From the Therapist's Desk

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

Most coparents 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 respect the responsibility of the parent as the authority figure in the relationship.

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 no guidance, structure, or support for development. The authoritarian parent treats the child as if s/he is incompetent and incapable, so the child receives no 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 the ability to parent.

A parent who IS adequately child-focused, and struggling to raise up 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. 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 the parent and to feel obligated 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.

If you recognize yourself in the first set of messages, your child will probably 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 probably 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; and how to stop sabotaging and start collaborating. You deserve a chance to learn how to coparent 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!