Will your separation harm your child?

   A nice man brought her little girl to me. She returned to wetting her pants and bed, was clingy and tearful, refused to be left alone particularly at night, and while she'd been an excellent student in the past, her school work had completely deteriorated.

   I saw the child a total of 5 times, in the process getting to know both parents. I liked mother as well as father. The problem was that they hated each other.

   What should have been the third session was cancelled. Mother was to bring the girl. Before the session, the father phoned me, saying that mother had kept the girl longer than agreed, and that he would turn up at the end of the session with the police as witness, and take her with him. A few minutes later, the mother phoned to cancel, because she had an intuition that the father would do something terrible.

   At that stage, I wrote a letter, and emailed it to both parents. They took what I wrote on board, and changed their behaviour. This completely transformed the dynamics between these three people, and the little girl miraculously improved. For example, mother again brought the child for the 4th session. By pre-arrangement, father turned up, gave his daughter a cuddle and a kiss, then peacefully left.

   Here is the letter that did the trick:

Dear John and Mary,

   I am writing to both of you because Sue's welfare needs me to do so. If I could get the three of us in the same room, I wouldn't need to, but of course that's not going to happen. My aim is the same as yours: to do my best to ensure that Sue lives a good life now, and grows into a psychologically healthy, strong adult.

   There is a lot of research on how to achieve this when parents have separated, and also on what causes damage to the child. I would like to summarise the results of this research, so that you can apply it in your everyday lives.

   If this is not done, any child caught between the parents is at high risk of becoming traumatised. Even the best therapy is unlikely to help if the child's ongoing living situation contains features that are known to be damaging. And if what is known about how to deal with kids during a separation is applied, then therapy is probably not necessary.

   The essential problem in the child's life is not that the parents are separated. It is not even that the parents now dislike each other. Of course, children wish it wasn't so, but they can cope with it provided safety measures are put in place.

   A very important issue in the lives of many kids from broken homes is what the child learns about the beliefs of each parent about the other parent. This is not just a matter of words but of tones of voice, gestures and how the body is used to express emotion. Children read such nonverbal messages, and are affected by them.

   A typical situation is that both parents become hyper-vigilant regarding damage the other parent is causing to the child. Each is very busy blaming the other, and even if they carefully avoid discussing it with the child, the message gets through: "I know your father/mother is damaging you."

   The result is that the child is torn in two. The kid loves both parents, and feels loyalty to both, and gets the message that each parent blames the other for every one of the child's problems. This then means that the child is afraid of having problems because that will make both parents blame each other. And of course that's the surest way for the child to suffer high anxiety, which in turn causes the problems the parents will see as evidence of wrongdoing by the other.

   I can make three very important and effective recommendations based on the research:

1. When Sue is with you, avoid saying anything negative about the other parent. This includes nonverbal communication. To achieve that, you need to actually stop believing negative things about the other parent. Of course the thoughts will come ("Mary is a ^^%*&" or "John shouldn't be doing ^*$^*&$"), but thoughts are invitations, not commands. While you are in Sue's company and such a thought comes, you don't need to believe it. You don't need to disbelieve it either. It is just noise, harmful in this situation. It's like there is a TV on in the room but you are paying it no attention, to the extent that if someone asks you what the show is, you can't give an answer.

   Truth or falsehood is irrelevant. The thought that came to you may be true. However, if you buy into it within your mind, even without saying anything, you will be communicating something to your daughter that will hurt her. I am willing to bet that you get a certain look on your face, and Sue knows without having to be told that you are thinking of her other parent.

2. When Sue is with the other parent, you need to let go of still parenting her. You have different styles of parenting. Different rules apply in the two households. What is acceptable to one of you may not be to the other. UNLESS IT IS SOMETHING THAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED NEGLECT OR ABUSE IN A COURT OF LAW, you need to let go. If you went to court and the case would be dismissed, then it should be dismissed in your mind.

   Research shows that a very wide range of parenting styles will produce perfectly OK adults. There are only two requirements: 1. Unconditional love. Even when the child misbehaves and is being disciplined, she needs to feel that the parent loves her. 2. Predictable, clear, consistent rules. The rules can be different in the two households. Kids readily adapt to that. However, within the one household, she should always know what is expected of her, what behaviour is acceptable, and what the consequences of her actions will be.

3. Never question Sue about what goes on in the other household. Perhaps the most damaging thing for a child is to be asked about events she knows may be used as evidence against the other parent. If you do this, you are forcing her to make a very painful choice: defy mum/dad ("No I am not going to answer this question"), tell a lie, or be disloyal to the absent parent.

   The signs of distress the child shows, and where these occur, are not determined by which parent had done the wrong thing by her. For example, she could be in one home and be in a situation that she finds fine, but knows the absent parent will disapprove of it. This thought will be so anxiety-provoking that she will become terribly anxious and show the kinds of problems that worry you about her.


   If you can both put these three measures in place, I am sure Sue will stop feeling confused and anxious. All the problems with her such as wetting will disappear with that anxiety.

With caring,