Paul Wanio, PhD, LMFT
As you may know, there are times in a child's life when he/she favors or feels closer to one parent than to the other and may have strong, possessive feelings toward that parent. Fantasy is very important at a young age and you may observe your child's "playing house" and pretending to be "the parent" or even saying that he/she wishes that he/she could marry Mommy/Daddy. This is all a quite natural fantasy and even helps prepare the child for future man-woman relationships. (After all, the first important man and woman in our lives is our parents.)
When divorce occurs, this normal stage of child development is disrupted and difficulties can arise. Children typically blame themselves for divorce (magical thinking) and may imagine that their feelings of intense closeness, love, possessiveness or favoritism for one parent is what drove both parents apart -- that the child caused feelings of competition and jealousy between the parents which created the separation.
Explain to your child that whatever feelings he/she may have had in no way could have caused your divorce. The feelings of a child (positive or negative) toward a parent cannot CAUSE anything, including a divorce. It would be harmful and overwhelming for your child to believe that they could.
Another difficulty can arise when a child feels compelled to take the place of the absent parent by assuming the role of that parent. "Playing house" is one thing, becoming Mom or Dad is quite another. Not only will the child feel overwhelmed in being expected to fulfill the needs of one parent, but guilty for having "replaced" (betrayed) the other. Helping Mom or Dad with chores around the house is fine; becoming the parent by constantly assuming that role is something else.
Resist the temptation of becoming too personal in your conversations with your child regarding your life and the absent parent's life. Know the difference between adult-to-adult conversation and parent-to-child conversation. Don't expect much comfort, support and solace from your child. Though you may receive some of this on a childish level and it may feel good, your real needs for comforting must come elsewhere from other adults.
Matters in this area may become even more serious if there is any inappropriate touching, sexual contact or seductiveness on the part of either parent with the child. This does sometimes occur and I cannot over-stress the traumatic results that can occur (whether apparent or not). Being compassionate and affectionate with one's child is important and encouraged. Being sexual is NEVER appropriate -- not ever! Even joking or insinuating being sexual ("You know you're the only one for me. You're my little lover. We don't need anyone else, do we?") can be harmful. It's playing with emotional dynamite. I write this for those of you who may have good intentions but do not realize just how silently damaging this can be for a child.
If you have any questions or are not quite sure about what is appropriate and what isn't, please call, anonymously, any local counseling center (Yellow Pages under Psychologists, Marriage and Family Therapists, Mental Health Counselors, or Social Workers) or this national information number: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
If you have been touching your child in any type of sexual manner, please call a professional for assistance. It may feel embarrassing, but most counselors and therapists are very familiar with this kind of situation, will understand and be glad to answer your questions. Your child's mental health will literally depend upon your phone call.
Remember, a child is supposed to feel secure in the knowledge that his/her "playing house" fantasies regarding a parent or imagining "marrying" Mommy or Daddy is just that, a FANTASY with no chance of it ACTUALLY occurring in real life. If there is sexual misconduct by a parent (or even if it is implied), the child faces an overwhelming reality from which he/she should have been protected.
Though it is certainly important to cuddle, hold and love one's child, adult emotional needs should be satisfied by other adults, or else by no one at all. Rather than feeling like "the little man or little woman of the house," your child needs to feel protected as "the little child of the house." Without this protection, your child may never feel safe in an intimate relationship as an adult.
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C. Paul Wanio, PhD, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lake Worth and Boca Raton, FL. He can be reached at DrPaulWanio@aol.com. He is also a contributor to the new ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook™ Guide to Preparing Your Children -- with Love! by Rosalind Sedacca, CCT. To learn more, go to http://howdoitellthekids.com. For additional articles on child-centered divorce, visit http://www.childcentereddivorce.com.