About 25% of American children live in single parent households according to the most recent US census statistics available. 84% of those custodial parents are mothers so a very large number of children under 21 (approximately 20 million) do not live with their fathers. These statistics do not include children living with a step-parent as these are not considered “single parent households”. This number also does not include father’s who do not live with their children but who have an active and caring role in their lives. My thoughts are with the children who have mothers who damage their children’s relationship with their father due to their own anger and resentment. There is no good way to count this number but I fear it is a large one given the statistics which are available.
We think of parents as the ones who should protect their children. One of the saddest forms of harm that affects children is the kind where one parent inhibits, interferes or destroys the child’s ability to have a good relationship with their other parent-most commonly the father. Physical abuse of children is an ongoing problem and courts, communities and families are continuing to develop strategies to recognize and address these problems. The emotional abuse of a child is almost impossible to legislate and the courts are ill equipped to take action in these situations. Education is our only weapon.
Mothers who alienate their children from their father are rarely aware of the harm they are doing. They don’t recognize it as abuse or maltreatment and typically become very defensive when confronted with the damage they are inflicting. These are they types of rationalizations I hear from the angry parent:
“She needs to know what kind of a man he is.”
“He understands what his father did to me.”
“She’s very mature and can handle it.”
Certainly in these situations a father will have done things that harm the child-breaking up the family for a third party, not being reliable with child support, lying to the mother about many things, saying or doing things that were quite grievous to the mother. The difficulty is that these problems are adult problems. Isn’t the job of parents to protect children from adult matters over which they have no control? An adult who is angry about the treatment of another parent has tools with which to confront that person, children have very little. It is also true that a person can be a very poor partner or spouse but still be an adequate parent. Children drawn in to their parents’ conflict experience anxiety, depression and anger and have no real avenue to change the situation. The angry partner who is talking to their child about their resentment and hostility toward the other parent is using the child as a confidante and protector when the relationship really needs to be the other way.
An absent parent who truly is uncaring or unable to remain committed and involved with their child will cause enough pain on their own which the child will experience and understand as time goes by. Our duty as a parent is to protect our children as much as possible from the difficulties of the outside world as long as possible. This doesn’t mean one has to sing the praises of a parent whose behavior is truly detrimental to the child but instead of adding adult resentment and rage to the child’s emotions, be supportive and help the child process the problem. Perhaps the child support didn’t come and Jeremy can’t join the school program he wanted. Don’t add to his distress by pointing out that Dad managed to take his trip Nassau with his new girl friend. That does more harm by increasing the child’s sense of being abandoned and unimportant. It is sufficient to explain that there isn’t enough money and how people cope with financial shortages and ways to increase financial security that are age appropriate.
Older children will certainly learn and understand more but let them come to their OWN judgments in their own time. Mom can talk to her friends and family about the injustice of Dad’s behavior (and Samantha can talk to her father about what she experiences) but daughter’s role is not to take care of Mom. It always needs to be the other away around until children are grown and able to take care of themselves.
There are so many fathers who have been unnecessarily driven out of their children’s lives by punitive parents that my hope is to add to the recognition of this painful problem on Father’s Day. Father’s do this to mother’s as well but given the statistics of the much greater percentage of single mothers it is likely many more father’s are harmed.