The Collaborative Child Specialist: Leading Families Through Liminality

For children experiencing their parents’ separation, the space between “what was” and “what is next” is a place of loss, waiting, and not knowing. The family is no longer what it once was, but not yet what it will be. Anthropologists have described the transition between states or statuses as “liminality.”

Limin is Latin for a threshold, and as an adjective, it describes a transitional stage of a process of transformation. Liminality is sometimes referred to as being “betwixt and between.” The original term describes the time in a cultural or tribal ritual where an actual transformation was occurring (e.g., Bar Mitzvah, a time in Judaism when a boy transitions to a man).

Divorce involves an inherently powerful space that forces the growth of the entire family unit. When parents deliver the message to their children that they have decided to separate/divorce, that message inherently carries an intensity to it that signals an elemental shift is afoot – and as families proceed through the divorce process, both destruction and construction are simultaneously occurring at a dizzying pace. It is a time of disorientation…and re-orientation. Of being unmade…and re-made. A time of no longer…and not yet.

Nonetheless, during and after a divorce, parents desperately want to believe that their kids are okay, or perhaps even better. Kids are resilient after all, right? For children in the midst of their parents’ divorce, they are in a state of liminality, wherein the nature of the change is far deeper and more difficult to define for a period of time than in the type of conditions we typically identify as change. The old rules no longer apply, and the new rules are unknown or have not yet been established.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

As Collaborative Professionals, our focus should not simply be on the children tolerating or surviving uncertain times until the new status is defined. The skills involved should not merely be geared toward managing parents through the liminal space more quickly in an effort to minimize the deleterious impact on the kids. Liminality speaks strongly of the experience of the children in order for them to emerge from the liminal state fully integrated.

The potential for short and long-term negative impacts of divorce on children are real, and how their emotions and thoughts are handled while in this liminal state may be critical for healthy transition to the “other side,” post-divorce. To do so, we must encourage families to understand the experience of their children during this transformation and actively share in - even surrender to - their child’s transformation during liminality.

Unfortunately, the help and understanding that should come to children in the wake of a divorce rarely comes. In many cases, children’s own feelings and experiences are either never solicited or systematically sublimated to the adults’ desires and feelings. Children are expected to move along as the parents move through stages of divorce, and they are assumed to feel the same type of closure that the parents feel post-divorce. They are presumed to be fine with having no or limited discussions about their thoughts and feelings about their own transformation process. Because of this, they overwhelmingly end up sticking to the narrative given them by the parents (i.e., “This will be better for everyone”) and spend the ensuing decades managing and being ever mindful of their parents’ feelings - pleasing, placating, and pacifying.

Children want a voice to express how they think and feel about their family transition during the post-separation process. Children want to be kept informed and want their needs and interests heard. Overwhelmingly, the research indicates children want to know what is going on with their parents’ separation and divorce to further understand what is happening at the time of their parents’ separation. Children are part of a family unit and therefore deserve the option of being a part of a process that will affect their lives and to have input in the areas that have the potential to be significantly disrupted during and after divorce.

Children of divorce do not see the world the same way they did pre-divorce. Some children struggle with the sense of having no real home anymore. Feelings of loss, difficulty going back and forth, missing a parent, are superseded by the need to “stick to the schedule.” A schedule that requires children and their possessions to be shuffled between two new spaces where “time” has an altered connotation and it is clearly divided between mom and dad on calendars marked with blue and pink squares or parents’ initials.

Psychological space is occupied with thoughts of legal proceedings, one or both parent’s feelings, caring for siblings or parents – undifferentiated from one another or requiring them to navigate two separate worlds by being two different people depending on which parent they are with. Holidays are fragmented with old traditions pieced together with new traditions, overhearing superfluous chants from the extended family (the “Greek chorus”), making it even more obvious that mom and dad are no longer a union.

Extracurricular activities, playdates, and birthday parties are negotiated and vetoed (“not on my time”) now baseball, ballet, and piano lessons and friendships are reformatted to fit within the parameters of the divorce. These are burdens unique to the child of divorce. Unresolved issues stemming from their parents’ divorce plague children for many years afterward, even into adulthood.

“If you want to bring a human system back to life, connect it to itself.” – Margaret Wheatley

As a Child Specialist, I use the family’s own narratives to map their journey of transformation, with each family member’s perspective being considered. Through inductive processes (as opposed to the deductive litigated psychological evaluation method that is subject to a priori hypotheses and confirmatory bias), I am able to gather data from the child(ren) and parents in order to co-create an impartial and child-centered path to the future in an effort to facilitate a healthy transition of the family system.

The powerful feedback from my meetings with the child(ren) provides momentum for the family system shift. This allows me to work with the family in ways that are both supportive and transformative, to help them tolerate and negotiate feelings of anxiety and uncertainty while, at the same time, providing the expertise and guidance they are so often depending on to see them through the changes. Through the exploration of an array of variables, including the dynamics that existed before the divorce process, I am able to identify the circumstances and precipitants of change in the quality of relationships between parents and children and recommend the specific interventions best suited to facilitating their child(ren)’s opportunity to enjoy a healthy relationship with both parents.

By walking alongside the child(ren) and family during this complex and uncertain time, I am able to shift the focus from simply avoiding the deleterious impact of divorce on the child(ren), to assisting the parents in both appreciating and letting go of patterns from the past; embracing and facing the fear of the future; setting co-parenting intentions for cooperation instead of competition; and monitoring success and challenges, thus, providing a path forward out of liminal space to true transformation.

On August 20, 2020, Dr. Gilman will lead a webinar about the role of the Child Specialist in the Collaborative Divorce process. Register HERE (free for IACP members).