Supervised Exchanges: Supporting Families During Breakup, Part I
by SUSAN GRIFFIN, LMFT AND DENNIS WONG, PHD
Parental separation or divorce can be devastating to a child’s sense of security about him or herself and the world. Fears abound. “Is it my fault?” “Is there something I can do to make them stay together?” “If they can quit loving each other, will they quit loving me?” Close behind these anxieties about their relationship with Mom and Dad come concerns about losing their school, friends, activities, extended family and even their toys.
These worries make children emotionally and psychologically vulnerable in many ways and what they need the most are calm, relaxed, reliable and confident parents to guide them through what can be one of the most difficult transitions of their life. Naturally, most parents are just as shaken by the break-up of their family as the children are. And most of them feel anything but calm, relaxed, reliable and confident, whether they are the person left or the person leaving.
This a normal set of reactions for both children and parents and they will survive the transition. Here are the questions that emerge: Are the parents resilient? Are the parents able to help each child develop resilience?
Unfortunately too many parents and children will go through unnecessary pain and chaos during the daily or weekly transitions between houses as everyone works to reorganize the structure of their family. Unnecessary? Almost all families experience anything from awkwardness to outright conflict during face-to-face transitions in the early days of this dramatic change in family life. Parents usually have the support system both internally and externally to get through the negative effects of these conflicts without permanent problems. Children are much less able to navigate the tension or conflict between their parents without consequences because of their tendency to blame themselves.
In general, adults have the ability to tolerate much more tension and even outright conflict than children do. However, adults in this situation are often not thinking clearly nor are they at their best in terms of dealing with stress so they, like the children, are inclined to cope with their negative reactions by reacting with unhealthy and hurtful responses to the stress.
The first 3-6 months of major transition are critical for human beings regardless of the transition, and the break-up of the family is no different. It is at least as stressful as the unexpected loss of a loved one to death. But too many families are left without adequate support through these important early months and end up in an escalated high-conflict stalemate with the other parent, gradually becoming entrenched in fear, negativity and even paranoia because they are not at their best, and there is no system of support in place to help all family members navigate these rough waters. There is a safe, inexpensive, and readily available service that can both support and protect everyone throughout the break-up transition.
Supervised exchange (SE) provides a temporary break for mom and dad from seeing each other so frequently when feelings are still raw. SE allows the children to move between Dad’s House and Mom’s House without worrying about witnessing family conflict or their own loyalty conflict.
SE is a way to ensure that everybody learns how to make smooth transitions between homes calmly and routinely, without uncertainty, uproar and chaos. It can improve relationships in the family by giving each person some space to learn the skills needed to manage transitions in a new way. Supervision of the transition between Mom’s House and Dad’s House, provided by a trained professional monitor who is neutral, objective and child-centered, is critical. This can help lay the foundation for positive co-parenting.
Some parents object to the notion of “handing my child over to a stranger.” While this is an understandable reaction, it does not look at it from the child’s point of view. Teachers, tutors, scout leaders, parental friends, baby sitters and nannies are significant people in the lives of all children. For the child, the professional monitor is seen as an adult helper who is there to help them and their parents. One of the reasons parents object to supervised visitation is that they feel defensive about the new situation, and may resent the idea that they need someone to help them.
Parents have no intention of creating a tough situation for their children by fighting, talking loudly, showing anger, or even coldly ignoring each other during these transfers of the child between parental homes. These behaviors occur because the adults are having strong and immediate feelings they are trying to cope with. Parents behave in ways that put their children’s sense of stability at risk because they themselves are feeling overwhelmed by unexpected reactions to the other parent or to the actual reality of “letting go” of their children when it is time to make the transition.
Even the best intentioned parent loses his or her cool from time to time. And some parents engage in negative conflict up to and including name-calling during every transition because they haven’t learned to regulate their emotions. While parents are able to work through such unpleasant events after the fact, with friends, attorneys, therapists, extended family members, and others in their support system, their children are isolated with the emotions created by witnessing this conflict between their parents.
The children find themselves left with one of the parents and the child is feeling afraid or uncertain how to talk about it. What if Mommy or Daddy gets mad? Or feels sad? It’s a big burden for a child. Some children feel they need to lie to the parent about their true feelings because they are so afraid of losing the parent’s love. Or the child may find him or herself at school immediately following the parental conflict feeling vulnerable and isolated and even embarrassed because they don’t know who to talk to, or how to talk about what is happening.
For more about professional Supervised Visitation, click to read part two of this article here.