Child Visitation and The Formation Of Self-Esteem--Part II
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with people for almost twenty-five years. By far, the single
most central element, the one thing that pervades almost every
other issue is self-esteem. It touches everything--sex and
relationships, work problems, anxiety, depression, addictions;
you name it. This is Part II of a four-part series in which the
subject of self-esteem is explored, particularly in the context of
"visiting" divorced parents. This emotional and physical climate
challenges the natural development of self-esteem--it is hard to
parent children through this even if the family is intact!
The development of self-esteem is examined through the author's
system and theory of self-esteem. There are four primary elements
of self-esteem. In my system, I call them "Powers" because when we
develop any one of them, we become more personally powerful.
The Four Powers of Self-Esteem are: Worth, Competence, Ego-Strength
and Self-Acceptance. Please read Part I before reading this article.
As said before, even good parents functioning in intact families
can miss the boat in these two areas. In a divorcing-parent
household, this is even more difficult to achieve. The goal is to
carry out the nasty business of divorcing and leave the child's ego
intact. Sound almost impossible?
One of the biggest pitfalls parents stumble over is telling the
child too much. "Daddy isn't coming over tonight to get you and your
brother because he has another girlfriend." "Mommy doesn't care
enough about you to buy you new school clothes." These statements
are extremely damaging to the child, and they provide more information
than the child can handle. They cannot control absent parents and
they cannot defend against the messages that the child is less important
than someone or something else. Communicate this kind of message to
a child only a few times and just watch the acting out escalate.
Rather, tells the child "Mommy had something of a problem, sends
her love and wants to see you longer tomorrow. You don't have to worry."
Tell the child, "Mommy and Daddy are going to each buy you school
supplies. You might even get more than you think." Leave out the
damaging parts and emphasize the positive. Embedded in each of these
positive messages is the idea that the child is important, loved and will
be cared for, despite the state of the parents. In reality, divorcing
parents usually are nowhere near the state of mind needed to be so nice.
Negativity creeps into messages, even ones intended to be neutral, and
the child goes down the dark path of self-recriminating thoughts and
Children take in these lousy self-messages in great quantity.
Then, they are stuck with them and have to compensate. What does a
child do with a bunch of negative self-introjects? Well, initially,
their anxiety goes up and since children do not have vocabularies to
express their feelings, they act out. In younger children, anxiety
spikes, then motor behaviors increase, often resulting in the child
getting into things, pushing limits, testing, or being aggressive.
In short, they misbehave, and then the consequences are meted out, if
the parents still have their wits about them.
Another process that damages the child's sense of basic worth is
the different rules, values, rewards and punishments between the
two-divorced parent's homes. Parents that could not work together
when married and then divorced are even less likely to work together
after the separation. That leaves the child in something of a no-man's
land relative to constancy. (Constancy is a psychological term that
refers to the experience of sameness and dependability of perceptions,
even though the stimuli that engender the reaction might vary.)
In common parlance, the child needs his or her emotional and other
experiences in the different parent's houses to be as close to the same
as possible. Predictably, this does not happen as much as needed either;
sometimes almost never, depending upon a lot of factors.
The child gets different messages about self in each house, again
tinged with other messages about the current non-custodial parent.
(Keep in mind that just because one parent does not "say" anything about
the other parent does not mean that messages are not being communicated.
Remember, eighty or ninety percent of person-to-person communication is
non-verbal.) Then the child goes to the other parent's house, where the
routines are different and the messages about the parent just left
robably also are negative; thus negating some of the first parent's
messages, while piling on more insult and injury. This happens
repeatedly as the child goes back and forth. The result? The child
disconnects; meaning, withdraws, or invests in social activities with or
without friends rather than parents, or maybe invests in activities that
highlight his or her strengths. (In severe cases, we child psychologists
see the beginnings of mental illness.) This opens up the Second Power