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Parents and Mutual Antagonism
parents they cannot avoid provoking and antagonizing each other, co-creating
conflict from which both seek relief. Yet and even though separated, they
continue with their miserable ways, each complaining of the other. Both are
looking for the other to desist and thus relieve the conflict.
these parents go back and forth between them. They are the emissaries. They
provide the fodder for parental complaints. Their secret mission is to keep
the parental relationship alive and even though in conflict, parental conflict
still signals a parental connection.
children inform each parent of the goings on with the other, neither parent is
apt to redirect them from delivering their messages. Thus both parents can
claim that the messages are non-solicited and certainly not coerced. Being
children and particularly when young, the messages are distorted and reflect a
childís perspective. However, the parents take the messages as gospel and
the childís perception as clear and accurate statements of fact.
unsatisfied with the other parentís dinner meal complains of being starved.
Next, unsatisfied with the bedtime, a child complains of cruel punishment,
being sent to bed early. Sometimes innocuously, a child merely comments or
muses about the behaviour of a parentís new partner and the other parent is
racked with fear about the goings on of the other. Mountains are made of
molehills. Sinister plots and outcomes are seen in every instance and one
parent cannot resist intervening on the other for the sake of the child. The
intruded upon parent however, seeks privacy and certainly denies any and all
allegations. The fight is on and while the parental connection is kept alive,
the children are subject to anger, hostility and conflict.
worse is when one parent leads his or her life with a sense of entitlement.
Not only is what I am doing fine, but I am entitled to parent as I see fit and
I am certainly entitled to be happy, date, develop new relationships, expose
my kids to my new relationships and enjoy the company of new companions by day
and by night.
So, on the one
hand we have a parent who is self-centred and on the other hand, a parent who
cannot resist taking the bait and escalating matters. The dynamic is toxic and
as one antagonizes the other, they escalate their respective behaviours and
the child lives on a diet of acrimony.
from a therapeutic point of view is to get both parents to disengage, to leave
each other alone, recognising it is the antagonism that drives them both and
that is the truly toxic part to the child. While parents may concern
themselves with the standard of care each provides and/or the moral role model
each presents, the outcome for children of separated parents is more
determined by the parental conflict than the behaviours at issue. As the
parents disengage, they must also help remove the child from the role of
emissary. Comments about the other parent are not to be implicitly reinforced
by letting the child prattle on, but rather parents should redirect the child
to other matters, more notably issues of the moment with the present parent.
is to limit escalation by facilitating better boundaries, recognizing that
given the self-centred nature of one parent, the likelihood of getting that
parent to change their ways is quite remote and relative to the behaviours in
question, it is the parental conflict that will be more destructive to the
childrenís psychosocial development.
The goal is to
extricate the child as emissary and to limit the toxicity of the family
experience. In the end, you have a happier, better adjusted child who when
older, will better understand the respective behaviour of the parents and make
choices for themselves.
If you are the
parent who continues to worry about the moral role model of the other,
concentrate more on your behaviour as a role model and still limit conflict.
That way you are not drawing more attention to the very behaviour you may find
objectionable and you offer your child a range of experiences from which to
antagonism and provocative behaviour: neither is truly acceptable, but
conflict is still worse.
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
For information on Direnfeld's book, Raising Kids Without Raising Cane, click here.
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