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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Bonding with an Estranged Child

This week’s assessment comes from Anita. She’s writing about Brenda*, a widowed mom whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Brenda’s 12-year-old daughter, Haley*, was always closer to her dad than Brenda, and Brenda is wondering how she can build a bridge to quiet and introverted Haley.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

This is a fairly loaded question, and by loaded, I mean the possible answers are endless. I think everyone has read a book or watched a movie where one parent is widowed and left with a hurting child to comfort and console and try to “reach.”

Because of this, I think it would be helpful to go down the road of what NOT to do (i.e., what’s been overdone, clichéd, etc.) and then look at some genuine possibilities for Brenda and Haley.

So what are the ways NOT to try to win over the affection/love of a child?

1) GIFTS/MONEY – Giving gifts is so temporary. Yes, the child is thrilled when they get the gift, and perhaps for days after, but this is very much a band-aid solution. A 12-year-old girl would certainly catch on to the pattern, as well. (An aside, I’ve seen this “parental intervention” too often in my line of work as a general way of rearing children, and I’ve also seen it not work…ever.)

2) EXPANDED PRIVILEGES – This would be a desperate parent’s attempt to be cool, hip, down with it, insert-new-21st-century-lingo-word here. The idea being if they can come across almost as nonchalant, then the child will open up to them more or respect them for their coolness. Reality does not support this. The later you let them stay up/go out or the longer you let them watch tv/play video games does not correlate with warm fuzzies in the parent’s direction. More realistic would be for the child to take the rope they’re given and hang him or herself with it later.

3) LACK OF DISCIPLINE – A widowed parent might feel guilty at having to discipline a child, especially if one parent usually did the disciplining and the other did the nurturing. So it’d be easy to conceive of a single woman backing off in this department and letting a child get away with much more than the child normally would were both parents living. This is to do a child a disservice in the worst kind of way. In fact, keeping discipline the same would be more secure for them…something that didn’t change with the death of a parent. But widowed/separated/divorced parents make this mistake all the time…and kids can totally manipulate it out of them.

4) ALLOWING THEM TO SLACK OFF – Say a child’s been doing certain chores. Parent dies, everything is thrown into confusion and chaos. The last thing they might want to do is this chore, and so the surviving parent gives in and lets the child “off the hook,” which is the beginning of the end, some might say. Taking away their responsibilities or your expectations of the child (whether its with chores, grades, dating relationships, friends, whatever) is only a recipe for more rebellious behavior. The child sees the surviving parent’s guilt and soft-heartedness and takes advantage of it because—let’s face it—children can be conniving.

5) MAKING THE CHILD THE PARENT'S CONFIDANT - So not cool. Parents should still keep in mind appropriate conversations to have with their children. There is a mistake in thinking that the more adult-like topics brought up will bond the child to the surviving parent. Children still need to be children, not "peers" with their parents. They don't need to be privy to anything more than appropriate for their age level...and even once they reach adulthood it's important to keep some things sacred to the marital union, even if one partner is deceased (like finances, sex, and other private things).

The list can go on, but these are five basic ways parents can mistakenly try to bond with reticent children.

Now let’s focus on some ways a parent like Brenda could try to bond with Haley in a good way (I’ll be keeping in mind some of the additional things Anita emailed me during an email Q&A “session.”)

Since Haley is a rather quiet, introverted child, Brenda would do well to use ways that fit with Haley’s personality. Understated, consistent methods that eventually will show Haley Brenda’s heart and desire to be there for her daughter.

One way is simply TIME. Being available really speaks volumes to a child, even if during that “available time,” nothing of any real import transpires. Children need to know that even when they’re acting up, being defiant, or worse, being angry and rude, that their parent(s) are there for them. Parents have to be PATIENT with this, especially if the child isn’t used to turning to the surviving parent for comfort or companionship. Brenda wouldn’t want to make Haley feel that Haley has to talk to her. It’ll come in time…two hurting people thrown together in the same house should eventually seek solace with one another. Healing may take years, especially if Haley in any way blames the death on her mother or herself.

FORGING NEW TRADITIONS is also a great way to start fresh in the midst of tragedy. Having a time to remember the deceased parent together, like on the anniversary of his death or on his birthday. Instituting this from the beginning will help it stick. This would be a good time for the surviving parent to make a weekly goal or some sort of FAMILY TIME (or course, to remain low-key at first for the vulnerable child who might not want to feel pressured into talking). Maybe a game night or movie night or just a pizza night where no one has to do dishes. Something like that.

Finding a NEW PASTIME to do together would be helpful, some activity that isn’t like an emotional millstone around the child’s neck to remind them of the deceased parent. If Haley and her father worked in the garden a lot, then I wouldn’t suggest that Brenda try to spirit Haley off to do gardening work. Think outside the box on this one…something fun for a kid and an adult, too. Children know when the parent isn’t have a good time and is just trying to pander to them.

It'll be important for Brenda to also recognize her limitations and to embrace the idea (should this be the case) that perhaps Haley will bond to someone else during her most needy time. Anita mentioned Haley had a fondness for a local librarian, and if she spent a lot of time there, it's not unfeasible for her to latch on to this person as an anchor in her world. Brenda would need to let this happen, and not make Haley feel bad for talking with this woman. It might be hard, but in the long run, Haley will be better adjusted if she has someone to talk to.

So that's a sampling of some things that come to mind as being healthy and appropriate for a surviving parent to try with a distant child.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

Q4U: What are some other ways--good or bad--that a parent might try to bond with an estranged child?

Don't forget to sign up to win a copy of Mary DeMuth's new book in the Defiance, Texas trilogy, A Slow Burn, and it's prequel, Daisy Chain, at my other blog, Where Romance Meets Therapy.

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Eileen Astels Watson said...

Your nots are bang on to me! And I love the creating new traditions do. I'm thinking of those games that only two can play (one that she didn't play solely with her dad, of course), like Battleship, if it connects with the child would be a great thing to start with. Then conversation can seep in as well while playing. There must be tons of games for only two to play that might work, and you could make it an after Church activity, or after Sunday dinner sort of thing. You mentioned this in general, I just had to run with it.

Other ideas would be to get a pet and go for walks or do agility training together or something with it, too, if that would interest the child.

Tamika: said...

What a great post!

Last night I was working on my current MS and got a great idea for another project, and this topic is right in line with the plot.

I plan on archiving this post for future reflection! I may be calling on you for a character assessment one day soon.

Blessings to you...

Jessica Nelson said...

YOu know, this post is really true for all parents, whether the kids are estranged or not.

Anita said...

I love this! Thanks for taking time for my characters!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

that was my thought and hope, Jessica. and great ideas, eileen! i appreciate the discussion, and hope anita will, too.

tamika - i'll be looking for it! :)

SM Blooding said...

Oh! This one is VERY helpful and is going to go a long ways in helping Paige with Leah and Cierra with Riley and Kat...and, lets face it, me with my girls. Thank YOU!!

I loooooove your blog!!!

Laura Martone said...

What a terrific concept for a blog! Since my characters are veiled versions of me, I have no doubt that they could use a therapy session or two. ;-)

And I think this particular post is very insightful - some good ideas for real-life situations, too.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks frankie...and laura, thanks for stopping by!

glad it was helpful, anita. thanks for taking a chance and giving me fodder for assessments. :)

Rosslyn Elliott said...

I can tell this blog is going to be a terrific resource to which I can return when I find a character in the situation you describe. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

your welcome, rosslyn! thanks for coming back.

Katie Ganshert said...

Ugh, as a teacher, I can definitely tell when parents think they are "loving" their child by being lenient. It backfires all the time. The kid have no respect for their parents when this happens. Funnily (is that a word?) enough, I notice that the parents who exercise a lot of discipline seem to have the healthiest relationships with their kids. Same with teachers, actually.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I agree with Katie and Jessica! Discipline and boundaries make for healthier relationships and doesn't this ring true for all families? Excellent post!

Unknown said...

This is a great idea Jeannie. I spend days researching before I write. If I don't know the characters from the inside out I don't feel I can even start to write what happens when two characters meet.
If my characters need a therapist I know exactly where I'll be sending them!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks, elaine. and welcome! katie and ketchup girl - thanks for backing up my post with you experience! :)

Stephanie Baffone said...

Hi Jeannie-
Perfect response!
As the former coordinator of the childrens' grief and loss program for our local hospice for many years and now in private practice with a particular specialty in loss it was comforting to hear another therapist give appropriate guidance in regard to helping grieving children. Often what clients need to do can feel counter-intuitive but ultimately very productive.
What a cool resource you are!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks for the affirmation stephanie. always nice to have a peer review that rocks! :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.