Divorce is probably one of the most traumatizing experience in many children’s lives. Parents are often unaware of the emotional burden most children bear, especially those parents who are involved in a nasty, prolong custody battle. Children of divorcing parents often struggle with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and overwhelming pain of pending loss.
Often confused as well as emotionally bottled up, children sometimes find themselves in the middle of their parents’ relentless feud — especially those parents who are stuck in the never-ending cycle of anger, power struggle, retaliation, and, even in some cases, using their children as a bargaining chip for financial leverage. But most importantly, some parents put their children in the position of meeting their parents’ emotional needs.
Spousification of a child, also termed parentification, refers to a dynamic in which parents turn to children for emotional support while ignoring the child’s developmental needs. When a parent replaces their partner with his/her own child in order to meet their own emotional needs, the relationship becomes exploitative in which the parents’ expectations exceed the child’s ability meet them. But the painful truth remains that the spousification of the child is not a reciprocal relationship, and it’s a passive form of emotional abuse which often goes unnoticed.
Certain personality types are more apt to creating this kind of condition when compared to other personality types. There is a high rate of incidence among dependent-type personalities, especially co-dependent parents as well as narcissistic parents, to put their children in this predicament without realizing the ramifications of their selfish actions.
The following is an excerpt from a counseling session:
During a counseling session, Sarah stated, “I feel very depressed; I have a hard time sleeping or eating, and I hate the idea of not having my kids around all the time. This divorce is taking a toll on me. Many nights, I cry myself to sleep. Thank God for my daughter Lisa (six years old). She’s the one I hug and go to sleep with every night, she is the one who says, ‘Don’t cry mom, it’ s going to be OK…’ She is my pillar; I don’t know where I would be without her.”
The above example appears to be harmless and innocent. However, the emotional impact and lifelong consequences will not be so obvious in early life. When a child is made to be a spouse for emotional support, it often leads to confusion about the self while building resentments towards that parent. Although the child does not display any anger or dissatisfaction with the parent at the time, the burden of care-taking and feeling obligated will surface many years later. This is one of the reasons why certain adults feel cheated or angry about losing their childhood years. During counseling, it is not unusual to hear statements like, “I was the parent to my siblings because my parents were missing in action or I always felt responsible for my father’s loneliness after divorce.”
Besides the personality, the second most common reason for using children as a spouse is mostly related to the feelings of shame and guilt due to the belief that he/she failed the marriage. Fear of judgement coupled with how other people may view their failing relationship often forces some parents from reaching out for proper emotional and psychological help.
Parents need to recognize the fact that the spousification of the child is emotionally damaging with lifelong consequences, and that they must abandon the idea of relying on their children for emotional support.
Parents who are starting the divorce proceedings need to be much more aware of their children’s emotional needs and fulfill them accordingly while seeking proper emotional support from relatives and mental-health professionals to get through the divorce process.