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SALT LAKE CITY — Are you a gatekeeper? It is a common co-parent pitfall after divorce.
The dissolution of a marriage or partnership is complex and can be extremely difficult. Under such stress, working in a parental partnership can be one of the most frustrating experiences in life. This article is not meant to aggravate a parent's post-divorce anguish by faultfinding, but to guide a parent who might unknowingly be worsening his or her child's pain in the process.
"Gatekeeping" is a term used with intact parents as well as those who are divorced. It is a metaphor for one parent (usually the mother) who stands at the gate as a watch guard, letting into the home only those whom she feels are worthy. It can be positive trait if used to protect children, but it can also be used negatively to wield unreasonable power.
Divorce is frequently followed by acute hurt and shock. Post-divorce gatekeeping can be a powerful weapon of power and revenge to strike out at the person who inflicted pain. It undermines healthy co-parenting.
Dr. Edward Kruck describes gatekeeping thus: "Parental alienation is the 'programming' of a child by one parent to denigrate the other (targeted) parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child's relationship with that parent, and most often occurs within the context of a child custody conflict."
Dr. William G. Austin cites restrictive gatekeeping behaviors that include:
- Making telephone or Skype contact difficult
- Refusing to communicate with the other parent about the child
- Being derogatory about the other parent in front of the child
- Negative nonverbal communication directed at the other parent in front of the child
- Not being flexible on needed adjustments to the parenting time schedule
- Withholding information about the child such as about school, events, activities
- Scheduling activities for the child on the other parent's time without communicating
- Being intrusive and disrupting the other parent's time with the children
- Trying to micromanage the child's life during the other parent's time
Non-custodial fathers might seek power or revenge by withholding child support, saying cruel things about the mother in front of his child, forcing a child to "choose sides," or withdrawing from his child's life to avoid contact with his ex-spouse.
Notice when the father shoots one of these arrows to wound his "ex," it goes through the child first. The innocent ones — the children we love — are the most damaged. Having access to both parents and financial security are strong predictors for a smoother adjustment when children experience the dissolution of their parents' marriage.
The custodial parent, usually the mother, may seek revenge by unfairly controlling key aspects of the shared custody agreement. Alienating the dad is a common gatekeeping reaction by mothers, which contributes to their child's maladjustment. She crowds the dad out when she stands between the father and his child by withholding information that restricts and excludes him.
Not every piece of information needs to be shared, but when it would benefit the ongoing relationship between a child and his dad, the mother should do what is necessary to nurture the new, fragile relationship between her child and his father.
Agreeing on new conditions that suit your needs after a divorce is never easy. Boundaries need to be in place. Each set of parents has personal, sensitive issues only they can resolve. Some may need to take into account a child's refusal to see one of his parents because he is struggling with terms of the divorce. With the help of mediation, a parent may also need to set up new boundaries to ensure a safer, more stable environment for the child.
It is possible, even imperative, that both parents experiencing emotional devastation put aside their feelings for one another and continue being the adults in their child's life. If the co-parent undermines or opposes your efforts, do what is right anyway. You cannot control the other person, but you can control your own behavior and attitude. Whatever it takes, your child needs to know you have her best interest at heart.
Parents can overcome gatekeeping tendencies by practicing three healthier, more productive protective approaches to the new relationship.
- Sharing information between parents.Gatekeeping mothers withhold necessary information so the father feels like a disconnected, awkward bystander. Be generous instead. What are the day-to-day events in their child's life he should be aware of? Allow your child to communicate with the non-custodial parent as often as necessary. The more the father knows, the more he can choose to be connected to his child's life, rather than just the every-other-weekend fun together.
- Discussing the non-custodial parent with the child. Your son or daughter still has two parents, even though you do not have a spouse or partner. It is helpful to remember that although the other parent may not be physically present, he is ever-present in your child's heart and mind. Your child still has a past, present and future with him. He is still "dad" when addressing him in the home. Using derogatory remarks cuts a child in two.
- Sharing custodial responsibilities. Gatekeeping mothers often punish their ex-spouse or partner by making visitations so difficult, the father becomes too discouraged to be involved in his child's life. The child will bear the scars if the father becomes less invested in paying child support as a result. This may be the case even without gatekeeping, but it increases the risk. Working out an amicable arrangement is the responsibility of both parties. Both should focus not on how little the other can see the child, but instead be fair, even generous, with the shared schedule.
Single parenting is stressful enough. Your best ally can be your ex-spouse since he/she is the only other parent of your children. It is usually never a perfect arrangement, and often fraught with difficulty, but any child will take "good enough" over no good at all.
Co-parenting will give you opportunities to put your child first, to show forgiveness and patience and hear yourself say, "I found strength I never knew I had. I'm a better person for it."
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Visit her website www.aspoonfulofparenting.com, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.