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How to Truly Advance the Needs of the Child between Separated Parents

by Gary Direnfeld
December 2015 Gary Direnfeld
I have chatted with many children whose parents are in the throes of a divorce where one parent had little to do with them before the separation. The other parent may hold the view that the former, based on lack of effort doesn’t deserve much time with the children after the separation or that given that is what the children may be used to, the children wouldn’t want anything different on a go-forward basis.

However post separation, these same parents may seek more time with their children. They may realize they cannot rely upon the other parent to keep their image alive on their behalf to the kids and they often come to realize how much they missed for not being present for whatever reason.

However, all of that is the parents’ thinking and issues. What about the children?

I’ve long since learned that these children are protective about their parents’ feelings and don’t often report to them what their needs, hopes or longings are. They are also dependent upon their parents for survival and they have witnessed the animosity and behavior between their parents, such that they do not want to endanger their own sense of survival and certainly would not want to act is any such way as to bring the wrath witnessed between their parents upon themselves.

Very often, these children while unhappy about the parental separation none-the-less secretly feel good about the new-found attention from the otherwise less-involved parent. These are kids who had secretly longed to feel fully valued by both parents and now experiencing the absent parent being or seeking to be more involved, they are pleased. This is so, even if the child does not show it The child may only be fearful that the involved parent may feel unappreciated for now appreciating the less-involved parent’s involvement. Pity the child who feels a need to balance their own needs with the issues of the parents.

This is a terrible dilemma for the child.

It certainly may upset a parent who for years may have tried to cajole the less-involved parent to be more engaged with the kids who all-of-a-sudden is more involved post-separation. It may cause the more involved parent to question the motivations of that parent. Here’s the rub though; even if the less-involved parent’s motive for greater involvement isn’t the most altruistic, from your child’s experience it may still be felt as positive and in fact may be positive. Your child doesn’t stand there to question parental motivations. From your child’s perspective, he or she may be finally enjoying the attention and validation previously missed. The other issues belong to the parents.

If you want to really uncover your child’s views and feelings, this is best done with the help of a neutral third party – a person who has experience and expertise chatting with children of separated parents. We speak of this as hearing the voice of the child and doing so requires a balanced process with the involvement of both parents.

Once the voice of the child has been heard, then the neutral helper who facilitated the child’s voice can bring the child’s feelings, views and experience of their life and parental separation to the parents’ attention for the parents to be informed. On the basis of information provided, then the parents may be in a better place to meet their child’s needs. If indeed there were untoward issues, it may be instructive for a parent to be advised of those issues from the perspective of the child. It may be helpful to have a better appreciation of your child’s experience and needs when considering a parenting plan.


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an 
expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, 
parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the 
TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead and the parenting columnist for the 
Hamilton Spectator. His book, Marriage Rescue is due out in spring 2013. Gary 
maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services 
for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North 

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