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Three Parenting Mistakes Good Parents Make — Mistake #1

Rachel Alexander May 1, 2019

{5 minutes to read}  Both married and divorced parents are capable of good and terrible parenting, and most parenting mistakes come from good intentions gone slightly askew. The focus of this article is parenting with the particular vulnerabilities facing 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 done? By deliberately protecting role expectations.

What is meant 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 loss the children are experiencing and adjustments they are tasked with making.

In this way, during the transitional period, parents are required even more to provide a patient, attuned presence for their children and a dependable, loving attitude towards them.

Presumptions that children will take on more responsibility pursuant to the divorce — particularly more of the other parent’s responsibilities — is something to avoid.

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. During the time that a two-parent household is reorganizing into two, one-parent establishments, it’s natural that a child senses the vacancy and is anxious in the uncertain landscape. The child may worry that the remaining parent is under-resourced to take care of the family without the help of the absent spouse. 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 (e.g., helping with a grown-up task, or comforting a depressed parent) both because the child’s behavior fills a lack 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. Importantly, in order to have security, the child must trust and depend on the ability of his/her 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.

By way of analogy, consider how troubled we are by child labor and child marriage — children, without the agency or power of an adult, laboring under the same vigorous, often brutal governance, as their adult counterparts. This not only strikes us as unjust and immoral but unnatural — there is a perversion of logic when children are treated as adults. We are viscerally struck by how these instances that place a child in an adult situation 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.