Three Parenting Mistakes Good Parents Make — Mistake #1
Married and divorced parents are capable of good and terrible parenting. Most parenting mistakes come from good intentions gone slightly askew. Parenting with some particular vulnerabilities look different in a divorcing family.
During a divorce, the quintessential familial architecture can feel threatened; safeguarding it is both vital and possible. The structural integrity of the family — comprised of the distinct roles held by parents and children within the family — must be attended to and strengthened. This protects the children’s developmental needs and assures that secure attachments between child and parent continue to grow.
How is this accomplished? By deliberately protecting role expectations.
What do I mean by roles?
We define our children’s roles, in part, by our expectations of them. Parents’ appreciation of children’s emotional and behavioral lives during a divorce must be shaped by the real loss children are experiencing and the adjustments they are trying to make.
During the transition, parents are required to provide a patient, attuned presence for their children and a dependable, loving attitude towards them even more than before. Avoid making the presumption that children will take on more responsibility because of the divorce, especially more of the other parent’s responsibilities.
Mistake 1: No little women or little men (except to read by the fire). Just children.
This first mistake can result in parentifying the child. While a two-parent household is reorganizing into two, one-parent establishments, it’s natural for a child to sense the vacancy, resulting in some anxiety figuring out the new and uncertain landscape. Children may worry that the remaining parent is under-resourced to take care of the family without the help of the absent parent. The child, needing to protect him/herself by shoring up the parent-upon-whom-he/she-depends, steps into the role of helper, partner, emotional supporter, and confidante. Ostensibly, the child assumes the role of the missing parent.
This adaptive-maladaptive role is often encouraged by the parent in need (helping with a grown-up task, or comforting a depressed parent) both because the child’s behavior fills a void and because it demonstrates such desirable qualities as maturity and empathy. However, while a child helping with age-appropriate tasks is always part of healthy development, the child’s taking on a role such as a confidante or emotional regulator is problematic and violates the child’s essential role. The child must be encouraged to be the child in the relationship, even (and maybe especially) in two, single-parent homes. In order to feel security, children must trust and depend on the ability of their caregivers to self-regulate and self-rely.
Adult needs can inundate a child’s system and overtax their capacity, resulting in a child who is nervous, insecure, and overwhelmed. A child, not yet able to care competently for himself in the world, does not have the resources or developmental maturity to care for another; so if he must do so, he must do so from an unformed, unsupported place, invariably, at his own expense.
Consider how troubled we are by child labor and child marriage. Children without the agency or power of an adult, forced into laboring under the same vigorous, often brutal governance, as their adult counterparts. This not only strikes us as unjust and immoral but unnatural. When children are expected to act in the roles of adults, we are viscerally struck by how these situations violate the child and the very tenets of childhood.
Although more subtle and intangible, a child is no more suited to lift the emotional burden of an adult than to hold a full-time job or fulfill the sexual, relational commitments of marriage. Adult responsibilities, too heavy and incomprehensible for most adults, can break children. As adults, we often remind ourselves and one another to “put on our big boy/girl pants.” Contrarily, (and metaphorically) we should never be telling our kids to put on anything but their own right-sized clothes.
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
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