Page 10: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 8 - Special Issues and Concerns

When parents separate, their children's world is turned upside down. It makes perfect sense because their family is all they know and is the source of their identity. For most children, slowly but surely they will adapt to the changes and develop healthy individual relationships with each parent. Unfortunately, that is not the case for all children. In circumstances in which a parent abandons a child, when a child for whatever reason rejects one parent or when family violence is an issue, things can go very wrong for children. Children simply don't have the adult mental tools to make sense of the painful, complex and often contradictory feelings that come with these situations. Getting professional help for you and the children involved is the first and best step. Schools may have counsellors on staff or visiting psychologists or social workers. Reach out until you find the support and guidance you need.

When a Child Is Abandoned

Abandonment can take many forms: the parent who walks away and refuses to have any further contact with the child; the absentee parent who rarely communicates with or sees the child; and the parent who slowly drifts away (either by choice or because of the other parent's manipulation of the child). Whatever the situation, children who are abandoned by a parent may experience guilt, confusion, grief, fear, anger, withdrawal, a retreat into a fantasy world and depression.

Children who are abandoned often feel an overwhelming sense of rejection. The thought that one parent no longer loves them, wants them or even cares about them is potentially devastating to a child's sense of self and future ability to form healthy, loving relationships.

What You Can Do

As the parent who is involved, the responsibility falls to you to influence your children's self-worth and help them cope with the other parent's absence. You can help, first and foremost, by providing comfort and a sense of security. On top of that emotional base, you can help your children deal with the grief of abandonment by adapting your comfort and support to their reaction. For example, children who have been abandoned may go in the direction of rejecting everything about the absent parent. You'll see this when a child expresses the desire to be the exact opposite of the absent parent. In this instance, parents can help by:

  • affirming the child's unique qualities
  • allowing the child to share thoughts and feelings openly
  • responding to a child's rejection of the other parent by saying, "It makes sense why you might feel that way right now"

Some children may go in the other direction by developing an intense yearning for the absent parent. In this case, children may over-identify with the absent parent and develop a set of comforting fantasies that are not based in reality. Parents can help by:

  • allowing children to freely verbalize their memories of the absent parent
  • avoiding the temptation to correct the children's distorted recollections

Children with abandonment issues may develop self-worth and shame surrounding the parent's absence. They may even question whether:

  • they could have contributed to the absence
  • they somehow "deserved" to be abandoned
  • the absent parent believes that he or she is better off without the "burden" of the child

In this situation, children need to be assured that they did nothing to cause the parent to leave, that they are very much loved and lovable, and that adults sometimes make very bad decisions. In addition, counselling is recommended to help children work through their grief and move on.

Children who have been abandoned may also have difficulty expressing their emotions. They may keep their emotions bottled up, lacking the trust necessary to share their true selves with others. They need to be reassured that feelings are neither good nor bad and that it is better to share feelings than keep them inside.

Most children who have experienced abandonment by a parent will benefit from relationships with other adults who can serve as role models and provide them with experiences that would have been shared with the absent parent. A grandparent, aunt or uncle, a close adult friend – any of these trusted individuals could agree to take on a more proactive and sensitive role.

When a Child Rejects One Parent

Although abandonment poses significant risks for children, those children caught in loyalty conflicts – in which they feel they must choose one parent over the other – may face even more difficulties in life.

Most children want contact with both parents on a regular basis. Some children, however, do not crave more time with an absent parent. Instead, these children show extreme reluctance to be with a parent, resist contact with the parent or out-and-out reject the parent.

The reasons why children shun one parent vary. Sometimes children have good reasons to reject a deficient parent, perhaps because of abuse, addiction or abandonment issues. Other times, children appear to decide by themselves to pull away from the parent they blame for the separation. Without the same tools as adults to deal with conflict and pain, some children may react by shutting out one parent. But for some children who begin to shun one parent, their reasons generally mimic the other parent's negative attitudes.

The reasons why parents interfere in their children's relationship with the other parent vary as well. Some parents are so blinded by rage and a wish to punish their ex-partner that they lose sight of their children's need to love and be loved by both parents. Some parents foster their children's rejection of the other parent because they truly believe that their ex-partner is a bad parent or does not act in the best interests of the children. Still others unintentionally affect their children's relationship with the other parent by even occasionally sharing frustrations and accusations in front of the children. Regardless of the motives, withdrawing from a parent who loves them can cause deep psychological problems for children.

The Characteristics of a Child Who Unreasonably Rejects a Parent

  • Although others may see clearly that a child's negative attitude toward one parent developed in the shadow of the other parent's hostility, the child usually denies any such influence.
  • The child develops a relentless hatred for one parent.
  • The child does not want to visit or spend any time with one parent.
  • The child is frequently unable to explain the reasons for the rejection of the parent. In fact, some of the reasons may not only be false, but grossly exaggerated or seemingly ridiculous.
  • The child previously enjoyed a positive relationship with the shunned parent.
  • The child lacks the capacity to feel guilty about the negative behaviour toward the rejected parent.
  • The child has almost no ability to see anything positive about the rejected parent, either from the past or in the present.

What You Can Do

For all parents. First and foremost, keep in mind that after the separation children need your support and help to develop a separate, meaningful relationship with both parents. When children are constantly exposed to negative comments about the other parent or feel the need to choose one parent over the other, their emotional well-being is at risk.

The time to intervene is when a child starts to resist spending time with one parent. Counselling is encouraged to help clarify the underlying reasons for the child's behaviour and address them immediately. Otherwise, a child's reluctance to interact with a parent may continue to get worse – thus interfering with the child's healthy emotional development.

If your child doesn't want to see you.

  • Don't give up.
  • Keep your anger and hurt under control. Losing control will only feed the problem.
  • Don't retaliate.
  • Focus on keeping your relationship with the children positive.
  • Work with your mediator, lawyer or therapist on seeking solutions that are aligned with the best interests of the children.

When There Is Violence in the Home

Separation can increase the likelihood of violence in the home, particularly during and after the actual physical separation. This increased risk also applies to families where family violence has not occurred in the past.

You are not responsible for your partner's anger, violence or abuse. However, how you react and what you decide to do in this situation is your responsibility. The very first thing is to protect yourself and your children. Reach out and talk to a friend, family member or someone you trust or call a helpline. When you need immediate help call 9-1-1 without hesitation. Safety for you and your children needs to be your priority.

For parents and children leaving an abusive home, the period after separation can be a time when the violence escalates. It is important for you to find a safe place to stay with your children and to develop a comprehensive safety plan to help you remain out of danger and plan the next steps. Community help lines and services organizations, crisis centres, and shelters may be available to help you during this transition. If these programs or services are not available in your area, ask family and friends if they can help you.

For children and youth, violence in the family often has a traumatic effect, causing their behaviour to change. It is typical for them to be afraid, upset and angry. Even if they seem to be coping well, your children need extra attention and care. Be aware that they are very sensitive to your own attitude and what you say in the situation. When you talk with your children about the other parent, it's important that you say only what you need to.

Regardless of their age, children from violent homes are at an increased risk of behavioural and developmental problems. They often suffer from anxiety and depression, and they may exhibit more aggressive, antisocial, inhibited or fearful behaviours. Even if they have not been abused themselves, children who are exposed to violence may experience similar symptoms to those children who are themselves physically abused.

Children who witness violence in the home often have a persistent fear for their own safety and the safety of brothers, sisters and the abused parent. They may also blame themselves for not being able to stop the violence (for example, by behaving better). For these children, feelings of self-blame, guilt, anger and fears about being different from other children may be more acute. They need help to understand that they did not cause the violence and could not have stopped it. They need to know that it is okay for them to feel angry and sad about losses that have resulted from the violence. (See box What Children Need to Hear About Family Violence.)

What You Can Do

There are several things you can do to help your children deal with family violence:

  • Assure them that you love them.
  • Show them that despite the difficulties, you are in charge.
  • Make sure they understand that the violence is not okay, it's not normal, it's not their fault, and nobody deserves to be abused.
  • Tell them as much as you can without name-calling – in other words, challenge the behaviour not the person (remember, your children love the abusive parent, even though it feels confusing to them).
  • Listen to their feelings, assure them that these feelings are okay, and share some of your own feelings.
  • Set limits in a firm, loving manner.
  • Take a little time every day to have some fun with them.
  • Encourage them to have friends and activities as soon as you resettle.
  • Let them be dependent – they need to be able to depend on you.
  • Let them know that you also need to have friends and to spend some time alone.
  • Credit yourself for your courage and strength. Remember that you have made positive choices for you and your children.

What Children Need to Hear About Family Violence

  • “It’s not okay.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “It must be very scary for you.”
  • “You do not deserve to have this in your family.”
  • “There is nothing you could have done to prevent this.”
  • “I will help you to stay safe.”
  • “Please tell me how you feel, I want to know.”
  • “You can still love someone and not like what they are doing.”

When You Suspect Child Abuse

All parents should become familiar with signs of child abuse. Parents should call the police or their local child protection office if they believe their child has been abused. Everyone has a duty to report a child in need of protection to the authorities.

It is important to note that some parents suspect sexual abuse when they notice their young children touching or stroking themselves. It’s normal for young children to explore their bodies and comfort themselves by stroking their genitals. During times of stress, parents may find that these natural behaviours may increase. However, if the behaviour persists or you are worried about it, you should talk to your family doctor. If you have questions about how to recognize child sexual abuse, call your local child protection office or the police. You are responsible for the safety of your children.

(See Section 11 – Resources for specific information on where to get support and information on family violence. Counselling is strongly recommended for children who have witnessed family violence or have themselves been abused.)

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