Divided and Conquered by Our Child

I first heard the term ‘divide et impera‘ in relation to my ancient Latin history studies at the uni and I remember thinking it’s a brilliant military tactic that could be implemented in any loosing situation to turn it around and achieve victory. It has been used widely in politics and also as part of the power play among employers vs employees, but never in my wildest dreams did I consider the fact that one day my young adopted son would use this tactic to break the bond within my own family…

During the Adoption Preparation Course we were told about the Triangulation tactic, that traumatised children often use to feel safe and to gain control over a situation, especially when they feel out of control – which is, let’s be honest, MOST OF THE TIME!

They didn’t ask to be born.
They didn’t ask to be born to a mother with substance abuse while pregnant.
They didn’t ask to be born to a dysfunctional family who is unable and/or unwilling to care for them properly.
They didn’t ask for the abuse and/or neglect they received.
Despite all these they still didn’t ask to be removed from their family.
They didn’t ask for everything and everyone to be taken away from them.
They weren’t asked about the new adults in their life whom they have to call Mum & Dad from now on…

All these things ‘just’ happened to them!

Divide and conquer tactic was used by a child on her adoptive parents and what therapeutic response works for that

Triangulation tactic at work

I must admit I didn’t believe I could be fooled. Definitely not by a small child! I also believed my bond with my husband was strong enough to withstand any potential cracking. I believed that I was clever enough to realise what is happening around me and get a clear read on potential disruptive tactics and I believed I was equipped to prevent them before a major disaster develops. Well… about that…

Last Sunday I had a Big Revelation, which was followed by a massive Paradigm Shift in my approach towards my children, especially towards our oldest boy.

It so happened that we were coming home from church and were laughing in the car, all four of us. I got out of the car to have a quick word with a neighbour and told hubby to ‘just drive home with the boys, I will be there in 5.’ Five minutes later I walked through the front door only to be greeted by 3 screaming men! Husband was irritated beyond measure in the kitchen, 8 was smashing things in the dining room and 7 was crying because he was scared (of the smashing noise I think). What the hell happened??? How could a situation turn 180 degrees so fast and escalate to this level in 5 minutes???

Clearly everybody was in an irritated stage so there was no point me loosing it as well or even to ask what has happened. Operation Damage Control kicked in and as a first step I separated the 3 men into 3 rooms. 7 stopped crying as soon as the noise level went back to normal and he was fine after a quick cuddle. 1 down, 2 to go. I went to hubby first for answers. He said as soon as I stepped out of the car 8 started to ‘act out’ and attacked his younger brother for seemingly no reason. He had to park the car first before he could intervene and by then the kids were in full on fighting mode. They got inside the house and 8 turned from his brother towards trashing the dining room.

I went to 8 to hear his side of the story – that’s only fair. Naturally his cortisol was over the roof (I wrote about this fear factor reaction and the background of it a few weeks ago) so it took some calming tactics before he was able to speak. According to him ‘I didn’t do anything, he attacked me first’, which is untrue of course, but not an unexpected answer to be honest. The truth is he has neither a conscious idea WHY he started to fight or damage the house, nor the wisdom to know WHAT big feelings he had at the time.

In retrospect I can put the pieces together and paint you a really sad picture. For a long time the children have been passed around between birth mum, birth father (BF), mum’s mum, dad’s mum, mum’s friend, dad’s dad randomly and repeatedly, which of course caused huge anxieties for the children every time and whenever 8 was left with BF he was treated extremely poorly. So when I got out of our car poor 8 got transported back in time, to another city, another car, another mother ‘rejecting him’ and leaving him in the care (or lack of) by another dad. No wonder he freaked out!

It’s not you, it’s him

That Sunday I realised a few things. 8 was not ‘nasty’ to my husband! He was ‘nasty’ to BF! He was terrified of BF! He hated BF! He didn’t want to be near BF! He didn’t trust BF therefore he never did what BF told him, which in return just got him into more trouble with BF so you can see how the cycle just got worse with each meeting…

I also realised that 8 and my husband didn’t really have enough opportunities to bond and connect! During our play therapy and filial therapy sessions I was always with 8, while hubby was with 7. At that time that was the correct action plan, everybody agreed. But because I am the Stay-At-Home-Mum I have spent significantly more time with the children than my husband who works full time. I had plenty of opportunities to develop a good relationship built on trust and love and respect with 7. So the boys are much more responsive whenever they are with me. We have less and less issues when we are together, all four of us – amazing, how far we have come since Introductions!

But 8 has never learnt to see and experience my husband for who HE IS; 8 only saw BF and therefore projected all his negative feelings onto his new daddy. (shameless plug, I wrote more about this in a guess article to the Dad website, click here if interested)

So during our Sunday dinner I explained my theory to 8. He didn’t disagree, I really think he understood it. But when I said ‘from now on you and daddy should spend more time together’ naturally he freaked out. I can understand that; he was afraid of the unknown and he wanted the comfort of his mummy (me) instead of anybody else. Again, it was not against my husband per se, but it’s VERY hard not to perceive it as such – and I can also understand why my husband feels rejected, too.

Poor husband has been on the receiving end of much abuse from 8 and no matter how much love and caring he poured into 8’s life he never received anything positive back! It really is a vicious circle! In simplistic terms: 8 hates BF + doesn’t ‘see’ my husband -> 8 acts out when husband is around -> 8’s challenging behaviour is testing hubby’s patience and systematically empties his love tank -> with each encounter hubby has less and less to give while he gets treated poorly => the situation gets a little worse each time.

Paradigm Shift that saved the day

On one hand I can see the situation from 8’s perspective and it really doesn’t look good. He is scared and worried and therefore uses every method he can to feel safe. One of them is to put a wedge between my husband and I. And sadly I must admit I didn’t see it at all until now! He never used direct words, for instance, ‘but mum, dad said the opposite’ or anything obvious. Whenever they were together he ended up crying and screaming and often times I blamed my husband for loosing it. That’s not to say I am blaming it all on the child and hubby is all innocent, but slowly and surely 8 was able to create situations when I was angry with my husband for not being therapeutic enough and I failed to see how the situation was not maliciously, but still, manipulated. Again, of course, it’s not the case all the time, but since I recognised that this ‘thing’ is a real ‘thing’ in our life I noticed 8 acting very differently when he thought he was alone with daddy (while I was observing them from afar without him knowing).

I had to be clear with 8. I told him I do not blame him for his behaviour and we both love him very much, but he needed to understand that I will take daddy’s side, always and forever. I know it sounds harsh, but we feel he needed to know that this tactic will not work any more! But we didn’t leave it at this. Hubby and I came up with a plan to create scenarios where 8 had to be alone with daddy so they can get to know each other in a safe and fun way – in short segments to minimise the potential of a clash and maximise the emotional energy hubby can invest at a time. As a first step I told 8 to sit in daddy’s lap and they were cuddling for a good 15 minutes. I think it was a bit uncomfortable for hubby, but he did it anyways. While he was stroking his son I was ‘hovering’ around them giving him the narrative I learnt from the therapist (‘how lovely this feels, cuddling with daddy, this daddy is safe, this daddy loves you, this daddy wants you…etc). Soon 8 relaxed and while he was hugging my hubby for dear life he said BF never hugged him and never let 8 climb onto his lap. How absolutely heart breaking and tragic!!!

We have been doing this for only a few days, but yesterday 8 drew a picture with him and daddy (well, a small stick figure and a larger one without a skirt) and wrote ‘I love daddy’ for the very first time…

Divided and conquered no more!

Feelingmumyet is an adopter who felt her child used divide and conquer to stay in control and what therapeutic response works



60 thoughts on “Divided and Conquered by Our Child

  1. Mother of Teenagers says:

    Wow, an extremely tough situation for you to deal with and it sounds like you handled it extremely well. There is always an element of something else bubbling beneath the surface in an argument but clearly you have way more to unravel than most. I am glad that you hit on the root cause and that the situation between 8 and daddy is now improving. Small steps make a big difference. Good luck. #ThatFridayLinky


  2. Hannah Meadows says:

    This is a brilliant description of what happens in our house too, and so well explained. I’ll ask my husband to read it too!

    Our Charlotte (7, probable FASD) does exactly the same thing, and he can’t calm her down, and I have to ask him to leave the room and try to help her regulate again, which reinforces the problem….

    Exhausting, isn’t it? We’ve asked for DDP to work on the issue. I hope your situation continues to improve.


    • feelingmumyet says:

      I really feel for Pete too, especially now that I have the wisdom of hindsight, I had to apologise to hubby too. It’s really frustrating and yes, absolutely time/emotion/willpower consuming. Hope your DDP will help.


  3. johnadams2014 says:

    I just had to read this when I saw the phrase divide et impera in the opening sentence! I can’t pretend this is something I have experienced but I can well imagine it happening especially with adopted children. I hope your approach works and the paradigm shift brings a more stable relationship for you all. #thatfridaylinky


  4. thetaleofmummyhood says:

    This must be so difficult for you, it not always easy to recognise what’s going on until you sit back an reflect either. Again, your understanding is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing with #Blogstravaganza xx


  5. Jo - Cup of Toast says:

    It sounds as though you’re turning a draining and difficult situation into a very positive relationship. How awful for a child to go through that and feel that way, but hopefully with the extra attention and genuine love and affection things will get better. #Blogstravaganza


  6. greenfingeredblogger says:

    What a tangled web of emotions! Sounds an extremely familiar scenario emotionally, albeit from different causes in our house. It’s certainly hard work, but you seem to have a handle on it. #FabFridayPost


  7. millerinthecity says:

    I can’t relate as I’ve never been in this situation. But from what I’ve read in your post, I feel for all parties involved. It must be extremely difficult for your son to trust after his traumatic experience. Small steps is needed and what you did was a step in the right directions. I am positive that he is now receiving the love and affection that he deserves and soon he will regain that trust. But it won’t happen over night and patience is needed – good luck#BlogCrush


  8. Sarah (TheRealLaraShoe) says:

    You have a fantastic way of understanding why your children behave like they do. You have so much patience and obviously a very loving and supportive husband who is willing to go the distance. What wonderful love and support you are giving to your children. Parenting is hard even at the best of times! Thanks so much for sharing a linking with us #FabFridayPost


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Thanks! Though it doesn’t feel like I have much patience, perhaps I should write about all the times I have lost it completely…? Thanks for reading and commenting


  9. Family Makes says:

    It’s so great that you have such an insight and understanding into your children’s’ behaviour. I wish I had such levels of understanding with mine, I could really use it some days! We are currently using the tactic of divide and conquer with our two boys actually, to try and deal with their sibling rivalry (but that’s another story!) #FabFridayPost


    • feelingmumyet says:

      Oh, that’s a tricky one, we have it too, often! Down to a point where they can start a fight if I give one more grape to one of them! 😦 Hope it works for you and your family will see some improvements soon! Thanks for reading and commenting


  10. Lady Nym says:

    I think someone must be chopping onions nearby because there seem to be tears in my eyes…

    You obviously spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand your family and everyone’s needs and emotions, which is lovely to read about. Well done for spotting the behaviour, figuring out the root cause and thinking about how to help. I love the fact 8 drew that picture.



  11. Savannah (@HowHesRaised) says:

    Oh man, all the tears!!! Your efforts can most definitely be commended, I cannot imagine how tough dealing with it all is for you, but I love how you look at the deeper meaning of things. Children desperately need adults to UNDERSTAND them – they are very lucky to have you ❤ #KCACOLS


  12. Cherry Newby (@TheNewbyTribe) says:

    My 7 year old tends to do this too but she does it in a slightly different way. She has very bad memories of her BM and therefore, even after 2 years, she struggles to let go of control when it is me and her. She will be very quiet, seemingly passive, non confrontational but non responsive to anything I talk to her about – but as soon as I leave the table/the room/the house etc she will immediately engage her daddy and become a completely different child. It is so so hard to cope with – and I understand the battles you are going through! Thanks for linking up to #Blogstravaganza


  13. Lucy At Home says:

    Oh it really sounds like you’ve made some headway with this! I think all parents need to take the time to work out WHY their children are behaving in a certain way instead of just taking everything at face value – once we understand the behaviour and the reasons for it, we are much better equipped to deal with it. I really hope that this is a road to reconciliation for your hubby and your big boy. #blogcrush


  14. wifemotherlife says:

    We experienced something similar when blending our two families together. The ‘a ha’ moment came early on, but even so took time to help them all adjust. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it was for the both of you to start to get through this but I’m so glad 8 is responding so well. It’s a credit to both of your patience and persistence with him and his brother. X


  15. Stephanie Kirsch says:

    You have such an amazing way of understanding where your kids are coming from and a compassion for all your family. It’s so wonderful! I’m so hopeful for your husband and sons relationship going forward, it’s like you’ve all taken a huge step.x


  16. jeremy@thirstydaddy says:

    this was a very interesting post. So often we get so caught up in trying to change behaviors that we don’t stop and consider where the behavior originates from, what the root cause may be. #triumphanttales


  17. Alana - Burnished Chaos says:

    It must be so hard for all of you navigate the minefield of their previous experiences and the impact it has had in them and their feelings and emotions. I don’t think there is a kid alive who hasn’t tried the divide and conquer tactic at least once and it’s so important that the parents form a united front. I’m so glad this post had such a beautiful ending, fingers crossed this is the start or things to come and 8 starts to feel more secure.
    Thanks so much for linking up with #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time x


  18. Amie Richards says:

    Aw that’s amazing that he’s showing positive emotions now! Strangely my children – especially my daughter – have similar behaviour. They don’t seem to be able to cuddle or interact with their dad very well enventhough he’s never really been horrible to them and has always been living with us as a family. I too try to encourage cuddles and be very overly positive – to the point I think it slightly annoys my partner – but I definitely feel that it works for them! #KCACOLS


  19. talkingmums1 says:

    It sounds to me like you understand the situation very well, you are considering all actions and feelings and working on building relationships up not down. It must be tough, total admiration x
    Thanks for joining #KCACOLS


  20. queerlittlefamily says:

    That’s a hell of a day. I’m glad you were able to learn from it so that it can make a difference in the future. You’re amazing. #kcacols


  21. Heather Keet says:

    This is so amazing. To have him draw a picture and write he loves his daddy must have made both of them feel so wonderful. Great job to all 4 of you as you battle to heal the wounds left by unfit parents. #BlogCrush


  22. oldhouseintheshires says:

    I have said this before but what parents you are and how lucky you all are to have found one another. Your boys sound like they are progressing really well and I’m so glad you have identified this. When you are in the mist of a situation as a parent, it is tricky to see what is the cause of some of these arguments…I know I do. Great post. #blogcrush


  23. RaisieBay says:

    This post really pulled on my heartstrings. I haven’t visited you before but I can already see what a great adoptive mum you are. Well done for finding the cause of the problem and setting about putting it right, I really hope it all works out for you x


  24. mackenzieglanville says:

    this makes so much sense, and it is true that they need to see their parents are united and they can’t divide us. You handled this so well, and what a positive ending. I know it will continue to be a long and tough road, it is nice to see the breakthroughs you have xx Thanks for joining #ablogginggoodtime


  25. Suburban Mum says:

    Well done for recognising what was happening and being able to try different tactics to make him feel safe. So pleased to hear it’s working and what a lovely surprise the drawing was! #KCACOLS


  26. Mrs Mummy Harris says:

    You are doing an amazing job at ensuring your boys overcome their difficult start and I am so happy to read their journey to a better life!
    Thank you for sharing this with us at #TriumphantTales. I hope to see you back next week!


  27. Lisa Pomerantz says:

    That you got out of this, and can still form complete sentences that are quite articulate, is amazing. Brilliant actually! Keep doing what you are doing. They are all lucky to have you. #blogcrush xoxo


  28. Ordinary Hopes says:

    I was doing well at holding back the tears till I reached the end. Blubbing now. Much love to your wonderful family.xxx #BlogCrush


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