There is an art to coming back into a child's life after being gone for a considerable amount of time. As strange as it may sound, sometimes the reason the parent left no longer matters. Whether it was because the former spouse made it difficult or the estranged parent up and left on his or her own, the emotions of the child are often very similar.
All the child knows is that mom or dad left, and now he or she is back and the child is filled with apprehension, hopes, trepidation and longing.
Most kids make it pretty clear at the first reunion whether they want the parent back in their lives or not. The child may equate being with this absent parent as a personal threat or even a betrayal to the parent who has raised him or her. In some cases the child is so relieved to have the parent return that there is no posturing, withdrawal or reluctance. More often, however, the child's emotions are all over the place.
Much of the counseling I facilitate is called reconciliation or reintegration therapy. This therapy is to see if it is possible for a child who has been without one of his or her parents to accept that person back into their lives.
When it goes well, there is no work I do that is more rewarding. When it goes poorly, the consequences are huge. It means this child will grow up without both a mother and a father. This dual parentage, I believe, is the birthright of every child.
One of the most common mistakes estranged parents make is to come on too strong with the child. If a mother or father does not take the time to read the child's reaction, he or she risks alienating that child. Bombarding the child with questions is not a good idea. Make statements rather than ask questions. Statements like, "I love you," "I'm happy to see you" or "I'm not going away and I want to be able to show you this over time."
Very young children, younger than, say, 7 or 8 years of age, need little coaxing. They tend to love everyone and have minimal misgivings.
Adolescents are especially hard to reconnect with. If the parent has been gone for any length of time, the teen has compartmentalized emotions regarding this parent and their re-emergence is a threat to the equilibrium the child has established.
An adult wishing to establish rapport with a teenager is well advised to understand this child is no longer a child and may already have a full social calendar. For example, demanding the adolescent come over every other weekend without making allowances for the fact he or she may wish to hang out with friends sometimes is a recipe for resentment.
Reconciling with a child may be more of a process than an event. Patience, understanding and not getting sucked into a power struggle are all essential parts of a successful reintegration.
Mitchell Rosen, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist with practices in Corona and Temecula. Contact him at family@PE.com.
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