Inside a COPE Group, Part Three
Shonnie Brown, MFT
Custodial vs. Non-Custodial Parents
Part One introduced some of our most high conflict cases. In Part Two we worked towards resolution of these challenges.
The Co-Parent Empowerment Group of Sonoma County (COPE) is an essential program for adults struggling to establish or maintain a cooperative co-parenting
relationship. At the heart of the program is protection of children from loyalty binds and from exposure to
In an article entitled "The Impact of Shame on the Non-Custodial Parent" (adapted from "Father Absence and Shame and the Non-Custodial Father" by Nancy Heleno), the impact of increased withdrawal by the non-custodial parent after divorce is discussed. Statistics show that in many instances shame is at the base of this increased withdrawal. Shame from the perceived loss of fatherhood, the family home and one's financial status often leads to that parent playing a diminished role in their child's life. And this abdication has, of course, an enormous emotional impact on everyone involved.
There are other factors which contribute to what I call the "absent parent syndrome." Very often in my groups I have a parent who either has an absent co-parent or plays that role themselves. A co-parent may be physically distant due to geography, a shameful living situation, excessive work demands, incarceration, a court restraint or inpatient treatment for substance abuse. Or he/she may be emotionally absent due to drugs or alcohol, mental illness, inability to form connections, rage or emotional instability. A combination of shame, low self-esteem and poor coping skills plus substance abuse contribute to unreliability and unpredictability in a non-custodial parent.
In each of these cases, the custodial parent feels an overwhelming
sense of responsibility to make up for the other's non-participation.
My job is to offer a place to feel one's helplessness and grief while
teaching the custodial parent that they cannot replace their child's
loss. The child must experience his/her own disappointment. And this is
heartbreaking for the parent to hear.
Ella, a recent group member, felt (and was) completely helpless to
alter the unreliable behavior of an alcoholic co-parent who
consistently had "something coming up at the last minute" causing
cancellation of a date with his young daughter. "How do I explain that
Daddy's not coming again? How do I cover for him?" Ella would ask me in
frustration and anger. We discussed the fact that she couldn't shield
her daughter's feelings, that it wasn't her job to make excuses for the
other parent's unpredictability, but it also wasn't healthy to
badmouth. Active listening is always appropriate when a child expresses
confusion or disappointment. From there, Ella learned she could offer
appropriate reassurance and/or help her daughter decide what she might
want to do or say about the situation. In time, the child will come to
predict Daddy's unpredictability and find words to express her feelings
about that loss.
In revisiting Randy's situation from Part One of this article, we see another version of absent parenting. Besides custodial parents such as
Ella, frequently in the group I have a non-custodial parent who desires
greatly to regain custody or increase visitation rights and parenting
status after a prolonged absence. No matter what their history has
been--mental illness, incarceration, domestic violence or loss of
visitation rights due to substance abuse--I support their efforts to
rebuild a ruptured relationship with their child and to seek redemption
with the other parent and the courts. This is a humbling process,
because the burden of redemption falls completely on them and they must
prove over and over again their ability to parent.
Randy did not talk much in the group. And I felt there were probably
things he wasn't telling us about his past. Redeeming oneself with an
angry, betrayed and very protective custodial parent feels shameful and
demeaning. Part of my job with Randy was to validate his feelings of
low self-esteem and encourage him to get therapeutic support for this
humbling work. Knowing that he'd be under scrutiny by the other parent
and the courts for a long while, we talked openly and realistically
about his position. He must comply with the courts. He must defer to
the custodial parent. He must move slowly towards reunification. He
cannot expect Maddie, who barely knows him and to whom he's undoubtedly
been maligned, to feel safe or comfortable with him. And he will be
tested repeatedly by the other parent. He completed the class with
increased hope, tools for communication and anger diffusion, and a
determination to get therapeutic support.
And lastly, we have Todd. A case of self-defined parental absence as
mentioned in Part One. A man deeply depressed by his wife's infidelity
and the subsequent divorce, Todd needed to hear that betrayal is always
doubly hurtful. And with men there is a deep narcissistic injury to the
ego. Anger and retaliation are, for men, more comfortable responses
than the deep underlying hurt and shame which may lead to depression.
Todd received validation from me and the other participants for his
anger and hurt. We talked considerably about appropriate discharge of
anger vs. dangerous and retaliatory anger. We discussed helpful
boundaries for Todd, such as avoiding painful contact with his ex-wife.
We validated his discouragement about his new living conditions. I
assessed for other potential issues such as alcohol abuse, sexual
acting out, isolation and self destructive behavior.
But the most important reason for Todd to be in the COPE group was his
self described "neglect" of himself and the children in this shared
custody situation. Todd needed the reminder that the kids are top
priority, no matter what. He must develop coping skills for the simple
reason that he is a parent and that requires him to be present for his
children and their feelings. The bad news here is that neglect provides
an opportunity for him to lose custody. The good news is that one's
children are the biggest incentive for recovery from any significant
loss. Receiving support in the group, especially from other men, was
instrumental in setting Todd in the right direction.