I concluded a recent piece  here by stating that “Children need the time and space to grieve an absent (or infrequently seen) parent, and need the adults in their lives to guide them in this process, not expect emotional support from them….” But what is one parent to do when he or she ‘follows the rules’ (hereafter called the “protecting parent”), while his or her ex-spouse (the “offending parent”) persists in breaking them to a greater or lesser extent? How should the protecting parent respond if he or she sees the children suffering from the actions and decisions of the offending parent?
Literature on co-parenting for divorced couples provides some guidance on managing these difficult circumstances. For example, wherever possible, ex-spouses should maintain an amiable and communicative relationship such that the children see some consistency and cooperation between their parents. This can be a particular challenge in emotionally-charged situations. This challenge can become especially tricky because children need increased emotional support and attention following a divorce, and the behavior of the offending parent may seem to offer such. However, when the extra attention results in a parent receiving the bulk of the support, and the child functioning as a form of caretaker, the protecting parent has every right to be concerned.
Like many clinical questions, how to proceed depends upon a variety of developmental and dynamic factors unique to any given situation (extreme issues may warrant intervention by child protective services). Nonetheless, there are some general rubrics to address two common scenarios.
One scenario is a needy adult who, when faced with the dissolution of the marriage, feels intense loneliness, and copes by throwing himself or herself into the role as parent, making little effort to spend healthy time with adult friends or family members. In this situation, the risk is high that a child will become the confidante of the parent, learning far too much about financial difficulties, struggles at work, or worse yet, about the pain of the divorce and the resentment which follows. The protecting parent in these situations must resist the temptation to mimic the false closeness to the child of the offending parent, and instead, patiently pursue genuine, developmentally-appropriate closeness.
Keeping a clear parent-child boundary buffers the child from the full brunt of the divorce, while also ensuring the protective parent’s ability to listen to, and fully support, the hurting child. This responsible closeness and involvement will actually help the child to develop and maintain healthy relationships with both parents. As messy as the actions of the offending parent might be, it is rarely helpful for the protecting parent to be the one who points this out to the child; although unfair on multiple levels, awaiting the child’s own discovery of this, is often most successful in preserving all relationships. This approach naturally takes differing forms throughout the child’s development, and the relationship may not ‘feel’ as intense as that of the offending parent’s connection appears. Nevertheless, in the long run, such patience will result in the lifelong connection for which parents long and which the child truly needs.
A second scenario involves the ex-spouse who intentionally alienates the children from the other parent by forcing them to choose sides. “Parental alienation” can involve things such as bad-mouthing, or limiting contact with, the other parent and family members; forbidding discussion about, or pictures of, the other parent; and creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous or at fault for the divorce. Interestingly, research suggests that despite the vilification, “alienated children often hold in their heart a desire to love and be loved by the targeted parent. The alienated child may appear to hate and have no desire or need for the targeted parent, but that is simply not the case .”
The intensity and toxicity of this type of relationship calls for a more subtle approach by the protecting parent. Because the child is trapped in an untenable position, he or she typically will not provide the protecting parent with opportunities to listen, reflect, and understand what is happening. Nevertheless, research with parents who had later reconciled with their children suggests that even seemingly small efforts by the estranged parent—showing up at sporting, musical, or theater events, or sending text messages or emails, i.e. doing those things which demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance—“carry great meaning.” This is not easy, and challenges even the most mature adult. A key feature in fostering reconciliation is the parent making every effort at understanding “the alienation from the child’s point of view, in order to maintain empathy with the child, and to forestall the anger and bitterness that can take root in the face of the ongoing pain and humiliation seemingly inflicted on [the parent] by [his or her] child.”
“Patience is a virtue,” and nowhere so poignantly practiced as when one watches a child suffer. Following the pain of family dissolution, children must have the freedom to relate to both parents. When that freedom is distorted by one parent, the other carries a great cross. The injustice calls for correction, yet such remedy cannot occur at the expense of the child, and thus a wait, at times painfully long, ensues. Hopefully, with time, maturing and perspective, the love of the protecting parent is seen clearly for what it always has been, and is returned.