When my marriage broke up, my biggest concern and feeling of guilt was: What are we doing to our children? Children are creatures of attachment – attachment does not just happen in a short window of time right after birth. It is deepening with every year and needs refreshing interaction. My children would not be able to be with both of their parents on a daily basis anymore. What problems can occur?
Children younger than six (and often also much older children) are not yet able to hold on to two attachments they experience as incompatible. Therefore, especially young children, often start to vehemently reject one parent. The child’s attachment brain no longer experiences the parents as physically united.
So, we are facing the challenge to present ourselves as still together in our parenting, despite of all our difficulties and despite our separation as a couple.
This does not mean we have to pretend harmony where there is none. But it could mean that we convey to our child: “Your Dad/your Mom really loves you and of course you love him/her. I am glad that you enjoy being with him/her.” And this is true: Despite the other parent’s behaviour, your child loves both parents unconditionally. He/She needs the permission from us to do so. This is not easy – but we should do everything to protect our children from losing their attachment to one parent.
It took me a lot of strength, but I tried to really give clear signals to my sons that I was ready to listen to their Daddy-stories and give friendly comments.
Don’t take it personally!
So, perhaps the attachment brain of your child has decided in favour of the other parent. Please take into consideration the fundamental inner conflict of the child and try to not feel personally hurt (or triumphantly confirmed, if you ended as the “good” parent!). Work at conveying to the child: “Dad and Mom will forever stay your parents.” Whenever there is an opportunity, you can tell whatever good stories there are about good common experiences. This gives to your children the message: “It is different now and this is sad for you. But there were many beautiful things in our history as a family, and your Dad/your Mom loves you and is lovable.”
Bring relatives and friends on board.
Ask also your friends and relatives to play a match-making role instead of rumbling about the absent parent. Of course it is important for us that our support crew be on our side – but please not while the children are present. It is most helpful if Grandma can convey to the child that Mom and Dad are both okay and doing their best (even if this stretches her personal opinion a little bit), along with providing reassurances that all the trouble and quarrel will calm down again.
You are more mature – hold on to your kids despite of their temporary rejection.
When you feel your child has taken your ex-partner’s side, you need all your maturity and all your love to handle this situation appropriately. Most important: Your child still loves you the same as before your marriage broke up. His or her hostile behaviour is not a conscious decision, but an emergency measure of the young brain to handle an emotional overload too much to bear.
Our challenge here is to take the child’s side and bridge the situation: “Oh, you are missing Mom/Dad right now, aren’t you? Tell me, which book is he/she reading to you right now? Oh, this is a wonderful story!” When your child starts telling happily about the great time he/she is having with the other parent, you have been successful in bridging the gap.
Tears are precious!
Ideally, your child eventually cries in your arms because missing the other parent or the two of you together. When the “bitter” tears of futility are shed, the brain has accepted the irreversibility of a frustrating situation, and the body relaxes. For us as parents it is hard to accept, that we cause sorrow for our children, but they can handle the situation much better if they are allowed to cry in our arms instead of bravely swallowing their tears down and pretending to be happy to avoid sad or angry reactions from Mom or Dad.
Many children do not directly express their sadness about the separation, but about small frustrations of everyday live. We should use every opportunity to comfort and encourage the signs of grief in the child, even if the reason seems banal too us. The child can relax and experiences that we (also) provide comfort and safety.
And if the child remains in his/her frustrated aggression? This is really hurtful and exhausting, but it tells you that your child is just deeply frustrated. Create safe rituals of expression. Instead of hurting you, the child could hit the pillow on the sofa, jump on the trampoline, shout out all foul words inside the bathroom and then flush the toilet – and you can even start or join in yourself. Everyone has the right to feel frustrated, to express frustration, and find acceptance in this.
Don’t give up!
Your child does not want to see you? She hangs up when you phone her, he does not answer your text messages and emails? Many parents then follow the motto: “If you do not love me anymore, I will not impose myself on you.”
Instead, keep the ball rolling, stay friendly, build bridges, signal dependability. Your child is much more in need of your responsible caretaking than might be obvious right now.
Don’t address reproaches to your child, don’t make them responsible for your feelings. (“I will be very sad if you do not want to come.”) Remember or find out what your child really enjoys doing. Good attachment is best supported by common time and warm rituals. If possible, spend time with each of your children alone to deepen the connection individually.
“But my ex does not join in…”
Often there is one big BUT. “All these things do not work in my case, because my ex is just…”
Understood. There must have been a reason why your ex is the ex now. Only: Despite of the fact how “impossible” your ex is behaving: He/she is your child’s other parent, and your child loves your ex. Your child needs the two of you – regardless of how the other parent is behaving right now.
Perhaps the only thing you can do is to hang a photograph of the other parent in the child’s room, and talk as friendly as possible about the other parent. “Mom/Dad has given this to you? Wow, you surely like it a lot!” If you can do this for your child, there is at least one parent who is behaving in a responsible, helpful, and constructive way.