From the Therapist's Desk

UNDERSTANDING ESTRANGEMENT FROM A CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW

Children experience feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, guilt and/or shame when a parent disconnects from their life. When the estrangement occurred because of some action or behavior on the part of the parent, the child's sense of mistrust of the parent will usually be heightened.

Even when a parent made the decision to withdraw from the life of a child was based on what the parent believed was in the child's best interest, this is rarely understood by the child.

Children often feel that there is something wrong with them that accounts for the parents departure from their life, or that accounts for the parent behaving in a way that led to the estrangement. "If only I was __________ (nicer, smarter, kinder, etc), my Mommy/Daddy would have stayed."

Children often blame themselves and feel rejected and abandoned. As children try to make sense of why a parent doesn't come around, the easiest explanation for them is to blame themselves.

Children may lash out at the absent parent in anger, "You left the family," convinced their life would be whole, or at least better, if you hadn't left.

On the other hand, some children will form an idealized image of the absent parent and have unrealistic fantasies about the day they will be reunited.

Whatever the response of your child, your job as the estranged parent is to be patient, present, loving, warm, accepting, consistent and predictable. Children need a sense of safety and security from birth. An absent parent -- regardless of the reason -- damages that sense of safety and security.

Part of the healing process for children is learning that the absent parent has taken responsibility for their absence, made a genuine apology and is prepared to show them they will make it right. The child must see the parent as trustworthy and dependable.

Even if the estranged parent has been the target of behaviors disruptive to their relationship with the child from the custodial parent, the child does not want excuses that blame the other parent. The child's connection to the custodial parent is the basis to a sense of safety and security because that relationship was not disrupted. 

Educating children about "the truth," about what really happened is not helpful and, in fact, can be quite damaging. The estranged parent needs to be able to answer the child's questions about why the parent left without pointing the finger at the other parent or making the child feel as though they must take sides.

Equally important, the custodial parent must genuinely support the child's connection to the estranged parent. This means establishing trust with your coparent. This may be hard to do without actually meeting in the same room with your other half and having conversations about the family process of conjoint therapy to heal estrangement. If the child sees or senses that their primary parent is afraid of or mistrustful of the estranged parent, it is unlikely that the family healing process will be successful.

The Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House requires coparenting meetings periodically during the conjoint process to remove pressure from the child and place it on the parents, which is where it belongs. Each parent has a responsibility to actively work on the healing process. It is truly a shared responsibility and the coparenting meetings are essential to begin a process of cooperation and collaboration in that relationship. 

The child needs to see and feel that Mom and Dad can work together for the sake of the child.