One of the many tragedies of intimate betrayal - abuse, infidelity, deceit, stealing - is the negative effects it has on the couple’s children. Almost universally, and quite understandably, parents feel unable to parent as well as they would like after suffering intimate betrayal.
I consider intimate betrayal to be a felt condition. You feel betrayed by the partner who violates the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love in the first place:
No matter what happens, the person you love and trust will care about your well being and never intentionally hurt you.
These two key elements classify the types of intimate betrayal. Behaviors that intentionally hurt include most emotional abuse, verbal aggression, and domestic violence. Failure to care about your well being covers most deceit, infidelity, covert misuse of communal resources, continual resentment, anger, criticism, stonewalling, and other isolating or hurtful behaviors.
The extraordinarily harsh and lingering pain of intimate betrayal almost invariably overflows into other areas of life, especially parenting.
Effects on Children
Children who witness one parent betrayed by another often display symptoms of:
- Depression (looks like chronic boredom with little interest in things that usually interest kids)
- Anxiety (worry, especially about things kids don't normally worry about)
- School problems
- Hyperactivity (can't sit still)
- Low self-esteem (don't feel as good as other kids)
- Over emotionality (anger, excitability or crying) that sometimes comes out of nowhere
- No emotions at all (like little stone children).
Although most parents who come to treatment are laden with guilt, my clinical experience has shown that people in recovery from intimate betrayal parent better than they think. Their underestimation of their parental performance is based not on their actual experience with their children than a generalized and pervasive self-doubt caused by the betrayal itself.
This post and the next are dedicated to helping parents who suffer intimate betrayal reclaim confidence in their ability to do the most important task of their present lives: parent their children.
Understand the World of Your Children
Even when intimate betrayal is not a factor, parents need to understand that the world we grew up in differs significantly from that of our children. Their lives are much more complex, with information overload, constant distractions, increasing emotional demands, and threats to safety. It is more dangerous to be a child now than ever before in peacetime history. Common challenges include the spector of violence, drugs, STDs, pregnancy, obesity, auto crashes, and suicide. More children are murdered and assaulted by adults and other children than ever before in the history of the world. They experience much greater anxiety from far more choices about things like appearance, food, drink, behavior, peers, leisure activities, studies, and their future.
The best leverage parents can have to guide and protect their children is to form strong, resentment-free emotional bonds with them, based on value, mutual respect, and empowerment.
Empowerment in families gives someone the right and confidence to offer solutions to problems that respect the best interests of all involved. The trick in empowering children is to get them to come up with solutions that work for them and you. When they come up with the solutions, they are more invested in them, and you avoid most power struggles, along with the resentment and hostility that result in them.
The ultimate goals of empowerment are:
1. Teach the Five R’s of Parenting (and successful living):
- Resourcefulness (problem solving and creativity)
- Relationship investment (considering the rights and feelings of family members)
- Regulation of impulses and emotions
2. Channel the child’s intelligence and creativity into solving the problem, rather than opposing or resenting your solution
3. Teach negotiation skills
4. Model compassion (Children learn by watching you.)
5. Teach morality (arbitrarily exerting power and control over others is wrong)
6. Protect them from the negative influence of peers. (Research suggests that negative influence of peers is the biggest single factor leading to a child failing, being harmed, and harming others. When parents have good relationships with their children, peers have less negative influence.)
General Skills of Compassionate Parenting
Empowering children requires a set of learnable skills.
- Listen to your kids. (In all stages of development, children complain that their parents yell too much and listen too little.)
- Choose toys that have something beneath the surface to deepen their interest. (Young children cannot sustain interest for long, but they can develop awareness that interest is more rewarding when there's something beneath the surface.)
- Understand that change stimulates emotion. (You and your children will have emotional responses to change, irrespective of the content. Negative emotions are more likely to occur during transitions - when you want them to stop doing one thing and start doing another. Make transitions as smooth as possible. For instance, prepare young children for approaching transitions: “Your bath time is in a half hour.”)
- Respond to positive emotions as well as negative. (Attention to expressions of interest and enjoyment are opportunities to reinforce positive emotional experience, just as attention to negative emotions reinforce those.)
- Openly express affection to your children and to the other adults in the family.
- Enjoy them. (Fun strengthens bonds.)
- Learn from them. (Their brains are miracles of organic development, unparalleled in the known universe. Child development is fascinating to observe, especially when it’s your child. Most child development researchers will tell you that they got their best ideas for research by observing their own children.)
Mistakes are Okay
You and your children must be allowed to make mistakes. Parenting is a long process; learning from mistakes rather than punishing for them is the key to success. The paradigm of human learning is pitching horseshoes. Your first toss will either be too short or too long, unless you’re super lucky. The next toss will overcompensate in the opposite direction, either too long or too short. It’s the third toss that has the best chance of a ringer. If you or your children interpret that process as two failures and one success, life will be hard. Your brain actually sees it as one success in three steps. It needs to make mistakes to learn how to succeed.
The next post will discuss how to discipline your children while recovering from intimate betrayal.