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By Laura Lifshitz
When you divorce and have children, things can be very complicated. Depending on the age of your child and his or her personality, your kids may act out, go silent, verbally protest, regress, or shut down because of the huge change a divorce makes on a family.
More often than not, a child will take the brunt of his or her frustrations out on one of the parents, or what I like to call, the “Safe Parent.”
The child picks one parent that he or she lets emotions out on, or express feelings about the situation. It doesn’t mean the child doesn’t love the other parent; rather, a kid decides that one parent is safer to act out with than the other.
1. You become the “dumping ground” for every emotion.
It’s hard enough processing your own emotions about a divorce, but when you’re the safe parent, you’re juggling emotions for two — your child’s and yours. Of course, your kid’s feelings come first.
As hard as it is, you’ve got to stay strong when you’re with your children, and help them first get through their struggles with the situation.
The safe parent is a garbage can that collects all the stress, sadness, and anger from the child who’s having a tough time. My daughter has chosen me to be the safe parent, so this means when she’s angry, sad, or worried, she approaches me.
Sure, from time to time she acts out with her father, but for the most part it’s always me.
I’m the one she hit, yelled at, shunned, and ignored when she felt angry about our divorce. We split up when she was three, during the spring. That summer, she scratched me by my eye one night during a temper tantrum and it was visible on my face for over a week.
After realizing she’d actually hurt me, she felt awful, especially since the scratch was very visible. Looking at me reminded her of what she’d done.
2. Your child uses you as the ultimate confessional.
My child confesses to me her real feelings:
“I wish the three of us could be together.”
“Divorce stinks. I miss Daddy.”
I’m the person she addresses her feelings, wishes, and griefs with. In one way, it’s hard to hear all her pain. I know I can’t kiss these “boo-boos” away, so with each admission I know it’s a pain that can’t be resolved. Time will make it better, but there will always be a part of her that wants her family altogether … and I can’t blame her.
On the other hand, I feel blessed and fortunate. Not only does my four-year-old daughter articulate how she feels so well, but she also blesses me with the honor of sharing and listening to her most heartfelt thoughts.
What greater sign of love is there than the gift of trust and being keeper of someone’s heart-thoughts? There’s none. As much as it may hurt to carry your child’s pains and aches, safe parents out there also remember it’s also a true privilege.
3. You’re constantly a victim of the blame game.
Sometimes, a child makes you the safe parent because she needs someone to place blame or fault on. It’s hard for little ones to really comprehend why two grown adults who once loved each other cannot make it work.
You may have done nothing wrong and may be the supposed “wronged” party in the matter, but that’s not why your child has chosen you to place his frustration on. Most likely, your kiddo thinks you’re the one who can take his heat and still love him exactly the same. Or, maybe he knows you’ll take his blame game more seriously.
My daughter turned four recently and has never placed blame on either of us, but she would always snub me first before her dad. Thanks to play therapy, her play therapist and I recognized that a lot of memories of our old married family lived with me, since my daughter and I lived in the marital home throughout the split and divorce process for over a year, until now.
Every time my daughter was with me in our old house, we were both living with the ghost of my ex — her dad — and our old family life. It was painful to be amongst those memories, and she started to associate those painful memories with being around me, which meant I absorbed some of the blame in her mind.
On the flip side, in my daughter’s eyes her father had left our marital house, so to some extent our kid felt as if her father “left,” when that wasn’t the case.
No matter where you stand or how you played a part in your divorce, every parent feels a huge sense of grief and responsibility for his or her child/children’s feelings (unless the person is a deadbeat parent).
4. Your child’s laser-focus is pointed directly at you.
When you’re the safe parent, your child will often laser-in on anything you do and perhaps be very critical of you (especially more than when you and your ex were married), not because he or she thinks you’re a bad person, but because your little one is misplacing anger of the situation onto you.
My daughter doesn’t list my every bad move, but sometimes she’ll try to exclude me intentionally and include her father when the three of us are around each other. This even happens on the phone or Skype because she’s mad we’re not all together and needs to direct that anger somewhere.
Sometimes, dad gets it and other times, it’s her peers. This is why we look to play therapy as a place to learn how to grieve and manage feelings for our girl. She’s too young to grasp the situation at hand.
5. You find yourself asking, “Why me?”
Why are you the lucky parent who got picked for this role? It could be for any number of reasons. Moms are often the safe parent, but not always.
For me, I believe my daughter chose me because I’m more sensitive than her father, and she feels she could get away with more. Plus, I’m a very talkative person, unlike my ex.
It’s not unusual to think that my daughter feels more comfortable revealing her feelings to me, as I’m a very open person.
6. You know your child will always feel safe with you, no matter how they act.
It’s very difficult to pull the weight of the safe parent role, as well as comb through your own grief and feelings over your dead marriage. More often than not, being the safe parent can feel like a punishment.
It can feel as if you’re being put under fire for the divorce, and there’s nothing great about those feelings. However, being the safe parent also comes with a special privilege that’s often overlooked.
Your child feels safe with you and that says a lot about his or her relationship and attachment to you as a parent. So, as difficult as it is, acknowledge that privilege and keep pushing forward.
At some point, it has to get better and everyone in the family — children and parents alike — will heal.
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