Compliant Children of Divorce: Unwanted Lessons Learned

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Compliant Children of Divorce: Unwanted Lessons Learned

It is nothing new to remind the reader that children of divorce are learning some very important lessons through the role modeling of their separating parents. Children of divorce probably watch their parents lead by example more closely than the general population of children. Why? Because they simply do not know what to do, what to say, or how to feel. They may have heard the word “divorce”, but may have very limited internal resources with which they can make sense of the concept. They are in the midst of a family breakdown over which they have no control and no idea of how bad the breakdown might ultimately become.

As a mental health professional, I worry  less about the children who “act-out” during their parents’ divorce. These kids get the attention, albeit negatively, and parents are more likely to recognize the cry for help. I worry much more about children who “act-in” and, as a result, the parents mistakenly think are fine.

Here are some very subtle and unwanted lessons compliant children of divorce are at risk to learn:

“I should contain my upset. My mother/father is really upset and I am afraid that my being mad, sad or scared will be the last straw. If I seem to be fine, my parents won’t be more upset and so I won’t be left.” Children who learn the unwanted lesson of holding in their own feelings are at risk for future depression, anxiety and difficulty in making healthy attachments.

“I should act like nothing is wrong and I am okay. If my parents think it is okay to break up our family and divorce each other, I will just divorce myself.” Some children of divorce go beyond repressing their own legitimate anger and sadness and actually “break away” from or deny their own unique family experience. This sets them up to live in a distorted reality that they can perpetuate into adulthood.

“When they ask me if I am okay, I will just say ‘yes’. When they ask me if anything is wrong, I will just say ‘no’. They hardly pay any attention to how I’m truly feeling anyway. I may not be very important to them.” This unwanted lesson teaches the child that he/she is not very lovable. A wounded self-concept can carry forward into the child’s own adult relationships where they are either neglected or treated poorly.

When children of divorce become tentative and resistant to discuss the pain they feel about the shift in their family, they may be struggling with feeling ashamed that their parents are breaking up. The feeling of shame is an overwhelming emotional burden for a young child to face and resolve. As a result, these kids develop a style of communication that is guarded and limited. This wall of defense temporarily protects the compliant child. The challenge is that deferred feelings are just that. They don’t go away just because the child is denying them. Sooner or later these unpleasant feelings will arise and more than likely, come out “sideways” through other problems: drug and alcohol abuse, insomnia; poor academic performance, running with the wrong crowd, bad love relationships, suicidal thinking, criminal behavior…just to name a few.

Please consider seeking the support of a Collaborative Child Specialist who can offer uncoupling parents valuable insight into the compliant child’s experience. Pay attention to the child of divorce who appears to be and acts like he/she is just fine. They may be learning some unwanted lessons which will not serve them well on their journey through life.

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Divorce and the Target of Blame

Some people who are facing a contentious divorce may be in that position because they are coined as having high conflict personalities. The high conflict person can be very draining to those who are close to them or to the professionals who are working with them because they have the ability to hook the other in by making the other their target of blame. According to Bill Eddy, the guru of the High Conflict Personality, you know you’ve been hooked by the HCP as a target of blame when you:

  • feel shame as if you have done something wrong
  • you feel the fight, flight or freeze survival instincts
  • become defensive and have a need to blame the high conflict person
  • believe you have to prove yourself to be right
  • feel upset that the high conflict person is “getting away with something”.

Bill Eddy suggests that when you are the target of blame for a high conflict person that you: “remind yourself that it’s unconscious.  This high-conflict behavior isn’t a conscious process for the HCP.  He or she is not ‘knowingly’ taking advantage of you.  His or her actions are driven by unconscious personality patterns.  This doesn’t mean that everything they do is unconscious.  Most HCP’s have lied about something and knowingly engaged in behavior that’s improper.  But they’re driven to do these bad things for unconscious reasons.”

Mr. Eddy reminds us that the High Conflict Personality has always had a target of blame. There has been someone before you and there will be someone after you. This behavior is a pattern for the HCP so that they can remain distracted from their own grief and their own historical fears. Whether you are the HCP’s divorcing spouse or other family member, friend, attorney, mental health professional, you need to be ready for the possibility of becoming their target of blame and work to not get hooked.

Collaborative Divorce is an efficient approach for working with a High Conflict Personality because there is the powerfully safe environment of the professional team to deal with the challenge from a multidimensional perspective. The lawyers and the neutral Financial Specialist help the HCP neurologically move from the mid-brain (fight, flight or freeze center) up to the left cortex where higher, rational, concrete thinking can take place. The Coach can help the HCP recognize and manage intense negative emotions. The Child Specialist can help the HCP to reprioritize his/her thinking and remember to put the needs of the children in the forefront.  If you work in the field of divorce, Collaborative Divorce training is essential for less taxing, more gratifying work. There is a three-day training coming up on February 2-4, 2012 in Pomona, CA. Here is the direct link to sign up:

If you are the divorcing spouse of a High Conflict Personality, please consider getting a Collaborative Divorce. It will help your restructuring family to transition more peacefully. It will focus on the well-being of your children and place your divorce in the context of a normal transition in today’s world.

Writing this blog reminds me of a very meaningful statement by Wayne Dyer. “All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you.” Please keep this in mind when working with a HCP. It will help you avoid getting hooked.

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Divorce: the Only Moral Choice is the Collaborative Model

Statistics show that marriage is losing popularity and many couples are opting for divorce. Generations ago, divorce was perceived with stigma and while that perspective has improved, divorce is still frequently regarded as the launch into the fight of one’s life. Maybe this is one reason people are opting out of marriage altogether. Maybe marriage wouldn’t be losing ground if divorcing people began to choose a divorce that is moral and honorable in its approach.

I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen who is considering divorce to opt for a Collaborative Divorce. This choice represents a moral and ethical decision for the integrity of our society. To divorce collaboratively states that the needs of the children and their transitioning family context deserve to be treated with respect, care, loving kindness…and nothing less. This needs to become a core value for every divorcing family because the family is the foundation for our society at large.

Collaborative Divorce is a means for uncoupling that utilizes an interdisciplinary team of professionals; each trained and skilled in providing resolution and closure to the legal, emotional and financial dimension inherent in every divorce. The divorcing couple is cocooned within the safety net of their professional team and become empowered to respectfully gather and share necessary information,; brainstorm all the possible options in transitioning their assets and debts; and, kindly make agreements each can live with as they move forward in a two-household family. They work together with their team to listen to the voice of their kids and hold their children’s concerns at the forefront.

I have been practicing in this model for more than a decade and I am pretty passionate about the notion that our society needs to move into an honorable point of view that Collaborative Divorce is naturally the only way for a family to make a life-altering transition that truly serves the greater good.

If you or someone you know is considering a divorce, please learn more about Collaborative Divorce and take the high-minded path for the good of the family and for the good of society. It is your moral responsibility to do so. If you are a divorce professional (legal, mental health, or financial), please take the Collaborative Divorce Full Team Training on November 3rd, 4th, 5th in Phoenix, AZ. Check out our website Collaborative Divorce Institute (at for more information.