Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
The relationship between David and Janet was never loving and then rapidly deteriorated after Janet accidentally got pregnant with their son Jeremy, now 12. They separated not long after the pregnancy so Jeremy never had the experience of living with his mom and dad. The relationship between Janet and David became so acrimonious that initially it impeded any possibility of joint parenting. Janet was angry and didn’t want to share Jeremy and though initially David engaged in a battle with her around this, David - 24 at the time - eventually gave up and settled for a minimal relationship with Jeremy. When Jeremy was about 5, David resumed his fight for shared legal custody and won. However, after some failed attempts at parent guidance sessions which Janet initially refused, they developed separate relationships with Jeremy in styles which did not overlap.
Though Janet claimed she wanted David to be more involved with their son, she often sabotaged this, failing to share important information about Jeremy with him - as well as giving him the cold shoulder when they were at school or sports events, and at drop-off and pick-up. In addition, she attempted to manage the details of his relationship with Jeremy, for example, insisting on pre-approving how they spent their time. On the surface she appeared mistrustful of David as a dad, though there was no legitimate basis for this. Though she was obviously still resentful towards David, her behavior also seemed indicative of a general possessiveness towards Jeremy.
Jeremy was 12 but very young for his age. He had a somewhat clingy but ambivalent relationship with his mother - who failed to provide structure for Jeremy and at times behaved in a rigid and irrational way. Jeremy used to have tantrums but as he got older, this behavior was largely replaced with becoming sullen, uncommunicative, or passively defiant when he was unhappy or mad. At these times he did not seem to listen and was difficult to reach emotionally. He also seemed to get unexplained stomach aches during times of stress and conflict.
Jeremy seemed to have a good time on the weekends with his dad and easily became attached to dad’s girlfriend of several years, Sonya. They all seemed to have fun together and Jeremy often asked about Sonya when she did not join them. When David had told Janet that Sonya would be spending some time with Jeremy and his dad, she chastised David and said that his time with Jeremy was supposed to be for them alone and that it was inappropriate. Over the last several months, as David explained that Sonya was becoming a central part of his life and that they would soon be engaged and living together, Janet began making a case that Jeremy was unhappy about spending time with David and Sonya, though she refused to elaborate.
Subsequently, in the car prior to a visit with dad Jeremy became sullen, asking his dad if Sonya would be there, stating that he didn’t like Sonya. David was surprised since Jeremy had seemed excited and happy when they were all together, and this had never come up before. David did not know what to make of Jeremy’s feelings and could not get Jeremy to explain himself.
David responded to Jeremy by pointing out that Jeremy seemed to like her when he was with her. Privately, he wondered whether Janet might have told Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya. Then it occurred to him that maybe Jeremy needed more time alone with him. He quickly suggested that they do something alone - just the two of them - if Jeremy wanted. Jeremy did not respond and was quiet the rest of the trip. He greeted Sonya flatly when they got home and got on the computer to play games. A few hours later David asked Jeremy if he wanted to go out for ice-cream with him. Jeremy ran to find Sonya and asked if she could come too. They all had a good time. Various renditions of this scenario recurred over the next few months.
During this time period, on one occasion David let Janet know that he planned to attend Jeremy’s baseball games and might bring Sonya. When Sonya and David arrived at the field, the two of them and Janet took positions on opposite ends of the stands. Jeremy was on the field at the time and the game had not yet begun. When he saw his dad he excitedly ran over to him and Sonya from the field and started talking breathlessly. Once the game started, Jeremy glanced towards the stands. Shortly thereafter, he stopped playing, complained of a stomach ache, and had to go home.
What is happening here? We can all probably easily recognize this story as a clear case of a child being put in the middle between divorced parents.
But what can be done?
David sought counseling because he felt confused and frustrated, recognizing that this situation was but one of many to come. He felt helpless to have any impact on his son, leading him to feel discouraged and despairing. Jeremy spent so much more time with his mom. David knew it was hopeless to resolve issues with Janet because he had tried and failed so many times. Janet did not seem curious about Jeremy’s experience and was either unwilling or unable to reflect on her own experience and impact on Jeremy.
How can we help David and his son?
In spite of his doubts, David’s relationship with his son is critical and will in and of itself have a significant impact on Jeremy’s development. David’s energy should be positively channeled into developing and enhancing his relationship with his son.
In his worry and confusion, David struggled with whether he was hurting Jeremy by having Sonya join them. He wondered whether he could trust his reading of Jeremy. Was Jeremy having fun when he seemed to be having fun? If he was, then why would Jeremy say that he didn’t like Sonya and act sullen?
How should David handle the situation when Jeremy says this to him? When he took a rational stance and disputed what Jeremy was saying, or took it at face value, neither approach worked and Jeremy would become withdrawn and more sullen.
How can we understand Jeremy’s behavior? Jeremy was confused about his inner experience because he sensed - as all children do - the emotional state of his parents. In this example, he sensed the palpable tension between his mom and dad at the baseball game - tension which was barely tolerable even for David. No one was available to help Jeremy manage his feelings. He - adaptively - developed a stomach ache, in the absence of any other way to articulate or escape the situation.
David accurately perceived that Jeremy seemed to freely enjoy his relationship with Sonya before that relationship took on other meaning for his mom. Whether or not Janet directly stated to Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya, Jeremy could read his mom’s strong feelings and internalized her emotions and state of mind, blocking his own perceptions and feelings. Jeremy appeared depressed and withdrawn as he unconsciously expressed his mom’s perceptions as if they were his own. This depressive mood did not lift when David willingly offered to spend time alone with him, without Sonya. Jeremy’s sullenness, and its persistence in the face of David’s responsiveness to what Jeremy said he felt, communicated the deeper message below the surface of Jeremy’s words.
Jeremy’s reaction was created by having taken on his mom’s feelings, while disavowing his own, creating a state of constriction, detachment, and lack of vitality. When Jeremy said that he didn’t like Sonya, David could have said to Jeremy in an empathic way, "I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad." (This would only be helpful if said without any unconscious intent to retaliate and blame or judge Janet. Otherwise, it would simply compound Jeremy’s confusion.) When David noticed Jeremy having fun with him and Sonya, David could have brought that to light in the moment… “I see you’re having fun today!” Later, David could have expanded on this and begun to articulate the conflict for Jeremy… "I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad. But you’re allowed to have fun... and it’s ok to have your own feelings and opinions - even if they are different from mommy’s or from mine." Of course, in order for David to be successful in reading his son and helping him consolidate his experience, David needs to be of clear mind, unencumbered by his own feelings towards Janet and any anxieties he might have about how Jeremy feels about Sonya and their relationship.
Jeremy needed his dad’s help to understand what he was experiencing, and not simply take his words at face value or dispute them rationally. Parents cannot rely on their children to explain to them what is really going on. It is the parent who must discern what is happening and impart their interpretation of what the child is experiencing. If his dad could tune in to what Jeremy is struggling with and elucidate it for him, Jeremy would feel immediate relief and clarity. If David repeatedly resonates with and articulates what Jeremy feels, this will strengthen Jeremy’s sense of himself, his ability to read and rely on his feelings and perceptions of others, and bond him to his dad - protecting him from falling into a desolate state of ambiguity and confusion. The more developed these capacities the more resilient Jeremy will be in his relationships, and the more he will be able to protect himself versus have his inner experience hijacked by others.
Children can have qualitatively different attachments with each parent. Research consistently shows that a secure attachment with a parent or other trusted adult can ameliorate the effects of troubled attachments and trauma, creating new experiences and new pathways in the brain. A secure and attuned attachment ignites the development of capacities in the child which are necessary for understanding and relating to others and oneself as well as regulating mood and feelings. Such capacities are created and fostered by parents who are self-aware, able to reflect on their own experiences and state of mind, and clear enough of emotional baggage to be present and thoughtful in how they respond to the child the majority of the time.