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The Litmus Child - 12/20/2012

In almost every divorce, you can find one child who responds  to the divorce situation in a far more severe manner than any of the other children. He or she is the person I label “the litmus child.” He is the one who most reflects the emotional temperature of their family. In most instances, he plays the role of the sacrificial lamb. When things become too conflictual or stressful, he will sacrifice himself by causing a diversion, or creating turmoil that will take the focus off the problem in the family and center itself on him. This person, whether male or female, is often referred to as “the sensitive” or “emotional” child. His feelings are readily apparent and mercurial in nature, but they don’t fluctuate based on what is going on inside him or her. Instead, they are related to nuances in their home environment. Thus, their emotions and behaviors vary in accordance with the amount of conflict, angst, depression, or anger that prevails. That being the case, when this child gets in trouble, has an accident, breaks something, or experiences difficulties academically or in his interactions with peers, you need to ask, “What’s going on in his family life?” Much as you would check a thermometer to determine what the temperature is outside, you can use this child  to determine what’s going on emotionally in his world.  

For too many parents, however, it’s easier to focus on a child and his/her difficulties than it is to look at how they may be contributing to their child’s problems. In too many instances, it takes a catastrophic event for  parents to begin to realize, consciously or unconsciously, that the world they’ve created for their children is painful, and non-constructive. Even then, they try to avoid seeing the truth by looking for another scapegoat. Invariably, it’s their ex-spouse. They’re apt to say, “It’s all his/her fault. She always portrayed herself as the ‘good one’ and made me play the role of the bad parent, who had to punish, set limits, and make them study.” Or, “He’d come home and incite them so they couldn’t go to sleep, and later complain that they were riled up. The next morning, he’d blame me because they hadn’t gotten enough sleep and weren’t ready for school.”

The  problem is that, if you’re either of those parents, you actually believe your own statements. After all, it gets you off the hook and directs the blame where you’d rather it be focused. But eventually, you as parents have to face the fact that both you and your ex are equally responsible for the way your children were raised and that both of your actions contributed to the pain your children are experiencing. It’s odd that most divorced parents have no difficulty saying, “I know my kids have two parents and that I’m not perfect.” But, too often, they add a disclaimer. “If he had emotionally been there...”, or “If she didn’t let them run over her, things would be different.” Which isn’t necessarily so.

Please recognize that when it comes to severe marital conflicts or divorce, every therapist is aware that:

1)  There are always three stories; his, hers and the truth.

2   Although both spouses’ words can sound good, they don’t always tell the whole story; that the disparity between their statements indicates how much of  a conflict exists.

3) Both spouses will demonstrate destructive, emotionally unhealthy behavior.  That’s when tongues becomes the sharpest, blame hits beneath the belt, and words cut to the core. It’s common to hear, “You’re the one who destroyed this family.  You’re the one who wanted this divorce. You’re the one to blame for your childrens’ problems.”,  “Everything was fine until you ran off with that whore you got involved with”, or,  “You’re a frigid witch, with a capital B”, “You never showed any emotion. It’s no wonder our kids are starved for affection.”

Men and women are equally adept at slinging these barbs at one another. They’re painful, hurtful and destructive to the civil relationship that needs to exist between you and your ex, if you want to successfully co-parent your children.  

The worst consequence of these slanderous remarks, whether they’re true or not, is that they

never solve anything. They only fan the flames and keep your anger at a heightened level. The result is a “scorched earth” environment; an emotional climate no one, especially children, can live in successfully or healthily.

The paradox, as I noted earlier, is that in the course of getting a divorce, almost every parent will say, “For the children’s  sake, we have to get along. We can’t put the children in the middle.” But, invariably, they’re empty words. I have repeatedly been privy to these battles and felt torn apart inside by the pain I’ve seen children experience while their parents destroyed each other and explained away their anger by attributing it to the actions of their child’s “evil” or “sick” father or mother. If you’re one of those parents, please, hear me! You must accept the fact that every child, and particularly the litmus child,  will be hurt by the words you utter, the actions you demonstrate, and even the facial expressions you display when your ex calls or comes to pick them up. Further, the pain and anguish many of your children experience as a result of the way you choose to deal with your ex is your responsibility. I understand that there are any number of reasons that might explain your behaviors:

1) Your unconscious desire to remain emotionally involved with your ex. (You’ll deny this.)

2) Your guilt over the way you acted in the marriage. (That will be hard to accept.)

3) Your fear of having to start over.

4) Your lack of confidence that you can cope with your children on your own.

5) Your fear that no one else would want you

6) Your reluctance to risk being hurt again.

7) Your unwillingness to see that you aren’t perfect and need to grow up emotionally.

In the end, no matter the reason, it’s evident that if you’re ever going to benefit from your divorce, you need to ask, “How was I at fault and what can I do to alter my behavior in the future?” You need to see that the only person you can change is you. You have to benefit from your mistakes, no matter what your previous spouse did or said. The first step requires that you learn to cope in as healthy a manner as possible. The reason being that the better you are, the better you will feel, and the better your next partner will be. The better you feel, the better your children, including your litmus child, will act.

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