Inside a COPE Group, Part Three -- Custodial vs. Non-Custodial Parents
Shonnie Brown, MFT

Part One introduced some of our most high conflict cases. In Part Two we worked towards resolution of these challenges.

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.


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