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The Child’s Experience of the Parental Separation

May 22, 2016

In the throes and aftermath of a separation, emotions run high and parents can inadvertently spill out onto their kids without realizing their impact upon them. In the anguish and/or anger and/or even elation of the parent, the child can be an unintended victim intense feelings. Out of a parent’s intense feelings, the parent can say or do things that unwittingly create emotional harm for the children. The parent may minimize their thinking about the degree of impact upon the child or may convince themselves that the child is aligned with their feelings. However, there is a huge divide between the parent’s behavior and beliefs about their impact on the child and the child’s actual experience.

Here are some examples:

Parental belief and behavior:

My partner was barley around an didn’t have much to do with the kids, so either my partner doesn’t deserve to see them or limiting my partner’s time with the children isn’t a big deal.

Child’s Experience:

My other parent may not have been around often, but I love that parent and always missed that parent when not around, When that parent was around, I always felt better and special. Now that I can’t see that parent as much, I feel worse and miss that parent more. This is creating a bigger longing for the missing parent. The child may believe that when grown, more time can then be spent with the less involved parent. The child would actually love to have more time with the less involved parent, but is fearful of saying so even if asked to speak honestly.

Parental belief and behavior:

My child deserves to know the truth about their other parent. With this belief the parents informs the child of the wrongdoings of the other parent, placing blame upon that parent for the separation. The parent believes that if the child knows the truth about the other parent’s behavior, the child will think better of the parent who was subject to the untoward behavior and poorly towards the parent who is blamed.

Child’s Experience:

I am half of each parent. As one badmouths the other to me, I feel bad about myself and who I am as a person. I also want to love both parents. I feel like I have to pick sides and it tears me apart by choosing. This causes me to feel sad and worried.

Parental belief and behavior:

I can’t stand talking to my ex, so I will just ask my child to pass messages. Most of the messages have to do with the care of the child and both parents argue over what is best, decisions to be made and the time and place of transfer of the child between them. However, the belief is that the child is just delivering a message and that this is inconsequential for the child.

Child’s Experience:

The child is often secretly distraught by the parental animosity and feels caught in the middle. Under such stress, some children forget the actual message or at least some of the nuances. The know they have to deliver something, so they may omit important information or fill in the gaps by making up information. This leads to greater problems between the parents. Each parent believes the child delivered the message as intended and next believe that when the other parent doesn’t meet the expectations set out in the message, it is willful and mean spirited. The child will say they delivered the message, but the parent will not check with the child, the child’s version of what was delivered. The parents will take the view the child delivered it faithfully. The child knows they lied or omitted information but cannot admit to this. The child is terrified that the bad feelings between the parents could be directed to themselves. That is too overwhelming to consider so lying is easier and provides for emotional survival.

For parents to better appreciate the impact of their behavior upon their children, it is wise to put themselves in the shoes of the child. To do this, think about a workplace example. Pretend you have two supervisors, each of whom dislikes the other, but both of whom you must please for your performance appraisal and wage increase.

As each supervisor tries to induct you to their side, you know that you must make both happy in order to receive a positive appraisal and increase your wage. It is an impossible task and both add to your pressure by having you perform work in a manner contrary to the instruction of the other.

How long will you last in that work environment? What of your mental health? What of your stress and ability to mange under such duress? Will you cope? Will you run home each day to complain about your work life? Who will you go to for help or solace? If you cannot change jobs, because of a poor economy and you are locked in and have limited benefits to be off work, then what?

As parents you are to your child as the work supervisors are to you.

You can make children’s lives a living hell and pretend otherwise or you can seek ways of peaceful co-existence to limit the distress falling upon the child.

In view of the above, please recognize:

  1. It is the rare child who truly wants nothing to do with a parent. Don’t believe yours is that rare child. The likelihood is far greater that your child wants an ongoing and meaningful relationship with both parents as that is also tied to their identity and sense of self. Find ways to facilitate and promote each parent’s relationship even if you don’t like the other parent. It is less the child’s care or concern what each parent has done to the other. It is the child’s objective to be loved by both regardless.
  2. No child needs to know the dirty laundry of the parents, at least in childhood. As children they do not have the emotional or intellectual sophistication or life experience to truly understand and appreciate the causes of adult behavior. Thus adult behavior is confusing and distressing if known and rarely helpful to their own development. Better for their development is witnessing parents struggle to get along and act civility despite differences. This teaches conflict resolution or at least conflict management skills which serves for the development of resilience.
  3. It is important to keep children out of the middle and do not use as messengers. If you truly cannot stand the other parent, then don’t communicate directly, but use something or someone else other than your child. There are on-line resources, texting and emails with which to communicate. Again, keep it civil and remember, your communications form a permanent record. If you wouldn’t want it read out in church or court, don’t put it in a written or recorded message.

It is a challenge to consider one’s impact upon the child. For each belief or behavior you seek to engage in as a parent, consider how it would work for you personally in a work environment before imposing on your child.

Give your child the best gift of all. Peace in the home or between two homes.

Food for thought? I would love to read your comments. Please post them below and please share this blog with the links provided.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out my services and then call me if you need help with a child behavior or relationship issue.

Print this article as a two-page handout.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

  1. I truly appreciate this post. I love that you shared the parent’s belief alongside the child’s belief or interpretation. Incredibly helpful! Because it is such a stressful time for parents, I am thinking it would be easy to become consumed with the adult relationships involved and struggle to understand a child’s perspective. So your post is so valuable. In addition, assembling a support team for your child in those volatile times can help him cope such as letting his teacher know, enlisting a counselor or family therapist to focus on the child’s needs and/or making adult friends and neighbors aware that your child will undoubtedly need extra support. Excellent!

  2. Gina jordan permalink

    Gary you are so kind in articulating this difficult issue. Thank you. This will be a wonderful client handout.

  3. Kecia geagoire permalink

    Hi, I would really like to talk to you! If you can please let me know I will send you my cell number. Really need help!! Thank .Kecia Gregoire.

  4. Great post Gary! Well written with a focus on empathy.

  5. I’m disheartened by the fact that so many children are growing up in high conflict households. When a parent has children in hopes the child (and the spouse) will meet their emotional needs, trouble is brewing. In a court system untrained in family dynamics, this can only escalate.

    I fully expect many more families with unsound emotional skills to result.

  6. aspergercentral permalink

    What I find hard is my ex-husband and I can communicate via text or e-mail just fine. I communicate to the kids it is time with dad. And it is the kids that fight back. They refuse to go. There are many times I wish they would just to give me some alone time. I have not found anyone that can talk to them and get them to accept and go. They continually say my ex is mean and they do not like him. This makes me sad because he is still their dad no matter what.

  7. Thank you Gary for framing this struggle in a new way. I had not thought to make the analogy of a supervisor/worker. It may actually help some of the parents we work with better able to put themselves in their child’s shoes. I will definitely be sharing the handout.

  8. Allison permalink

    As a licensed psychologist I find it disheartening that so many in the field negate to point out that the assumption being made for these recommendations to hold true is the child has two emotionally healthy and sound parents. Far too often I see parents who have been in highly abusive relationships be told their child is not impacted or part of the “marital issues” that lead to the dissolve of the marriage when in fact the child is equally being emotionally manipulated and abused. The unfortunate message to these parents is they are courageous for leaving the relationship, but now they should be supportive of their child being exposed to the unhealthy dynamics without their being there to protect the child(ren). There is such need for the mental health field and the family courts to enhance their comprehension of how emotional abuse and personality disorders manifest and do harm to children.

  9. Thanks Gary.

    I am going through a separation at the moment (my husband had an affair and walked out) and while I know and understand your advice intellectually, it is very challenging to adhere to all the time in practice. I feel burdened by the responsibility of facilitating a relationship between my children and their father when he chose to walk out of their lives and now frequently cancels his scheduled time with them.

    I want him to be in their lives as much as possible, but he prefers to be with his girlfriend and her children.

    It’s hard to know how/what to explain to a 7, 4 and 1 year old about him being unreliable and him deciding he prefers to live with children other than his own.

    I am committed to ensuring he continues to have as much access to them as he wants, but how do we help out kids to process it when the other parent does not want to see them?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Child’s Experience of the Parental Separation — Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

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