I recently joined a variety of “support groups” on Facebook for those who are or have separated and divorced. The following was posted by a mother in one of those groups: “I really hate that my nine-year-old is being used as a tug of war.”


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Grammatical issues aside, do you find anything odd in that comment? The Collins English Dictionary defines tug-of-war in “American” as follows: “A contest in which two teams pull at opposite ends of a rope, each trying to drag the other across a central line; any power struggle between two parties.” In other words, what this mother has described is that she is involved in a power struggle with the child’s other parent over their nine-year-old child. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, a power struggle is “a situation in which two or more people or groups compete for control in a particular sphere.” Almost all parents claim that their children mean more to them than anything else in the world. Inadvertently, many of those same parents cause their children trauma. High levels of parental conflict can cause childhood trauma. In marriage, separation or divorce, it is the chronic and/or toxic parental conflicts that are extremely harmful to children – not the separation or divorce itself.


A great deal has been written about the fact that when spouses feel compelled to win their arguments with each other, they end up losing their relationship. If the need to win arguments was destructive to the marriage, then fighting to prove a point or win an argument as coParents is going to be even less well-received. Conflict is a fact of life and occurs for a variety of reasons, such as differing perspectives, priorities, or solutions to a problem. For example, there are different ways to parent kids. Parenting styles are a matter of perception. Children benefit from your differences as much as they benefit from your similarities. Unless your parents’ differences are endangering your child, then don’t allow those differences to become a source of chronic/toxic conflict. Because we know for sure that chronic/toxic conflict is distressing – and often traumatic – for kids.


In her article, The Roots of Power Struggle in Relationships, Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D. said the following: “Margaret Thatcher said, ‘Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.’ Often, I see this in relationships – it’s those who feel powerless who in turn act in a demanding, overwhelming, power-driven way to compensate for their perceived powerlessness. As a result, they underestimate their ability to affect others and behave in extreme ways that are aggressive or disproportionately intense. This has far more negative impact on their partners and their relationships than they had ever intended.”


In Dealing With Power Struggles, Karen Sims, a Redirecting Children’s Behavior instructor for the International Network for Children and Families says the following: “The first step to effectively and positively deal with power struggles is to side-step the power struggle – in other words, refuse to pick up the other end of the rope… By side-stepping the power struggle, you send… the message ‘I am not going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to overpower you and I’m not going to give in, either.’…


“After side-stepping the power struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders… Power struggles often feel like someone has to win and someone has to lose. A win-win solution is where each party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting to win-win takes negotiation… [People] who are overpowered, or who feel powerless, will often seek to gain power through revenge. When [people] act out in power struggles and revengeful behavior, they are most often feeling powerless and discouraged about a positive way to contribute and know that their actions count.”


Conflict is inevitable and, when handled skillfully, is growth-producing for kids. Consider the following quote from an article by Jackie Zimmermann titled Steer Your Way to a Lasting Legacy that was published in the June 2015 edition of Money Magazine: “Seventy-four percent of Americans recently polled by Merrill Lynch said passing along their values to heirs was a top priority. Only 32% attached similar importance to real estate or financial assets.” Thus, a significant majority of Americans believe it’s more important that parents pass along personal legacies to their heirs than financial ones. As far as personal legacies are concerned, if parents cannot work through their issues in a constructive manner, the tug-of-war between them typically continues until one of them finally dies. The tug-of-war with regard to adult children comes to light when dealing with holidays, important occasions, and other such things.


The personal legacy parents leave their children (and grandchildren) is that they will simultaneously grieve the loss and have a sense of relief that the tug-of-war ended with their death, regardless of which parent dies first. Children should never experience both of those emotions at the same time and the surviving parent can’t continue the tug-of-war with the deceased parent. The sense of relief children experience as a result of the end of the tug-of-war is the same, regardless of fault, blame, and percentage of responsibility between the deceased and surviving parent. Parents should really be careful not to leave such a personal legacy.


Children need parents who are bigger than their problems. Children benefit when coParents resolve conflict and model mature problem-solving. The end goal is to be better parents to your children and manage conflict constructively.


About Mark Baer

Mark BaerMark Baer is a lawyer, mediator and conflict resolution consultant. He has decades of experience in family law and has crafted a reputation within the industry for his psychologically-minded and child-centered approach.

Mark is also a well-known writer and columnist for a number of publications on the interplay between psychology and conflict resolution within the field of family law, as well as familial and interpersonal relationships in general. He has had a regular “Psychology and Family Law” column in the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association’s award-winning bimonthly newsletter since 2008. A member of Psychology Today’s expert community, Mark also has a blog column titled “Empathy and Relationships: Fostering Genuine Open-Mindedness.” He is also a HuffPost Blogger and a number of those blog articles have been referenced in books, law review articles, by evidence-based public policy think tanks, and elsewhere. Mark has written extensively for a number of other publications, as well. His material has been used and shared by law school professors, and by some of the highest ranked dispute resolution organizations in the country, such as the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law and the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School.

He has also presented on several occasions at the California Psychological Association Convention, the American Bar Association Section of Family Law CLE Conference, and the Southern California Mediation Association Conference, among other such organizations.