A little boy who has just finished spending two hours with his father in a weekly supervised visitation is asked by the Supervisor if he would like to say good-bye to daddy when it is time to leave the room. The child looks at the Supervisor with a surprised look on his face and says “I don’t have a Daddy” as he hugs the man who is his father. Dad looks confused and turns to the Supervisor for help on how to respond. The Supervisor speaks to the child gently, “It’s okay to just say good-bye to Daddy.” The child looks at the Supervisor as if she has just grown an extra head and says “He’s not my Daddy! Mommy said he used to be my Daddy but he isn’t my Daddy anymore.”
During the visit, the child had opened a new toy the father brought for the visit. The child was clearly delighted as he got a big grin on his face and began twirling around and “flying” the toy through the air. When Dad asked if he could take a picture of the child with his new toy, the child said “Mommy said you can’t take any pictures of me.” The child was still smiling and twirling as he said it. When it was time for lunch and Dad brought out a Happy Meal, the child said “Mommy said I can’t eat anything from you cuz’ of the poison.” The child then sat down at the table and ate the meal with his dad while chattering away about the new Woody toy and the movie Toy Story 3 which they planned to watch after lunch.
What would you do in this situation? If you were Dad? If you were the Supervisor? How would you talk to this child about what is happening? It’s not as easy or simple as it might seem because this little boy has absolute trust in his Mommy to tell him the truth, to protect him from dangers in the world, and to support him in embracing all the good life has to offer. The child assumes that Dad and the Supervisor are wrong because, for him, it’s very easy and very simple: mommy loves him so of course she is telling the truth. But she is not – she is denying important aspects of the child himself each time she denies the truth of the father’s existence in the world and the presence of the father in the child’s life. The person in need of intervention here is the mother, not the child. At least not at first. The entire family may benefit at some point with some counseling to help them with the transition they are facing.
I think some of R.D. Laing’s ideas about family lies and mental illness can be helpful. He thought that if you really listened to a schizophrenic, the patient would tell you how his or her world worked. The language might be metaphorical, even a little unreal, but it was logical in the context of growing up in a family where plain speech had been penalized and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others. In Laing's families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths that one family member is allowed to speak of, but that another member is forbidden to speak of. The weakest and most vulnerable family member finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a vicious circle of invalidation. Madness…mental illness…may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.
I’m not suggesting this little boy will develop a mental illness but I think anyone would agree that his sense of what is real and true versus what is false lays a foundation for mistrust of both himself and others that will stay with him, shape him, and inform him as he develops and grows. Whatever else is going on here, it is clear that his mother wants to be rid of one-half of who this child is…his father. How does she do that when it is half of her own child she wants to eliminate from her world?
This mother’s approach to co-parenting flies in the face of decades of research that clearly supports the need of each child for a relationship with his or her parents…both of them! Sadly, it may take months or even years for action that will protect this child from his mother’s toxic hatred toward the father. And it may never happen. Family courts are notoriously slow to act, as is the child welfare system. If a bone is broken or a wound bleeding, the detriment to the child is clear. But when the abuse cannot be seen, felt and/or touched, time is required to sort it out. Depending on the child, there may not be much time.
If you are reading this you are, most likely, NOT a co-parent who is this bad for your child. But you may know someone who is! If you do, speak up. Get involved. Tell the mother (or father) that you are concerned and why. Give him or her the chance to understand how damaging their behavior is to the child. If they can’t or won’t get it, then be prepared to tell someone who can help the child. Every situation is different so there is no one person who is the right one to tell. But there is almost always someone who cares enough about a child to go to any lengths to protect them. Find that person and at least make the effort to help.
Colin Powell speaks passionately about the importance of the community system that exists to protect children. He also speaks about the lack of one and challenges each one of us to action, when he says “When that community system doesn’t exist, we can’t sit back and say ‘well, that’s too bad.’ The rest of us have to step forward.” If you have a child who is suffering or know a child who is suffering, please take some action to help.