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How to Avoid Burdening Children With Family Conflict

Most parents make conscious decisions to avoid burdening their children with stuff from the adult world. Most parents try hard to protect their children from being negatively influenced and or scarred by things in the outside world including social media, porn, drugs, bullies, inappropriate videos and so much more. But parents are less aware of the need to avoid burdening their children with family conflict – whether it is intergenerational, between factions of both sides of the family or within their own nuclear family.

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Burdening Children – Intergenerational Family Conflict

Shona a 40-year-old nail salon owner and her husband Cole, a 39-year-old school bus operator met in high school and stayed together until Shona was pregnant with Melody. They married and enjoyed bringing up their cute and adorable treasure. Up until Melody was seven and in first grade, she had been taken care of by her maternal grandma, but Shona had not allowed her mother-in-law to participate in the same way due to her past history of alcohol abuse. That was the first element of tension was built in between Shona and Cole about access to grandmas on either side of the family.

A second piece of the unease in the family was Cole’s feeling that his side of the family were being dissed. Despite his distaste for his mother’s use of alcohol to numb herself, she had been sober for the last two years, and he wanted Melody to know his mother. After all Shona’s mother Angela wasn’t such an angel!

Cole’s mother Debra had burdened him with her emotional unavailability and substance abuse, leaving him without a reliable mother. Now he was reinstating that burden for Melody to carry as she had to take care of not just her parent’s feelings but that of both grandmothers.

Burdening Children – Torn Loyalties Leading to Shut Down

When Shona was 5 years her father Owen came out as bi-sexual and left her, her younger brother and mother Angela, to begin a new life. Angela’s bitterness and refusal to allow contact Shona with her father tore the little girl apart. Her parents didn’t consider avoiding burdening children – they were consumed with punishment, resentment and battling each other using the children as weapons.
Shona was caught between taking care of her mother (who acted out the ‘wronged’ martyr), and her wish to visit with her dad and enjoy seeing him happy and getting on with life. She wished her mother would ‘mother’ her, instead of making her feel like a traitor every time she talked to her father or spent time with him. She longed for her father to make her as precious to him as he did his new partner. Torn loyalties made her quiet and withdrawn until she met Cole.

Unknowingly Shona passed on her burden to Melody who learned to shut down rather than assert her right and wish to have contact with both grandparents. This little girl learned early in life to keep her yearnings quiet so as not to upset either parent or grandmothers. Instead, she became a loner, playing with her toys, and making up fantasies of being free to love whom ever she chose. Burdened with her parents and grandparents emotional issues and pain, she became withdrawn like her mom, and secretive like her dad. A quadruple dose of burdens was stamped on her, unrecognized by those doing it.

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Burdening Children – Living with Secrets and Pretending

Debra previously abused alcohol while having a series of affairs. But Cole’s father Juan didn’t speak of it, clinging onto his wife, even as his wife was AWOL emotionally for him and his son. Cole wanted to call it out, but he knew his dad wouldn’t be able to handle it and would try to shut him up, sweep it under the rug and pretend. In Cole’s house growing up, secrets were the currency of connection, and he couldn’t take the chance of going bankrupt by naming the elephant that weighed heavy in the home. He learned to suppress his fears of dependency – after all, his mother had been dependent on alcohol and his father was dependent on his mother. A house of cards that was held up with co-dependent threads. Cole grew up fearing dependency like the plague, even though every bone in his body craved it.

Burdening Children – Factions Between Both Sides of the Family

Shona’s mother never had a thought about burdening children and neither did Cole’s parents. As a result each side of Melody’s family became factional – Angela demonized her in-law Debra for her for her prior alcohol abuse and didn’t believe she could maintain her sobriety. Debra demonized Owen for being bi-sexual and living with a man. Cole defended his mother and insisted that she had given up the booze and stopped her affairs years ago. Shona stood up for her father as someone who didn’t have affairs or drown himself in drink!
The burdens put on Shona and Cole were being acted out on the stage of parenting decisions. Which members of their respective families was saintly enough to spend time with and share in the care of their daughter Melody?

Burdening Children – Living With Continuous Tension, Silent Rage and the Threat of Loss

Cole and Shona thought of each other as selfish villains, hardhearted and totally unjust in their handling of the issues around Melody having contact with her grandmothers from both sides. Both parents had their walls up, and cannons loaded ready to obliterate the other. Shona didn’t believe her husband’s hurt was justified and couldn’t make room for them. Cole didn’t feel Shona’s antipathy towards his mother was justified and blocked out her pain. Each one claimed to speak for Melody and use her as a way to getting their partner to listen and care. But Melody hated it and didn’t want to be used as a tool of manipulation by either parent.

Things got so bad that Melody refused to go to school. She became defiant about using her Instagram to keep in with her peers and disobeyed her parents in several ways. When Cole and Shona lost control they untied by coming into couples therapy ostensibly to get help with parenting a stubborn child.

In couples therapy their wounds became visible under the layers of armor that both used to demonize the other partner’s family. Those wounds were deep and went back to the childhood traumas that both suffered when they were emotionally burdened as children. Shona and Cole had their own individual therapy for quite some time as couples work was at stalemate.

It was only when each of them had been seen, their wounds recognized, named and acknowledged that they felt ready to see those of their partner. They returned to couples therapy while maintaining their individual counseling so ensure that they didn’t regress.

Burdening children involves imposing layers of shame, guilt, a sense of rejection and a terrible fear of dependency. What if Cole depended on Shona fully? Would she accuse him of being an alcoholic when he had a social drink? What if Shona condoned Melody’s friendships with girls? Would Cole accuse her of turning Melody into a lesbian?

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Burdening Children – the worst of all worlds

For months Cole waited for Shona to cave and see his wounds, say she was wrong and allow Debra to take care of Melody. For months Shona felt stuck, waiting for Cole to see how much he had hurt her by being mean about her father’s sexuality and her mother’s dislike of her family. The hopelessness in the couples therapy was palpable. They talked of having to split up. They each felt that neither partner cared enough to make that first move.

Shona made Cole out to be the bad guy in the family, causing Melody to have divided loyalties (see the connection? A repeat of how she felt growing up).

Cole made Shona out to be the bad guy for having secrets with Melody and keeping him in the dark (see the connection? A Repeat of how he grew up with secrets in the family).

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Burdening the children – the way out

At this seemingly hopeless juncture in the therapy, it became apparent that both Cole and Shona were not going to budge, each investing in magical thinking that somehow the other would repent and mend their ways. The threat of the family splitting up was real, unlike all the magical thinking they engaged in.

So the therapist changed tack from helping them see how similar their wounds were and spoke directly to them about what they were letting themselves in for.

For Shona it was an appeal to her promise never to put Melody in a position where she would be torn between her parents. The therapist told Shona that she was doing exactly that. It shook her to the core and brought her out of the impasse.

For Cole it was an appeal to the promise he made to himself that he would never have secrets in the family, be in denial and or use the shroud of silence that to suffocates loved ones. He was doing the same thing – keeping silent, not calling out the problem of discrimination on both sides of the family (his father in law being demonized for being gay and or ‘bi’, and his mother vilified for having had an alcohol problem and cheating).

Burdening Children – lifting the veil of magical thinking

Once Shona and Cole realized that they were living in a fantasy world and that their daughter was getting a quadruple dose of burdens from two generations of their families, they owned up to their roles in keeping it alive. After all the work they did as a couple they were now able to see that they were unconsciously committing the same act of burdening children that they had vowed never to do.

Shona agreed to get to know her mother-in-law Debra and to have her in the family to help out the same way Angela did. Cole agreed to get to know Angela and have her be a welcomed member of his family. The couple agreed to more talking as a family and most importantly WITH Melody.

As the process took shape the couple needed a lot of therapeutic support to get past their anger and disappointments when their buttons got pushed. Later family therapy was the place where they could have a good parent (in the therapist) and relieve themselves of their burdens and take those imposed on Melody.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2021

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