I’ve started answering questions…with questions. If you have a problem that might benefit from other angles of consideration, send it to donovanable [at] gmail [dot] com.
A friend of mine (Alice) and his wife (Bob) have a ~5 year old child (Charlie) together. Bob has told Charlie that Alice doesn’t love him and (at a different time) that Charlie is personally responsible for the (extensive) conflict in their marriage.
Bob has left the country for a month without telling Alice or Charlie, or providing any information about where they were or if they were safe. Bob has threatened (within earshot of Charlie) to abandon them. What can Alice do here to minimize the psychological damage to Charlie from these events?
What kind of information about Bob and Alice is developmentally appropriate for Charlie’s age?
Charlie is five. At that age, kids aren’t really able to easily model their parents’ relationship as not involving them. Even if Charlie were particularly precocious, Bob is dragging him into it by either discussing the conflict nearby or actively blaming him. (What the fuck, Bob.)
Right now, Charlie might not be able to take in the ways that adult relationships are complicated. People are often sorted into Good and Bad, which leaves little room for People You Want To Love But Who Also Say Scary Stuff as a cogent category.
When I looked around, I especially liked this curriculum for talking about healthy relationships aimed at elementary students (so just a few years or two over Charlie’s head). There’s also a variety of age-by-age guides for talking about divorce, which do a nice job of delineating what children can handle at what ages in ways that could be useful.
What is Alice’s plan for her relationship with Bob?
What is Alice’s hope for the outcome? Is she planning to stay with Bob indefinitely? In the short term? Until Charlie is [X] age?
Long-time relationship conflict isn’t great for children, and lasting high-conflict relationships are probably worse than divorce at all ages, though in the absence of highly-visible conflict, divorce is slightly worse when children are young [APA review of literature here].
I’m not here to tell Alice what to do about her relationship to Bob—and after all, I hardly know more than a few sentences about part of her life—but knowing what her plan is (reconciliation? exit strategy? trying to make a plan?) might help her figure out what to expect for Charlie’s future.
Who is supporting Alice?
On days when Charlie says he’d rather travel with Dad, or blames Alice for making Bob angry, who is going to listen to Alice be upset about this? Who’s going to tell her that of course Charlie won’t hate her forever, of course it’s not her fault? Kids cannot be the sole outlet for parents. If Alice is going to to do the work of responding appropriately and carefully, of letting Charlie have his feelings without dragging him into the back-and-forth of an adult relationship, she’ll need support. (To be clear: being the bigger person can be an enormous pain in the ass.)
And when Alice doesn’t manage to keep her calm? When she’s dealt with a bunch and Charlie hears her at her most angry, talking about Bob’s behavior? Somebody’s got to be there to remind Alice that she’s doing her best, and Charlie will probably be fine, and look how well she’s doing.
What experiences of mutually supportive relationships is Charlie getting to see?
I want to be clear here, this doesn’t mean only people who are perfectly happy at all times. Quoting that APA lit review again:
Chronic, unresolved conflict is associated with greater emotional insecurity in children. Fear, distress, and other symptoms in children are diminished when parents resolve their conflicts and when they use compromise and negotiation methods rather than verbal attacks. The beneficial effects of these more resolution-oriented behaviors have been reported whether or not they are directly observed by the child.
If Charlie doesn’t get to see this with Alice and Bob doing this, where is he seeing it? Is it other adults in his life? Conversations with someone about TV/media characters he likes being nice vs. not nice in episodes? Is someone demonstrating to him that it’s okay to tell someone to stop, or how to apologize when you’ve hurt another person?
How has Charlie responded so far?
How’s he doing? Reading the lists of things that can indicate distress in young children was enough to make me fear for my own non-existent children’s sanity, so I won’t link to any here (are they sleeping more? sleeping less? doing better in school? worse in school? ALL ARE SIGNS OF BAD THINGS). But what’s going on with Charlie? Some obvious warning signs: ending up as the message-bearer between Alice and Bob, significant withdrawal, regression in acquired skills.
Finally, if Charlie does have psychological distress in the future? If he decides that he should get some therapy? Or if Alice thinks he might need some? This isn’t the worst thing in the world. It can be very helpful to think through childhood experiences when you have some distance and skill in interpreting them. I’m trying not to tell everyone who asks for advice that they need therapy, but hey, some therapy might not be bad.
Stuff I read when thinking about this:
What Should We Tell The Children? Developing a Mutual Story of Divorce
American Psychological Association on conflict and divorce
TV Tropes: Heel-Face Revolving Door (I promise it was relevant)