I witnessed an amazing transformation recently in my practice that made me think how simply kids see their parents. I also viewed a short film called Talk to Strangers (https://childcustodyfilm.com/custody-film/) that reinforced a lot of what I had just experienced. In the final scene of the film, you see the children walking away from the camera, and although I can’t remember the exact words, in essence what they say is “I wish I mattered.”
Regardless of how much one parent may try to turn a child against the other, the children are counting on at least one parent to stop making it about themselves and to understand the kids didn’t ask for this chaos in their lives. The story in my recent case was that the mom had an affair, and she erroneously expected that after the divorce, the dad would be glad to work with her as a co-parent and the children wouldn’t care what she did to end the marriage. Yes, of course, it takes two, and an affair is rarely the only problem with a broken marriage, but nevertheless, the mom’s naïve expectation that everyone in the family would simply fall in place after the divorce and support her new life with her boyfriend was grossly overestimated. From the children’s point of view, they didn’t want to be in the middle of the fight, they didn’t want a new step-dad right away, they didn’t want to talk to the attorneys, they didn’t want to be interviewed by the GAL, and they certainly didn’t want to be in counseling with me. They just wanted to be kids and have parents who would think about them first.
What ended up happening is that mom could not put aside her narcissistic ways, so the dad had to sacrifice a part of himself (even though he felt hugely wronged by how the marriage fell apart) and let his kids off the hook. When he finally said to the kids, “You and I will be fine. No matter how much time we spend together, we’re going to be okay. So, I’ll do what you need me to do.” That made such a difference in the kids’ attitude that their love for their dad blossomed, and mom got what she wanted (which was primary custody of the kids). I suspect at some point, they will get frustrated with mom and want to live with dad because he’s the one they trust and because kids need to do that in their own time (usually in the teen years). Typically, it all works out in the end if ONE parent can say to the children in some way: I get how hard this is for you, I want to be the one you trust, and I don’t need to be in your life every day to be your solid rock. I can be that by walking away from the conflict, without walking away from you.
When dad finally got it, I wanted to give him a giant hug and thank him for giving back a childhood to his kids. Of course, I didn’t do that because I’m a professional and COVID-19 is a threat! But I almost wish I could make him the poster child for all co-parents who find themselves in a custody fight. I know there are cases in which a fight is necessary, but from my point of view, about 90 percent could probably be resolved if one parent decided to be their child’s hero and let go of the need to win. In the end, the victory achieved is more spiritually rewarding than anyone can imagine.