(Unwittingly) Coaching the children

Posted Friday, November 25th, 2016 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Child Custody, Litigation Strategy, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

To most people “coaching” children in the context of custody and visitation cases is telling a child to lie to the judge (or the guardian, or a mental health professional/forensic evaluator) about that party’s or the other parent’s behavior. Two classic (but overstated) examples are telling kids to lie about sexual or physical abuse in order to avoid spending time with the other parent or telling them to lie about one’s own misbehavior in order to keep custody or avoid a DSS removal.

However most coaching is less obvious and more subtle. Any behavior that encourages a child in the context of a custody case to reveal bad things about the opposing party or say good things about oneself is coaching. Further manipulative behavior that encourages a child to prefer that party or dislike the other party (a textbook example is buying a sixteen year-old a sports car in the middle of a custody case) is coaching.

A classic example of this unwitting coaching is a parent who asks a child, repeatedly, if the other parent is touching his“woo hoo.” Any child old enough to know body parts knows this is a weird question: the child is probably not asked many questions about the other parent’s activities with the child; the child is probably not asked if that parent touches his shoulder; the child is probably not asked whether other people touch his “who hoo.” If the child is asked this question often enough, he will assume what answer that parent wants to hear. If the child wants to please that parent (most children–especially younger children–want to please their parents), eventually he will give the answer that parent wants to hear. And then a sexual abuse investigation will begin.

In the context of custody litigation, a parent asking the child about custodial preferences is similarly manipulative. The child knows what the parent wants to hear and answers accordingly. Many custody cases in which the parents give conflicting accounts about the child’s custodial preferences are those cases in which one or both parents have directly asked the child. If a child’s custodial preference is in dispute, it’s better to allow a neutral third-party (guardian; mental health professional/forensic evaluator; judge) ask that question.

Other forms of coaching are even more subtle. A parent who tells the child before the visitation transfer that “you’ll be fine” is being coached. That child is rarely spontaneously reassured that “you’ll be fine.” Usually “you’ll be fine” presages an unpleasant but survivable experience, such as getting vaccinations at a medical appointment. What may be intended by the parent as reassurance can be heard by the child as a warning. The child now has reason to fear the other parent.

Telling the child particular topics to discuss with these neutral third-parties during the custody litigation is coaching. Reminding a child to discuss “the time when your father called you a sissy” is to elevate what is meaningful to that parent over what may be meaningful to that child. When my custody clients have specific issues or incidents they want the guardian (or other neutral third-parties) to investigate with the child, I send that third-party a list of topics to explore with the child during interviews. That way the investigator can discuss these issues in a manner that does not manipulate the child into one parent’s agenda. If the guardian or third-party fails to address that issue in the child interview, this deficiency can be noted when the report is issued, along with a request for follow-up investigation. If the issue still remains unaddressed, it can be raised in cross-examination at trial. However putting the burden on the child to raise these issues during the investigation is coaching.

Parents rarely understand they are coaching even when the coaching is obvious. A few years ago I brought a custody modification action based upon a claim by a father that the mother and stepfather were sexually molesting his son. He came to me after DSS refused to remove the child from mother’s care. He provided counselor reports in which his son acknowledged the abuse, and I was able to obtain a temporary change of custody. During the guardian’s initial investigation he informed the guardian of videotape in which his son acknowledging the abuse. Everyone–the judge, myself, the guardian, opposing counsel–was interested in viewing this videotape.

When he finally produced it, he sunk his own case. It in, his son and some family members were jumping together on a trampoline. Another family member was videotaping the proceedings, while yet another family member was shouting out “tell us what your mother and stepfather did to you.” Watching that videotape was mortifying–perhaps the most obvious case of coaching I’ve ever encountered. Yet my client and his family failed to see anything problematic with their behavior. In their minds, they were simply asking his son to reveal what had happened.

Clients who coach are rarely aware they are coaching. However the guardian, the opposing attorney, and the judge are likely to see it as manipulative, and have it lead to adverse consequences for the client. Thus clients who engage in coaching behavior need to be informed they are coaching, need to be educated on how their behavior is coaching, and need to be discouraged from further coaching.

16 thoughts on (Unwittingly) Coaching the children

  1. Beth Prince says:

    I have been attempting, unsuccessfully, for years to convey this concept to GAL’s and to clients, and you have stated this so perfectly. Thank you!

  2. Shilo Zaba says:

    My mom and her lawyer Tracy Jackson (Vancouver) coached me hard to make my father look vile in there divorce settlement. Today I am 31 years old and in pain everyday when I think about my lost relationship with my dad. Sadly he died before I was old enough to realize what a horrible thing happened and that I was very much to blame, I never got to see things right with him, and my mother has had borderline personality disorder her whole life so the lawyer I mentioned simply ensured I would be abused for the duration of my childhood.

  3. Dalana Hurlburt says:

    I am sad for you. My granddaughters are going through this with my son. I feel helpless. My son is devastated and i only know to pray. I am sorry for you. I am a Christian. We believe all Christians will one day reunite. I pray you can heal and one day be with your Father again. I pray my granddaughters will come back to my son and our family. They are confused and hurting. I love them dearly, we all do. My son loves them. He doesnt know what to do and his heart is broken. If you can suggest anything I appreciate it.

  4. Glenda Brewer says:

    We are going through this now with our Grandson. Or daughter is at her waist ebd and has not been able to see her Son since mid December. They had 50-50 custody with her holding residential custody. He remarried and his wife made it plain in many ways that she wanted our grandson to be her son as she had girls. All of a sudden his Dad refused to send him home after visitation, called in CPS on my daughter’s boyfriend the investigation was unfounded and closed. They turned around and made up more accusations and we are on round 2 of a cps investigation. My daughter has a recording of them telling him what to say but the judge will not allow it to be used in court. Our daughter was said it is not worth dating anyone to lose her son and has broke up with the boyfriend. No contact and does not no where he is at. But the Dad says he thinks the breakup is fake so she cannot see Jaydon. They are completely coaching him to the point that they don’t have to be there for him to say what they want him to say. We do not know what to do. Court is February 28th and we have b6told whatever happens is the way it will be, we do not have the right to appeal or do anything else if it does not go in our favor

  5. Susan Damen says:

    I am a grandparent whose little grandchildren have been coaches by my daughter to say i hurt them by hitting them when this was not believed by the.court she then said i had sexually abused them and she herself had a terrible childhood none of this was true and even the judge said the children were in no danger from me whatsoever however this was october last year and the judges ruling was not followed up on 50000dollars later and i am still not seeing my grandchildren regularly and the lovely relationship we had is suffering the coutt system is a waste of time and money.the children whose lives have been ruined by bad parents are the losers.

    1. Mary says:

      No you grandparents who can’t butt out and accept that our children are not yours you had yours leave ours alone!

  6. Georgia says:

    Hello! Sorry for all of you having to see your loved ones be turned against you. I know the feeling! I had to give up a 4 year battle to get court ordered visitation for my NOW 14 year old daughter because my attorney kept continuing the case. Him continuing the case gave her father every opportunity to alienate her from me even more so i had to put an end to it. I promped myself to cut her, and my family members that her father turned against me also. My daughter was so manipulated, shed tell me she doesnt feel safe going with me on my court ordered visitation. Every time, hed cause a scene and id have to call the police. After screaming, threatening, and insulting me, then laughing about it. Then, as soon as they showed, his demeanor changed immediately, from complete rage, to talking to them very calmly and concerned. I always wondered what he was saying because the police were often rude and asking me when the last time i used drugs. About 2 years ago, i picked up a FOIA at the police station in his county and he told them that Im on drugs and that i leave my daughter with random men all the time. All is not true of course and i could not handle him coercing anyone and everyone, especially the police! My daughter started getting rude and lying to the police so i had to cut her out of my life for the sake of my sanity! My life is less chaotic and im finally free from the torment! The part that really caught my attention, about this article is that her father would tell her “be strong” like shes going to prison or war. have not seen her for almost 3 years. Cutting her out of my life was the only way to stop the abuse I was enduring. Unfortunitely, shes not free. i read about how narcassists feel about their children and the rotten things they say to them. they dont have the mindset to love anyone but themselves. They sure do paint a pretty picture in the biginning. all lies.

  7. Timothy James says:

    We had our step grandkids for the first time and knowing the mother and the children’s father, our new son in law, going through a custody battle we were careful not to talk about or say anything about the mother or other grandparents. No matter, I get served and now am fighting a protective order and and child abuse charges, and I’m a retired police officer. The mother has coached the 5 yo and now, months later he’s scarred of us. We’re sick and devastated and we realize that counselors and forensics interviews can easily be duped as there’s no due diligence in getting the whole story from both sides. Our only grace is our pictures of good times and having fun. Our loving memories have been tarnished by the jealousy and hate of others.

  8. Roberto long says:

    My ex wife is coaching my daughter to say hurtful things to me when I bring them up to my ex wife she tells me it’s my daughter saying these things example I have 2 daddy’s now and this other guy is my dad too I don’t know 1 six year old that knows what a second dad is or the concept of that unless a adult explains it my wife says it’s all her and it hurts but my wife continues to lie about most situations I barely get to see my daughter as it

  9. Roberto long says:

    Continued I can’t understand why my wife is acting this way she got everything she wanted the car the money and a new relationship yet she continues to try to destroy my relationship with my daughter it’s ridiculous

  10. Mother Zaba says:

    re shilo zaba comment 2018
    I am devastated to have read what my son Shilo Zaba wrote in a comment that I have miraculously stumbled upon now in 2021. I have 2 sons, I presently live with the other son. Shilo wrote that I coached him to lie to then lawyer Jackson in divorce case and that he feels he is an abused son. Problem is, Shilo is a dangerous liar and happens to be one of the most loved, most spoiled sons on the face of the Earth. Not everything you read here is true. The fact that he mentioned the lawyers name in his article also proves that he has absolutely no conscious for his lies or for his actions. He has always been a lying child and he raised in a very very honest family. The facts surrounding the divorce case were simply that I begged him to tell the TRUTH, and not lie. I wanted his father to have joint custody which resulted. The devil is in the details here. First of all…..Shilo was never a witness so how could HE BE SO convinced his testimony was required in the first place. He was with me on one trip to lawyer simply because he could not be left home alone. ever. He always had to be with me since he NEVER could be trusted alone. He has lied his whole life and is still lying now. The date he wrote this is around the time he got his first job in decades and when after one month he got fired he also blamed me for it and I live 2 provinces away. He texted me, and I still read the texts every now and again when I miss him, (yes I’m a bugger for punishment) to remind myself there is nothing that can be done that hasn’t already been done to fix him. That was my final straw with this compulsive liar. I am the ABUSED. not him. He has been abusing me his whole life with his lies and I had to finally cut him off. He is clearly a NARCISSIST. He is a blatant liar. He has never in his life told the truth about anything. We all (entire family) have no contact with him, because he has gone from one person to the other with all his lies. He has absolutely no conscience and if the readers KNEW the truth about his life, how lovely a life he had and how abusive Shilo was to his father, and to me, they would think twice before believing anything they read on sites like these. I do miss him now, he’s 34 and has kept his two sons away from me. They are 12 and 9 now and has lied to them too. This man has absolutely no conscience. Nothing he said in his article is remotely close to being true. God will forgive him, but he must ask for the forgiveness. I am finally at peace keeping away from Shilo. The only thing Shilo misses about his father who had a brain aneurysm 6 months after the divorce, is the money and rich lifestyle. I moved the boys to a farm and made them start to have chores. Thats what Shilo misses. My other son also doesn’t speak with his brother. That should be a tell all.

  11. Mel G says:

    My family is 4 generations under one roof, soon to be 5 generations when my elderly dad moves in. My youngest son (AG) and I share custody of his 6 year old daughter, and my oldest son (BG) has visitation with his 5 year old daughter. She has said multiple times that she wants to live with us. Her home life is filled with verbal and physical fighting, she has been hit and locked in the bathroom, along with an alcoholic and drug using uncle who frequently sleeps over in HER bedroom. CPS is involved with his step kids for unknown reasons.
    A few months ago we began building an addition on our house to make it 6 bedrooms, to accommodate all the people. Suddenly, out of the blue, BG’s ex claimed my granddaughter accused her uncle, (AG) of tickling her on her privates. The one and only time he was ever alone with her was for less than 5 minutes while we ran into the store for a sand bucket on the way to the beach. We are now dealing with CPS and protective orders against him. My 5 y/o granddaughter has zero empathy or remorse, she lies occasionally and contradicts herself often. I believe her mother has some sort of anti social personality disorder. My other 6 y/o granddaughter who lives with us is the happiest sweetest child I’ve ever known, and she is scared to death of her daddy going to jail over something he did not do.
    We have strong suspicions of coaching the younger granddaughter and it’s obvious she is mistreated at home. We are bringing her to counseling now, against her mother’s will. She is a mess, and the courts believe we are abusive monsters. We are her only allies, yet they take the side of the most dysfunctional side of her family. I feel like we are walking a razors edge, and nobody believes us except God almighty. We only have enough money for one litigation attorney, so who gets to be represented? My falsely accused son? My older son who could lose his daughter forever? Or my little granddaughter who has fallen between the cracks…
    I don’t understand why the system is so broken.

    1. John says:

      Yeah sadly the person in charge of the case or placement usually picks who they like and then act like the other is garbage. My kids min was leaving my son in car seat all day with bottles and the milk was making a wound in the crease of his neck. I watched her slamming drug and so I took on if my son’s and the other was sleeping with grandma. I drove on no gas for 45 min barley made it. My son was super attached to me and needed his bottle a certain way, I jumped ahead of myself, anyway I wanted to get the drugs away from the babies and for them to talk to her about it. She is a young mom and I wasn’t able to was stay with the boys so I was working close by to save for a house. Anyway I asked what I should do and everyone told me to ask for a wellness check. He calls me back. Says ” why did you only grab one of you kids” I told him I didn’t want to wake the grandparent and she is good with him but she can’t leave her room. He repeated it over and over more and more hostile trying to make me feel guilty or bad or something. He walked through the house and told my kids mom that I was trying to take the kids and get her in trouble. She is very attractive and he was a young officer. In the report it said he went through the house told her I was basically her enemy went to the porch, she get little bruises from her blood from everything she touches and she disrobed herself and began to cry and said I gave them to her. When she was interviewed by CPS she literally went through a abuse wheel and made up a story for each section. The officer told me to stay where I was, he then told me I was under arrest. He went to go handcuff me and my baby was screaming trying to get to me and the officer literally kicked him over. They put him in a car and I was in another car and I sat there for 2 hours listening to my son Scream for me. The officers made his report look horrible and made it look like I was hostile because I was trying to tell him about the bottle. I spent 9 months in that Portland jail because I wouldn’t take there plea bargain. Two week in the she got the kids taken away because she abandoned them in a motel for a week. I tried to prevent this and the officer only saw him playing hero. I spent three years driving to Portland to visit on Fridays because they said it’s what I had to do. The dha lady the officer that whole court is anti father and seemed to be more interested in adopting my kids out. They even told me I had to sign my right over and had no choice. Fired twoawyers and did my own digging and realized they couldn’t keep him unless there was immediate danger. But if you sign there plan you agree to it. Don’t sign anything from DHS CPs. Cops will always use your downfall for an opportunity to play hero to your girl. It happened twice to me and the a a very small percentage of cops that want to do what’s right. The rest they seem to just want to take someone down even if they have to make up a story. Whatever f the system lawyers are apart of it as well and will only really help you if you keep paying them. Much easier to learn the law yourself. Know what they can and can’t do is easy and they all know it but won’t do anything until you speak it. Don’t play along with there games. Sue them for slander and defimation. File a tort claim and represent yourself and speak it.

  12. Kim says:

    My granddaughter who I love dearly has been coached by her mother at a very early age has destroyed her relationship with her father my son. At the age of two she would say “daddy bad”. She has always adored her father, and preffered him over her mother. I was the go between the two parents. and many times as I was taking my granddaughter back to her mother at the age of 2 and a half she would say to me mommy’s mad. This broke my heart, and I would try to comfort her and tell her mommy’s not mad loves you. As the years went by it got worse and worse. We went to court with multiple pictures of abuse and witnesses proving her mother was abusing her. But the courts ruled it wasn’t abuse! Now the mother has completely alienated my granddaughter into believing her father has abused her and charges have been filed against him. My granddaughter at the age of four told me,I know daddy didn’t hurt me , but mommy says I have to tell people he did! Then she said “I’m so mad mommy uses me like a level”! What 4 year old has that kind of understanding? My son is so heartbroken over
    lost relationship with love of his life, and suffers over the destruction of what this is mentally affecting his daughter. Dhs done a 60 day investigation and found the charges to be unsubstantiated. But the police filed charges anyway. My son and myself continue to be heartbroken and all we can do is pray that God will prevail in the truth coming out. I’m a Christian and know I. God’s timing I will be. revealed. I pray for all here that are suffering, and pray God gives you the strength to ensure. God bless.



  13. Michael says:

    It is very crazy how many children go through this everyday. My non-biological daughter is going through the worst right now. In a battle to save her from everything that’s happening and going on, her mother isn’t giving in or up much. I have an upcoming case for Equitable Caregiver, and my daughter is being forced to cal another man dad. (This is your new daddy) is what my daughter told me. She making her scared of me and has even went to the Shiriff’s office to file a complaint that I have touched my child. I’m so glad that the Shiriff’s office and the DA saw it for what it was. Because I would have been a goner for sure. She is even being told not to talk to her best friends. One of which she cals her sister. Because they know me and I know that other parents.
    Just reading everything I did here put’s pain in my heart because while I’m going through this, it hurt’s more that I’m not the only one. But togetr somehow we will be this.

  14. Bee Wholly says:

    I resonate so deeply with the topic of this blog post. Narcissistic Heartbreak Recovery is a journey that’s often misunderstood by those who haven’t experienced it. It takes immense courage to rebuild our self-empowerment and self-worth from the ground up. Your words truly capture the essence of this process and provide a guiding light for those of us who are on a similar path. Thank you for sharing your insights and personal experiences – they make us feel less alone and more empowered.

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