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Post Separation Abuse: Counter Parenting

This is another one of those areas that seems fairly self-explanatory. From the One Mom's Battle infographic, counter parenting is "When the unhealthy parent has so much hatred for the other parent that their judgment center is compromised, and their actions are driven by revenge and anger. This person is unable to act in the best interest of their child and is unable to move forward in a healthy direction." They will do things to undermine the safe parent's authority, schedule, and routines with the children, with zero regard for how it affects the children.


Yes, it's frustrating as a parent to get your kids back after their first summer visitation with the other parent, only to find that the suitcases you sent full of clothes (because it's their first long term visitation with other parent and you know they don't have very many clothes for the kids yet--and they're spending the entire month with their grandparents out-of-state and not really the other parent, but I digress) is empty, except for a couple of stuffed animals. And then when you call or text to inquire, you get told that "That's what child support is for". So you have to drive your kids out to the other parent's home and send them in alone to collect their clothes. It might seem like not a big deal to outsiders, but let me tell you about what that does to the kids. It damages them. They're the ones being harmed. Yes, it's an inconvenience and frustrating to the healthy parent, but for the kids, it's putting them smack dab in the middle and using them as pawns to perpetuate abuse. "Is dad going to be mad that we came and got our clothes? Do we take all of them?" They can see and sense the frustration in the healthy parent at having to go retrieve them, but there's also this entire other component where they have to worry about the consequences for them at having gone back to get them.


When one parent is actively creating chaos and uncertainty through counter parenting measures, it creates an environment for the kids where they are constantly subjected to the "in between". They don't necessarily want to hurt the healthy parent, but they also don't want to upset the unhealthy one--because that will affect them. If they do talk to the healthy parent about what's happening, it's usually filled with "but please don't tell my dad/mom".


There are many ways an unhealthy parent can use counter parenting, including things like sabotaging the child's sleep schedule, diet, or routines, refusing to consent to medical treatments, or the easiest and most common, using every opportunity to belittle, berate, or chastise the other parent.


This is the one component of post separation abuse that I wish I had understood more clearly in those early days after my divorce. I followed all the rules like "Don't badmouth the other parent--encourage the kids to enjoy their time with them--don't inundate them with 'I miss you so much' or make them feel responsible for your loneliness while they're gone". Unfortunately, I wasn't given that same respect and it was more than a couple of years (and so much emotional damage) later that I really understood the scope of what was happening.


And by then, it was already too late. It came to light after an incident at school involving both of my kids that ended with one of them telling the counselor that they were very angry because I was lying to them. I had the school counselor call me and tell me that my child told them that their dad told them the reason we got divorced was because I wanted to go to San Antonio to be with other men. I was working about 4 hours out of town and called my boss to tell her I'd be needing the next day off. I drove straight to the school and checked my kids out early. We got ice cream and went to the park to talk about what had happened at school, but also about the other things that came up.


I was so angry. Not just because of the lies that were clearly being told about me to my kids, but because it was forcing me to talk to them about things that were wildly inappropriate to discuss with them--things they shouldn't even have to be thinking about. Yes, I did go to San Antonio sometimes--one of my very best friends lives there and had another that would travel there on business at times. I also started going fairly regularly with the job that I had taken just before the divorce--we had an office there. You see how this creates confusion in a young, underdeveloped brain. I did go to San Antonio--so if that part's true...ugh. I remember telling them that even if it was true, it was totally inappropriate for their father to be discussing it with them. Those were adult issues and they were children. "I am sorry that we are having to have this conversation."


I remember looking at their young faces and thinking "it's too late". They were a solid mix of shut down, disinterested in the conversation, and "I don't know who to believe" (a statement that would be uttered for years to come). It didn't matter what I said or how much I promised them that I would always tell them the truth. I encouraged them to ask me about things if they had questions, but again, it was already too late. The damage had been done. Even if they did want to believe me, doing so would have meant they were disloyal to him, and they already knew what the consequences of that could look like.


So what are you supposed to do? How do you counter counter-parenting? I can tell you what doesn't work--ignoring it. I don't know that I have all the answers, but I can tell you what I wish I'd done, knowing what I know now.


First, find a good therapist that understands the trauma that can be inflicted by having a personality disordered parent. Find someone they can trust and talk to, besides you. I don't believe you have to take them very often once they've established a relationship but having that person available when your kids need them will be invaluable.


Second, keep a journal. I talked about journaling in another blog post about healing and recovery after abuse, but what I'm talking about here is a little different. This is a record of what you and your kids are experiencing. One of the most common impacts of abusive parenting is that your kids will likely have gaps in their memories, or their memories will shift over the years. They'll be told a different version of events or that their recollection was wrong, that it wasn't that bad, or they're overreacting. I've had more than one instance of recollecting an event from my kids' early years, only to have them insist that their version is correct, even though when you look at it objectively, their version doesn't even make sense. A journal isn't going to be something that has immediate impact. It's not going to change the things the unhealthy parent is saying or doing, and it won't stop your kids from being harmed by them. But it will give you some ground to stand on--something to support the realities of what was happening at the time. Keep it simple--dates, what happened, the kids' responses. The hope here is that one day they'll begin their own healing journeys. Maybe they don't remember all the times they came home from their other parent's home, in tears, saying they hate them--they hate going there, that they don't even feel like that parent loves them (but don't tell them), but seeing the pattern represented in a journal that is not about he said/she said can empower them with their own truth. They did experience those things. Those things did change them--they affected their development and the way they experience relationships, including the one with you, the healthy parent.


The second and maybe more important thing is, keep talking to your kids--especially about their emotions. Keep validating their feelings and experiences. Show them empathy and understanding. Teach them to trust their own emotions and stand in their truth. The counter parenting attacks will have a major impact on your children's mental health. They create an environment where they depend on others to tell them how they should feel, or what to believe, or where everything they do is calculated to gain favor with the unhealthy parent (or at least not incur their wrath). Teach them to trust their gut instincts and to not let anyone (including you) tell them that what they feel or the way they've experienced something isn't valid.


The damage to healthy parent/child relationships that is caused by counter parenting is not minimal and can last for years, well into your child's adulthood. If I could go back and only change one thing about the way that I handled myself after my divorce, it would have been this. I would have done so much better for us. I don't know if it would have changed any of the outcomes, or the relationship dynamics that exist now between my kids and me. I have let go of the idea that I have anything to prove about who I am or the way that I've conducted myself throughout my life. I've certainly made mistakes and I've failed my kids in many ways. But I also did my best to show them what unconditional love is, and what it looks like to "rise above" the chaos of manipulation and control. I'm hoping that it was enough.





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