert “really your Mom bought you “that”; “your Dad really took you “there”? This is parental alienation syndrome and as I said before difficult to prove and prosecute but oh so damaging to an already vulnerable child. Sadly, many children have to endure this from the time of the divorce until they can leave home. Sadly, some will continue to be the messenger and have to listen to the covert hostile messages.

Can you start to imagine the breakdowns that come from interrogating a vulnerable child to be the messenger? A child learns that questions aren’t safe, telling about one’s day may not be safe, discussing your weekend/vacation may not be safe because the child has to measure his/her responses and most tragic is the damage done to the child’s relationship to the other parent.

Depending on the age of your child and the types of conversations you can have, you CAN help your child deal with this challenge.

1. First observe and understand what is going on.
2. Give your child safe words to use when describing his weekend to the CP. We got a lot of reading/homework done, we ate, we went to the park, and we slept.
3. Intervene and protect if at all possible. (Getting engaged and remarried are FYI’s you might want to send via robotic email.)
4. Don’t personalize when your child has to downplay the fun he/she had with you.
5. Remember the tactics you used and share them with your child age appropriately.
6. Tell your child if the other parent wants to know something to call you. Your ex won’t, but it might stop the interrogation.

Make sharing a fun event in your house. “Remember when we were swimming and the big wave came and we both rode it in. You did such a great job.” Be excited and validating not angry and critical. Laugh and be upbeat about the things you do. Give your child a positive time at your home and eventually they will make distinctions about where they feel safe and the anger they experience with the other parent is not their problem. Understanding what an interrogated child is going through, offering age appropriate tools to your child, protecting your child when possible, not personalizing your child’s coping skills, and letting your child use you when he/she can, are all ways to empower both of you to deal with this toxic behavior.

“Every time an alienating parent tells a child how horrible the other parent is; that parent also tells the child that half of him/her is horrible. “

This article originally appeared at DivorceForce & re-published on Backbone Power.

© 2019 Dr. Anne Brown; Psychotherapist, Speaker, and Author of Backbone Power The Science of Saying No. Permission needed for any form of reproduction.

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Psychotherapist, Speaker, Coach, and Author of “Backbone Power The Science of Saying No”