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The Childís Experience of the Parental Separation

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 parentís 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 parentís behavior and beliefs about their impact on the child and the childís actual experience.

Here are some examples:

Parental belief and behavior:

My partner was barley around an didnít have much to do with the kids, so either my partner doesnít deserve to see them or limiting my partnerís time with the children isnít a big deal.

Childís 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 canít 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 parentís behavior, the child will think better of the parent who was subject to the untoward behavior and poorly towards the parent who is blamed.

Childís 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 canít 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.

Childís 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 doesnít 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 childís 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 childrenís 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. Donít 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 parentís relationship even if you donít like the other parent. It is less the childís care or concern what each parent has done to the other. It is the childís 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 donít 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 wouldnít want it read out in church or court, donít put it in a written or recorded message.

It is a challenge to consider oneís 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.


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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847  


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 Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America and was the first social worker to sit on the Ontario Board for Collaborative Family Law.

Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.



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27 Sina Street, Georgina, ON, Canada L4P 3E9 Tel: (905) 628-4847 Email: gary@yoursocialworker.com