“Just Make Two of Me” Tales From the Therapist's Couch
Listening to 8-year-old Ben *, I was struck by his earnest efforts to solve the problem [as he saw it] of both his parents fighting about where he was going to live. He told me about loving both his mum and dad, but that each of them “loves me so much they just want me to stay longer with them”.
He was tearing up as he told me this. He said that all he wanted was to have his Mum and Dad back together, in their old house, and then this wouldn’t be so hard. Then.. his great confession, he said he had told each of his parents that he wanted to live with them full time. Now he was sobbing uncontrollably now.
How did it get to this?
Even though Ben’s parents were loving and kind and trying hard to shield him from their conflict; it hadn’t worked. You see kids aren’t immune from the subtle things. They watch our expressions and body language carefully. They hear whispered conversations. They read our text messages. It affects them.
For Ben, he had become so embroiled in his parents’ conflict he saw himself as the person responsible for solving it. This sort of loyalty bind puts children at a significantly increased risk of behavioural and emotional problems. In fact, the biggest risk facing children whose parents have separated is the degree to which they are exposed to and become involved in their parents’ conflict.
So, back to Ben…
I had to work hard with Ben to help him understand that this wasn’t his fault or his problem to solve. He needed to focus on being a kid – and worry about stuff that kids are supposed to worry about, not becoming obsessed with the adult issues. He needed someone to tell him that it didn’t matter where he was spending time, that both his mum and dad loved him and that this would never change no matter where he was staying. He also needed to be helped to understand that it’s normal to want two different things at the same time and that he wasn’t wrong or bad for saying so.
When I told him these things, he lit up. His relief was palpable.
So how did the parents get it so wrong? They love their son. The trouble is they each thought that what Ben was telling them [“I really want to live with you”], was the absolute and certain truth. They could not contemplate that for Ben, he felt an intense loyalty to each of them and a strong desire to hold on to the past. Unfortunately, they had such low trust levels of one another, that instead of accepting the possibility that the other parent could have been right, they simply dismissed what was said. It took a lot of work with them to help them understand things from their 8-year-old son’s perspective.
Be careful accepting your child's face value views.
I’ve seen kids say different things to each parent about what they supposedly “want”. Children intuit what you want them to say, the views you approve of – even if you don’t say this explicitly. Usually when children tell their parents what they think their parents want to hear, it is their way of surviving the conflict.
So be careful in accepting your child’s views at face value.
Mostly, kids want their parents to stop fighting and their old family back… If you would like more help in understanding how to protect your children from divorce and separation conflict … click here.
*Names and personal details have been changed to protect confidentiality