Bitter Divorces and Family Trauma: Children Caught In The Middle

One of the most difficult challenges that a therapist can face is when a child or teen is brought to treatment and their parents are engaged in a bitter or difficult divorce.

One of the most difficult challenges that a therapist can face is when a child or teen is brought to treatment and their parents are engaged in a bitter or difficult divorce. The divorce does not have to be the result of a marriage ending. It also includes any bitter ending of a relationship that includes a child or adolescent.

The divorce is exacerbated when lawyers get involved and there is a power struggle over visitation, custody, child support, or the division of property. The dance of bitterness or offense can also prevent the parents from seeing the negative impact on their child and the resulting trauma.   

This emotional fallout can amplify or cause boundary violations, parents not being on the same page, and role confusion. Within this context, the child or adolescent can be caught in the middle and used as a battering ram to hurt the other parent or asked to take sides and choose loyalties.      

The resulting stress, anxiety, and chaos often results in trauma to the child and symptoms of depression, aggression, suicidal tendencies, self-harm, or extreme disrespect. It can also lead to the child playing one parent against the other to gain more power and authority in one of both households.

The Problem for Therapists 

Unfortunately, many therapists are not specialty trained in the complexities of a bitter or difficult divorce or have the family therapy skills needed to help warring parents organize around a common goal of putting the needs of the child first and establishing a better “working relationship” with one another.

These common challenges are made more complex when the therapist has limited pre-engagement strategies other than to set up the initial appointment.  

This lack of initial rapport-building ahead of the family’s first in-person session can lead emotionally embattled parents to approach therapy with the same intense reluctance, bitterness, and disinterest that existed within the failed relationship itself.  It is a parallel process.

The FST Motivational Technique: Divide and Conquer 

In response to these challenges, the FST (Family Systems Trauma) Model developed a 7-question FST motivational technique and script to quickly engage parents after a bitter divorce to feel valued and a clear path to see the benefits of working together for the higher calling of healing their child’s trauma. 

To maximize this technique effectively, it is recommended that you employ a “divide and conquer” strategy. This means calling each parent separately with these motivational questions. At the onset of treatment, they may dislike one another to such an extent that they cannot tolerate being in the same room or same telemedicine call. You must win their confidence and trust separately, if you have any hope of bringing them together as parents in the future.

Here is an example of two of these 7-questions to quickly build rapport and trust:

  • If I got to know you better, what qualities would I come to admire about you as a parent?

This question can instantly propel the parent to a strengths-based perspective and “hope talk”. This shift is critical because a parent often has shame or blames themselves for the divorce. And they need to see for themselves their strengths and more importantly that you want to see their strengths as the therapist.  From this position, the parent is more open to your suggestions and rationale of why it may be essential to meet with the other parent strategically to get the child out of the middle and to heal. 

In addition, legally, you will need permission and a signed release to speak to the other parent, if the primary parent is the one bringing the child into treatment. 

  • What are the negative implications to your child in the coming months and years if you as parents are unable to have a better working relationship and you child may get caught in the middle?

This is called a carefully scripted implications question. Or “what will have if?” the bitter divorce is not handled properly with regards to a position of CHILDREN FIRST. This implication question is powerful because it forces the parent to step out of their own pain and offense to carefully consider their child’s best interests.

Conclusion: Important Seeds are Planted 

Even if embittered parents are not ready to initially meet with you to solve key parenting issues, the FST Motivational Technique plants essential important seeds that can be harvested later. The questions also metaphorically “kick the tires” to see how workable each parent is in relation to one another.  

As President Theodore Roosevelt famously stated: 

“People don’t care how much you know until they first know how much you care” [bold added]. 

Nowhere is this more important than in treating parents who hate or dislike each other.

Scott P. Sells, PhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at or through LinkedIn.

Dr. Scott Sells

Dr. Scott Sells

Dr. Scott Sells is the founder of the Family Trauma Institute and developer of the FST | Family Systems Trauma model.
Read Dr. Sells’ bio.