Parentification in Virginia Divorce and Custody Cases

Posted on Feb 26, 2024 by Katie Carter


Emotionally, going through a divorce or custody case (or, worse, a divorce AND custody case) is easily one of the most difficult things that you will face in your adult life.  Many therapists even liken the experience of going through divorce to a death – it’s just that traumatic.

Even a good divorce – meaning, one where the animosity is at a relative minimum and things are fairly amicable – is traumatic.  A bad divorce, though?  Well, that can feel cataclysmic.

It often feels, too, as though things are coming to a head legally at a time when everyone feels the worst and likely benefit from therapy more than litigation.  I sometimes think that, as it relates to divorce, the legal part of it should be the last step – but there’s no question that, as far as the legal process goes, once one spouse files for divorce or prepares the first draft of the separation agreement, the other will need to respond no matter how ill-prepared she is emotionally.

It’s a good idea – without exception – to enlist the support of a trusted therapist throughout the divorce process.  You’re not crazy; far from it, in fact.  But the divorce process just is that difficult and it’s really smart to have a support network in place.  Friends and family are great, and often very well-meaning, but they don’t necessarily have the time or space to devote to you and your ongoing life crisis.  Not only that, but they’re not usually trained in how to resolve these disputes in a healthy way, so their well-meaning advice may not serve you that well.

There’s a difference between getting advice meant to support you and getting good, actionable advice that will help you recognize your own patterns and, eventually, work towards making your future life better.  Friends are good at the first part.  Therapists are, generally, better suited to the second.

Plus: therapists take insurance.

Attorneys don’t, and neither do your friends.  (And your friends may expect some give-and-take in your relationship with them, while attorneys and therapists don’t; we’re here to work for you.)  Attorneys have a hard job, too, speaking from personal experience.  In a lot of cases, we have to give our clients advice that they don’t particularly want to hear.  Though our goal is always to provide the best possible representation to our clients, that doesn’t mean that the advice they’re getting jives with what they think is right or that they want to happen.  In any case, our goal – to get the best outcome possible in your divorce – is different from a therapist’s goal, which is to help you cope with everything in a healthy and productive way.

Working with a therapist is another way to help make sense of what may not necessarily be intuitive in divorce; it can even help you own up to your own role in your separation and divorce.  This can be important because perspective is always helpful.

A lack of perspective, on the other hand, can cause big problems.

One of the biggest of those is parentification.

What is parentification?

Parentification happens when a parent shares part of his emotional burden with a child.  This happens in the divorce context a lot; parents end up oversharing information about the divorce with a child, who feels a sense of responsibility towards that parent.  In extreme cases, it can lead to parental alienation; in less extreme cases, though, the child still suffers.  Psychologists suggest that this kind of behavior can lead a child to grow up too quickly.  It looks like resilience, and parents will often tell me how resilient and responsible their kids are, but it can lead to damaging emotional issues that continue long into adulthood.

It may be something that the parent is doing deliberately, but it often isn’t.  For the most part, parents – as well as their kids – are struggling emotionally with what is going on in the divorce.  They may feel compelled to confide in their kids; at any rate, they have to talk to their kids some about what’s going on and it’s extra difficult, when you’re emotionally vulnerable, to keep the conversation developmentally appropriate.  Especially for parents who feel that they’ve been wronged in some way – like where there has been an affair, domestic violence or abuse, or a sense of abandonment – it can be difficult for them to keep those feelings totally under wraps.

Kids are especially at risk, too, because they are some of the few people to whom the parent can talk who actually lived the same life.  Other people might not understand the same way as the parent and the child who lived in the same home.

At any rate, it’s unhealthy and potentially incredibly damaging to the child.  It’s far more appropriate for a parent to seek help for any mental health challenges they’re experiencing post-separation than it is for them to say too much to their kids.

Kids have to shoulder their own emotional burdens.  It’s not easy for them to live through their parents’ separation and divorce, either.  But it’s even more difficult if they have to deal with their own emotions – without support – because they’re too busy providing support to their parent.  It should work the other way around.

Though the legal process is important – and I’d always argue that you should have a thorough understanding of the law in Virginia and your rights and entitlements under it – it’s also important that you take time to address your own emotional concerns.  You’re going through a lot and you shouldn’t discount your experience.  It’s important and it’s valid, and you’ll need support!  You just need to get that support from an appropriate place.

I’m worried that my child is experiencing parentification because of their relationship with their father.

It’s not necessarily mom, either!  I’ve seen it both ways and, before I go any further, I want to reiterate: it’s not because you’re bad.  It’s probably also not because he’s bad.  Like we tell our kids, we all have big feelings sometimes.  The temptation WILL be there to talk too much to your kids about the divorce.

If you’re worried that your child’s father is doing this, I would try to get my child enrolled in therapy as soon as possible.  Just like you need emotional support for what you’re going through, so does your child.  He should feel free to feel however he wants about the divorce and to have a safe place to express those feelings.

You should also encourage your child’s father – without judgment – to get help.  He needs it, just like you do.  It might be tempting to try to make a huge issue of it in the case, but this is probably more likely to blow up in your face than to actually help your child.

It’s all going to depend on what, specifically, he’s doing – there are some behaviors that are more damaging and toxic than others.  It’s always worth running your specific concerns by an attorney before you get too far ahead of yourself.  It’s also often a good idea to just try to have a real conversation with your child’s father about what’s happening and how to help.

For more information, to request a copy of our custody book, or to get more information about our upcoming custody seminar for Virginia moms, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.