Wednesday 22 November 2017

Family Life: I don't know what to tell the kids about their alcoholic dad

David Coleman

David Coleman

Q I am a mother of two children aged five and seven. I was with my partner for 10 years during which time it emerged he suffered from alcohol addiction and a mood disorder.

He has been in and out of rehab clinics, seen many counsellors, was offered plenty of support but he could not manage to move on. I reached the end last year as I looked at our children and I decided to take my chances on my own.

The year has been very difficult as he has reacted badly to this new arrangement. He has also started to make statements to the children like "mum threw me out of the house", and "I never want to speak to her again", which is obviously causing them distress. My little boy cries during the night, cross with me for "throwing Daddy out", and my little girl has become slightly sullen and her spark is disappearing.

She doesn't really say anything about our separation but her personality is changing. When we do have a chat about it they keep asking me "why did it happen?", and "when is it going to be over?" -- I do my best to answer them and I am very careful that I never say anything negative about their Dad to them. I want to help them but I just don't know what I can do or say to ease their pain.

I am also fearful of what he is saying to them when they are with him. He has good access. However this is closely monitored by me to ensure he is not drinking. When he collects them he does not speak to me - if I speak to him he ignores me. I see the children look at this in wonder but they remain silent. I am worried. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

A Separation is always difficult for children. They, inevitably, end up in the middle of two parents who are caught up in conflict. Children don't ask their parents to split up and they rarely experience the separation as positive in the early stages.

In your situation it seems as if the separation has occurred in the worst possible circumstances. You feel your ex-partner was a bad influence and unwilling or unable to change in a positive way. He probably feels that you unfairly forced him to leave when he believed the relationship could still continue.

This means that there is likely to be a lot of resentment and stored-up bitterness, especially on his part. If he talks to the children as you describe, then it suggests that he blames you for the disruption to the family and that he is very angry with you.

The fact that he won't talk to you directly further deepens the chasm between you and makes any communication about the needs of the children impossible.

Ultimately, however, talking about the needs of the children is crucial. No matter what animosity there is between you, you will always share responsibility for your children. It is important for them to know that whatever you might disagree about, you do agree about what they need and you are both willing to work together to provide that.

They also need to know that you both love them and that they don't need to choose between you and that they will never lose either of you. Critically, they need to hear all of this from both of you.

From a child's perspective the most successful parental separations occur when both parents genuinely agree that being apart is better for them and so they can give a single and cohesive message to their children.

In your case, however, you have two distinctly different messages coming to your children and so they are forced to try to choose which message is more truthful. This places an enormous burden on them and leaves them in a confused quandary.

The kernel of their dilemma is that to choose one parent's story is to deny the other and by choosing they run the risk of rejecting (or being rejected by) the other parent. This kind of predicament is very stressful for children, so it is no wonder that they ask "when will it be over?"

Your partner sounds like he is caught up in his own resentment of you and it is unlikely that he realises the damage that his blaming of you is doing to the children.

He may feel that his blaming words are attacking you, but the by-product is that he attacks his children. If he could come to realise this then there is hope that he can be angry with you directly and leave the children out of the crossfire.

So, my suggestion to you is that you work very hard to bridge the gap with your ex-partner.

You seem to be surprised that he has not accepted the separation willingly. I wonder if either of you ever really took the time to listen to the other's views about your relationship, either before or after the separation?

If you want to relieve the pressure on your children then you need to put yourself in line to hear directly the anger, resentment and distress that your ex-partner feels. Similarly, this gives you a forum to tell him the depth of hurt and pain that you have been feeling before and since the separation.

Critically, you and your ex need to have these kinds of conversations without the children present, so you need to make your approaches to him at times other than access handovers. Perhaps making these arrangements can be mediated by someone you both still trust and believe to be impartial.

When you do meet you might also want to arrange to have a neutral third party, like a psychologist, therapist or professional mediator, present to facilitate your conversation and to allow the real feelings to be expressed directly.

I do believe that if you can clear the air somewhat, then you can perhaps agree to give a single, joint message to the children that they are equally loved by you both, that they don't ever have to choose between you and that you will both, always, put their needs before your own.

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