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Shriver & Schwarzenegger: What About the Kids?

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People are wondering how the Shriver-Schwarzenegger split and his infidelity will affect their children. Coping with their parents' separation is difficult enough for children. In this matter it is complicated by the father's infidelity, the revelation of a half-sibling, and the public nature of their family's troubles. Each family is different, but we can make educated guesses about what is in store for children in such circumstances. How well they do with the challenges depends, in part, on how their parents respond to the children's needs.

Being exposed to their parents' crises inevitably changes some aspects of the parent-child relationship. Children begin to give comfort rather than just receive it. We can expect them to show sympathy and support for a betrayed mother. Naturally the children will be confused, hurt, angry, embarrassed, and deeply troubled by their dad's actions. In the past he brought great pride, respect, and acclaim to the family. Today he brings shame.

Their image of their father is tarnished and their view of their happy family is shaken. They will need to reevaluate their Dad to encompass the revelations. They may feel the impulse to take sides, distance themselves from their father, and align with their mother.

Although children might want to take sides, acting on this urge could multiply their loss and compound their tragedy. Their need to love and to feel love from two parents does not evaporate in the wake of their father's infidelity. Their father is part of them, genetically and psychologically. If they judge him too negatively, they must reevaluate aspects of themselves that reflect identifications with Dad. The risk to their self-respect is a price children should not have to pay for their parents' failings. To avoid needless suffering, children must learn to hold on to some positive image of their parents, seeing their virtues alongside their flaws. Children can learn from their parents' bad behavior without rejecting them.

The children would do well to recognize that parents are more than just their worst mistakes -- even colossal ones. They need to place information about their father's flaws in the context of their entire history and experience of their dad. Dad disappointed the family; he is not their enemy. His infidelity does not erase all past expressions of love and his contributions to their welfare. Whatever their father's failings as a husband and as a parent, the children deserve the benefits of a relationship with two parents.

Parents can help. It seems unfair to ask this of a betrayed wife, but she is also a mother whose job is to do the best she can to safeguard her children's welfare. An aggrieved mother must find a way to deal with her anger and disappointment without bad-mouthing the father or encouraging the children to take sides. She must do her best to keep her negative feelings about her husband from crowding out more positive, protective, and loving feelings for the kids. With their mother's support, the children will succeed in finding their own ways to come to terms with this family crisis.

The father must do his part to control and repair the damage. He must acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm he caused. He cheated on their mother. He allowed his impulses to trump his responsibility to his family. He must apologize not only for his wrongdoing, but also for the multiple aftereffects of his behavior that, like ripples of a stone tossed in a lake, will continue to unfold and cause pain and turmoil. He must give the children an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings and let them know that they have been heard. And he must resist the urge to defend himself from their hurt and anger by withdrawing and hoping that time alone heals all wounds.

Both parents should resist the urge to use children as confidantes and bring them into the middle of personal and legal disputes. Children do best when the separation remains between mom and dad and not between parent and child. The challenges are great enough for children of high profile breakups without having to carry the extra burden of choosing between their parents.