Monday, August 4, 2008

The Way It Looks To Them

The following is an excerpt from an e-mail I received from one of my clients (used with permission):

"We continue to struggle with my stepson's relationship with his mother." [the court had awarded primary custody of the 15-year-old boy to the father, two years ago; the mother agreed to shift custody because she recognized that the boy needed to be with his father more once he entered his teen years; this e-mail is from the boy's stepmother]. "We try to explain our values to her, but she still thinks she can make up for abandoning her son by buying him off. Now she has promised him a car for his 16th birthday, after we told her not to. We are still recovering from the cell phone fiasco she started when she bought him his own cell phone. It's impossible to enforce the court order restricting her phone calls when he has access to his own phone. We try very hard to teach our son to resist all these materialistic bribes, but he's only 15. He's really confused because he seems to think that love equals stuff. How do we help him see that phones and cars are not love?"

Sounds quite innocent, right? Someone in a parental role, hoping to rear their child with solid, respectable values.

Here is what that 15-year old boy hears:

"Your mother doesn't love you."
"Your mother has abandoned you."
"Your mother doesn't want you to interfere with her selfish, materialistic life."
"Your mother is a bad person, and if you accept these gifts, that makes you a bad person, too."
"You should not want to contact your mother."
"You cannot have a relationship with your mother, and also have a good relationship with your father at the same time."
"You are bad person if you want a cell phone or a car."

When I informed my client of the messages she was sending to her step-son, she vehemently denied it. "Oh no," she said, "I never ever say these things around him."

When I explained to her that these were the messages he was receiving, whether or not they were what she intended to send, then she returned to her original position: that the mother had abandoned her position as parent. My client then wanted to know how she could convey "the truth" to her step-son in a way that "wouldn't damage him."

What I said to her, I say to all parents, step-parents, grandparents, and any other quasi-parental role: it is not your job to make sure your child knows "the truth" about their other parent. There is simply no way you can do this without damage. Even if there were a way to do it without damage, it is still not your job.

Even if the child seems "confused." Not your job.

What is your job? To let that kiddo know that YOU love them, support them, will be there for them, no matter what. That's it. You can tell them YOUR feelings ("I love you"), YOUR intentions ("I will always have your back"), and YOUR commitment ("I will never abandon you"), but you cannot tell them someone else's. Don't even try.

The interesting thing is, if the parents, step-parents, grandparents, and other quasi-parents will just do this one thing - their own part - the kiddos grow up healthier. They own their own "truth", and they can handle it... in large part because of the gift of emotional health given to them by grown-ups who were secure enough themselves to do their own job.


No comments: