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A Child Does Not Belong in the Middle of Parental Conflict

Updated on September 29, 2015

Parents in Conflict

I have a neighboring family who is in trouble.

They fight on a daily basis. They bang doors, curse one another, scream and throw things. They are trouble. They fight every night about the same time like clockwork, but there will be other times that they duke it out when their child is in school.

Their fighting reminds me of my parents. It brings back painful memories of what it was like living with parents in conflict. Parents who would get angry and vile at the drop of a hat.

I was once that neighboring child who was subject to the torture of two parents who didn't know how to get along; who didn't know how to manage their anger and control what comes out of their mouths. I was that child feeling the full brunt of the parental conflict.

I was the defenseless child in the middle.

“Children are more likely to develop personality and behavioral problems in unhappy, unloving families in which the parents fight continually than in any other kind of family situation.”

Source: Edward Teyber, Helping Children Cope with Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Child in the Middle

A child can't help but to be in the middle of parental conflicts. The child, especially like my neighbor, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, there's nowhere to hide or take refuge when his parents are in the midst of a major battle.

So the child sits there, in the apartment, ingesting all the adult vile and anger. He's alone like I was. There's no one to confide in to gain perspective. It's something that a child should never experience.

What is worse is when the child becomes a confidant for one or both of these warring parents. The little kid is told adult, personal things that he or she should never be privy to. This never happened to me but I've worked with children who have been told sexual things about the other parent, things that made the child see the other parent in a negative light.

When parents bring the child into their war, and try to poison their minds against the other parent, this is called splitting. The child begins to hate the other parent, which is detrimental to the emotional growth of the child as well as to the family system. The child might begin to act out against that parent, siding with the other parent and thus engaging in the war as a third party.

Kids Who are in the Middle May Act Out Later


Why We Put Kids in the Middle

Triangulation is a dysfunctional behavior pattern that we all have done at one time or another, but most of us are unaware that we are doing it.

Triangulation is when we bring a third person into a two person argument that is too intense for us to handle.

Being in the middle of a conflict is the worst place to be. It is like being in the middle of two gangsters firing at one another. Chances are you will get hit by at least one bullet and will get wounded, possibly wounded seriously.

We've all been there as an adult in a relationship. We can't communicate with the person. We are angry or stressed out trying to deal with a particular person so we enlist someone, anyone to help us to cope. It might be a family member, a co-worker, a pastor--anyone who is willing to listen. The person who gets in the middle usually has good intentions but soon finds out that he is in the middle of some pretty nasty stuff.

Sometimes we want someone to talk some sense into our spouse. Other times we just want someone as a substitute to talk with because we can't talk directly to our spouse for fear that the conversation will explode or, at the very least, be overwhelming for us.

Basically, we dupe someone into our predicament, thus creating a triangle or triad of people involved in a two person conflict.

Triangulation is highly dysfunctional and, if it is our child we are enlisting, we are doing that child a major disservice.

Characteristics of a Healthy and Safe Marital Relationship


Therapist Locator

Take a step to reduce toxic marital conflict. You can locate a highly trained marriage and family therapist at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapist.

Superheroes Can't Save a Bad Marriage, but Maybe a Therapist Can

Unfortunately, our kids are perfect for this dirty job of saving a marriage gone bad. They are naïve and don't have a lot of experience in relationships and they want their parents to get along more than anything. So they figure, if they get involved, they can magically help their parents overcome a major relationship problem.

From the kid's point of view, it's a chance for him to rescue the parents. It's a golden opportunity for the child to take a stab at stopping the parental conflict that keeps him up all night or makes his little tummy burn with anxiety. He figures, if the parents can't do it--I'll have to.

Beyond the practical reasons, it's also a chance for the kid to become a hero. Because the child loves his parents so much, he would be more than willing to become the hero of the family; to rescue the parents from whatever issue that is going on to create parental conflict--alcohol/drugs, infidelity, porn--you name it, the kid is ready and willing. He will drop everything--friends, school--just to see his parents stop fighting and for his family to stay intact.

Sadly, the little boy doesn't know what he is in for. Even a superhero might be no match for a dysfunctional marital system. The kid can't rescue the parents. He can't stop the war that is ravaging the emotional climate of the home. By getting involved, the kid is only putting coals onto the fire, stoking the flames of an angry marriage. The kid is putting himself in a vulnerable position and setting himself up to be a victim of his parents anger and turmoil. It's a bad scene with a bad outcome.

Lucky for me, my parents didn't enlist me into their conflict. They didn't tell me to talk to the other parent or use me as a substitute to vent their raw emotions. Instead, I tried to detour the conflict by making myself sick.

How do you deal with an overwhelming marital conflict?

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Detouring Parental Conflict

Kids are creative, at least subconsciously. They may not be aware of what they are doing, but kids have been known to come up with some pretty creative ways of getting their parents to stop arguing, even if it doesn't work and makes matters worse in the process.

Some clever ways of detouring parental conflict include:

  • Creating school problems
  • Behavior problems
  • Health problems

Somewhere in the mind of a child, she might be thinking that if I don't do any schoolwork or if I don't listen to the teacher, my parents will stop what they're fighting about and focus on me. If they focus on me, then they will stop their endless fighting and it will be peaceful at home. Unbeknownst to the child, the fighting will not only continue but it will worsen due to the school problems which will create more stress on the marital unit.

Behavior problems could mean behavior problems at school, in the community or in the home. Sometimes the behavior problems might be directed toward the parent--the parent that the child perceives as the cause of the marital conflict. The child might feel justified in acting out. The child might act out in order to support the parent who the child feels is the victim in the relationship. Obviously, the child doesn't understand the whole picture. The child sees things from a distorted lens, coupled with a lack of understanding of adult issues.

Developing asthma was my subconscious ploy to stop my parents from fighting. If I had an asthma attack, and if I scare the crap out of them, then maybe, just maybe my parents will make peace with one another. Well, I was wrong. But I continued to try it--asthma attack after asthma attack, until I couldn't control it anymore and, to this day, I have my emergency inhaler by my side and I still have asthma attacks. The only thing I did was make matters worse and give myself a pair of pretty beat-up lungs.

Other kids have developed eating disorders. They figured that if they stopped eating their parents would shut up and take notice of the pain that they were putting them through. While other children overeat to numb themselves from their pain. Both methods of parental control usually end up in disaster and create more conflict at home.

We All Want to See a Happy Couple--Especially Our Children


A Letter to My Neighbor

Dear Neighbor,

I am writing this anonymous letter because I don't want to reveal my identity and get pulled into your daily fights, usually occurring between 6pm and 8pm every night.

I hear these fights and I remember how my parents used to fight. It was terrible for me and I didn't know what to do or how to stop them. Because they fought so much, I think I developed asthma as a result. I don't think you want your son getting sick over your marital relationship. Kids need to be protected from that. It is the parents obligation to provide a safe and secure environment for their children so they can focus on their own developmental issues like school and friends and developing healthy social skills.

Neighbor, if your fighting continues your child will not develop in a healthy way. Take it from someone who has been there. Your child may develop health problems like I did or develop behavioral problems or school or academic issues. I know that you want what's best for your child and you don't want your marital problems to create an unhealthy child.

So please, do something about your marital issues. See a professional. Get some much needed help. Above all, don't put your kid in the middle of your nasty and violent arguments.

Concerned Neighbor

Warning: Please Don't Put a Child in the Middle of Parental Conflict



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    • AliciaAH profile image

      Alicia Alarco-Hernandez 

      4 years ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      You're welcome, yes sometimes it takes a taste of reality for people to change. However what you did was good, even it was planting a seed. All we can is hope the seed takes root and flourish.

    • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Tulin 

      4 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Thanks AllciaAH for your nice response to my article. Today I saw a couple of police knock at the neighbor's door. I hope they talked some sense into them. Sometimes it takes a strong kick in the pants to wake up. Let's hope.

    • AliciaAH profile image

      Alicia Alarco-Hernandez 

      4 years ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      Wow this really touched my heart and soul. I also grew up in dysfunctional home with my mother, my biological father and later on my step-father. Parents don't realize the damage they cause their children when they deal with problems the unhealthy way. I was put in the middle and I developed asthma probably subconsciously. My little sister & I coped the best we could. I was always sick, my sister was a troubled maker. I get triggered when I see children put in those situations. It was inspiring to see that you did something about it. I hope your neighbors took your advice and got help. I appreciate your article.


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