Family Breakup and the Power of Parents: Healthy Bonds OR Unhealthy Alliances?

Most co-parents are aware of the challenges children have with coping skills when the conflict between their parents continues after the separation/divorce.

Some children feel caught in the middle of this conflict and feel pressured to choose one of their parents over the other one.

Coping with this loyalty conflict is a terrible burden for a child.

Some parents, most unintentionally in moments of extreme emotion, exploit the child's vulnerability to meet the needs of the parent. These parents exploit their child because the adult does not recognize or does not understand the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from the intensity of adult emotions and adult concerns.

Why? Parents have deficits. Things that did not go well for them when they were children. They may have had an overly permissive or an authoritarian parent. The permissive parent treats the child as if the s/he is an equal in the relationship, so the child receives little guidance, structure, or support for development. The authoritarian parent treats the child as if s/he is incompetent and incapable, so the child receives few opportunities to learn self-soothing and self-control.

The primary reason parents exploit their power over the child does not come from a deficit in loving. It comes from a deficit in parenting knowledge and parenting skills.

A parent who is adequately child-focused, and genuinely trying to figure out how to help a child who is feeling torn by a sense of loyalty to each parent, will try their best to reassure the child of several things:

  1. You don't have to choose. You love both of us and we both love you and always will. Just go be a kid!
  2. You are not the parent, I am. You don't have to take care of me. It's my job to take care of you!
  3. Your Mom/Dad and I are working together to make good decisions for you. This is not your responsibility and it's a grown-up issue. Go play!
  4. It's not your fault. You didn't cause it. Your Mom/Dad and I decided we would both be better parents to you if we didn't live together anymore. Let us take care of that!
  5. I know it's hard learning to go back and forth between Mom's House and Dad's House, but I know you can do it and your Mom/Dad and I will both help you!

These 5 basic messages help create healthy bonds for the child with both of his/her parents. They support the child's need for reassurance and relief from grown-up responsibilities.

They communicate that there is an agreement between Mom and Dad to cooperate with each other to take care of the child. The message is clear that both parents share the same interest in being supportive of the child.

A parent who IS NOT adequately child-focused, and struggling with a child feeling torn by a sense of loyalty to each parent, will covertly or overtly exploit the child's worry:

  1. You want to mainly live with me now, right? We would still all be a family, if your Mom/Dad hadn't destroyed it.
  2. I miss you so much when you are gone. I wish you didn't have to leave. It's really hard for me when you're not here.
  3. Your Mom/Dad is making things really difficult for us to be together. You need to talk to him/her and let them know that you want to spend more time with me.
  4. I don't know why your Mom/Dad did this. Everything was going so well. I can't believe s/he would do this to us. I just don't think s/he really cares about us anymore.
  5. I don't know how your Mom/Dad expects you to live like this. Nobody deserves this. I am so sorry that I can't make it stop. I don't know how you can possibly succeed when your Mom/Dad keeps doing this to you!

These 5 messages are used to create an unhealthy alliance for the child with one parent, the parent giving these negative messages. They pressure the child to be loyal to only one parent and to withdraw from or reject the other parent. They communicate the need for the child to take responsibility for care of one parent and to feel obligated only to that parent.

The message is clear that the only choice available to this child is either loyalty or betrayal. The message is also clear that only one parent is interested in being supportive of the child - at least that is the way it may feel to the child.

If you recognize yourself in the first set of messages, your child is more likely to be successful as s/he makes the transition through these family changes. You are working to enhance healthy bonds for the child in both homes which creates and nurtures opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and resilience.

If you recognize yourself in the second set of messages, your child will be more likely to struggle with the transition through these family changes. You are working to create an unhealthy alliance with your child against the other parent/home, which reinforces loyalty conflict, competition, and low self worth.

Your child deserves a chance for a bright tomorrow which can only happen if you, the parent, learn how to stop competing and start cooperating; learn how to stop sabotaging and start collaborating.
You deserve a chance to learn how to co-parent in a way that supports your child AND supports you. You can do this by joining a support group, taking a class, or getting some personal coaching or therapy. You owe it to yourself and to your child!

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Risk, Resilience and the Power of Routine

What is the basic rule of thumb for helping children make a successful transition from living in a  home with 2 parents, to living in a 2 separate homes with a parent in each?

First and foremost, maintain your routines. Keep everything as close to the same as possible. Unless it is absolutely necessary due to survival, leave routines alone.

What does this mean?

  • Keep your child in the same school.
  • Use the same childcare, daycare, or after school care.
  • Keep the children in the same neighborhood.
  • Maintain enrichment activities like sports, cheer, gymnastics, dance, martial arts, music lessons, etc.
  • Maintain the usual schedules with extended family members for both mom and dad.

Think about your child's life from their perspective. Parental separation is like an earthquake emotionally, mentally, and psychologically. It feels like the entire world is completely different and it feels unsafe and the child feels insecure. It is why family breakup is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE.)

The more you the parent can do to make the day-to-day life of the child as similar as possible, the more likely it is that your child will do well with the big changes.

Research has shown that children adjust better to the big transition of family breakup, when at least one adult in their life is paying attention to the smaller daily and weekly transitions.

If you do have to change your child's school, wait for a natural change point like the beginning of the school year, or the beginning of a new semester. If you have to drop activities because of financial challenges, talk to the provider first and explain your situation. Most people will understand and work with you to support the child in making a more ordinary transition, like the end of the season or the time for the next enrollment session.

If you are completely in control of a major change, then plan it carefully. One of the most difficult situations for a child is when either Mom or Dad immediately add a new adult to the life of the child who is a new romantic partner for the parent. This adds emotional and cognitive processing challenges for the child that usually requires too much stress. Some children may regress or develop anxiety or depression.

The bottom line? If it isn't a matter of life and death, leave it the same. If something has to change, find a point in time as far in the future as possible and then carefully prepare for that.

This need for routine and consistency cannot be overemphasized. Most children are resilient and we have been looking at a myriad of protective factors and protective actions parents can take to safeguard the child and to enhance and even teach those protective factors.

If you are going to change anything, increase the amount of time your child is able to spend with other adults who are unburdened by the stress and challenges of the family break up. Allow your child to simply be loved, play, explore, and be ordinary. This is the greatest gift and the greatest protective factor for making a successful transition.

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