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Encouraging Your Child Not to Take Sides

QUESTION: I am a 44-year-old professional male who, after 15 years of marriage, was informed by my spouse that she "needed to take her life in another direction." She said that she had emotional issues that could only be resolved by a divorce. We have a wonderful son, age 13, who lives with me, by his choice. His mother lives about 10 minutes away and greets him each day after school. I am very concerned because of the rapid deterioration of their relationship. His mother thinks I am causing his anger. Should a child be "forced" to spend time with a parent, despite his feelings?

ANSWER: Your situation reflects a sudden, unexpected change that may have left you (and your son) with both angry and hurt feelings. But this is no reason to fail to support a teenager in maintaining his relationship with his mother and working through his anger instead of "running away." It is your job to protect your child from "taking sides" or acting in a manner that precludes an ongoing relationship with your ex-spouse. A passive stance on your part may send the message that he, too, should "divorce" his mother. Cutting off from his mother at this age would likely only prove damaging.

Thirteen is a very vulnerable age to lose a mother, even temporarily. The anger your son feels will have little opportunity for resolution if he is allowed to cut off his relationship with his Mom. The only reason to support withdrawal from a parental relationship is when neglect, abuse or serious mental illness makes this the only sane or healthy decision. Your son is only at the beginning of his adolescence. His development through this period of change, while simultaneously adjusting to the divorce requires your unwavering guidance. This is a tall order, in the face of your own pain, but your son's well-being is at stake!

Separate your son's loss from your own. Your wife is divorcing you, not your son. Be clear with him that though you may feel that your wife has abandoned you, she has by no means left him. Your son may, in part, identify with you as the "male victim" of your wife's departure from the marriage. Condoning his withdrawal from his mother runs the danger of a self- fulfilling sense of abandonment that could permeate his later adult relationships. Do not allow him to create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy by cutting his mother out of his life. It may be difficult for him to recover the relationship in the future. It is critical to his adjustment that you let him know that you believe his mother is an important person in his life. And that even though his parents have separated, you both love him and want the best for him. The best for him includes maintaining a relationship with both of the parents that love him.

It is also likely that your ex-wife's guilt about the pain your son is undergoing in this adjustment is contributing to her inability to listen to his anger. It is essential that she stop attributing your son's anger to you, as this only places him in the middle of your conflict. He is no doubt hurt and angry that his family unit has been shaken. She should expect and accept his anger as a natural part off this transition. But it is also wise to consider if there are any ways you may be fueling his flame due to your own hurt over your wife's actions.

Consider the fact that you seem to be "taken by surprise" by your wife's decision to leave the marriage. You describe being "informed" which suggests great emotional distance. It is likely that the two of you have been out of touch with each other for some time in your relationship. If so, take responsibility for your lack of awareness regarding your wife's pain. The decision to dissolve a 15 year marriage does not take place "overnight". It is probable that there were warning signs that you may have missed or ignored for one reason or another. Resolve your own sense of "victimization" in the marriage. Accepting your part of the failure in your relationship will allow you to move on without repeating the mistakes which led to such an extreme breakdown in communication.

Be aware that years of suppressed, unresolved marital conflict may also leave your son vulnerable to being "elected" by both you and your ex-wife to express the unspoken rage between the two of you. Protect your child from becoming the lightning rod between you and your ex-spouse for unresolved feelings in the marriage relationship. If necessary, secure the help of a professional counselor/mediator to keep your son out of the middle of your conflict. Develop a parental team approach to act in your son's best interests.

It is possible that your son is replicating a dysfunctional coping style that has existed in your marriage. Perhaps your son learned to express anger by avoiding. He may be seeking to express his anger and resolve his pain by "cutting off" from a relationship that has sustained his development. It is not a matter of "forcing" or "not forcing" contact between your son and his mother. It is a matter of teaching your son the value of working through conflict instead of running away from it.

Patterns of conflict avoidance or emotional cutoff may have spelled the demise of your marriage, but do not allow this destructive coping style to destroy your son's relationship with his mother. It is likely that with your genuine support, he will continue to work through his feelings without losing the parent-child relationship.

Do not neglect yourself. You are experiencing great loss. Take time to recover and understand what has occurred. Obtain help to work through your own anger and sorrow during this very difficult period. Doing so is your best insurance that you will not pass this pain onto the next generation.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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