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In Loco Parentis: Acting Parent vs. Biological Parent

It’s disturbing how easy it is to sway a child’s thoughts and understanding of their custody situation. The ideal way to approach this is to help the child understand that they are not responsible for their living arrangements because they’re not (at least not younger children. Teens may have different levels or responsibilities in their custody arrangements).

As the acting parent, you have to be careful not to insult the child’s biological parents, while at the same time staying on top of issues as they arise and safeguarding the child from the things that the natural parents might say to the child. Please understand that I’m referring to much more serious kinds of blaming than a child should have to be responsible for. If the child didn’t put his bike away, well then he might get a well-deserved (appropriate) consequence like not riding his bike the next day. That’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m talking about the parent who tells the child, “It’s your fault that I couldn’t parent you like I should have. You better be good or they won’t let you see me anymore.” Comments like this abound for children who come from dysfunctional family situations. While you’re busy getting help for the child, building his self-esteem and things along those lines, you can’t always do the same thing for the biological parents. As the child is learning better coping and communication skills, the biological parents usually haven’t learned a thing about their responsibility for the situation. When there’s no one else to blame, biological parents often blame the child. When children are blamed for things they cannot control, it sends them into a tailspin of trying to figure out what they could have done differently, and of course, there is no answer because it wasn’t in their control to begin with.

For the record, when you challenge what the biological parent says to the child (no matter how much the issue begs to be challenged (, know that you are entering a minefield; be careful where you walk.

Children in unusual custody circumstances are remarkably protective of their biological parents, and equally receptive to accepting blame for their situation. It’s not terribly uncommon that their parents are all too willing to have them shoulder the blame. On the one hand, you want to encourage and facilitate a healthy relationship between the biological parent and child. On the other hand, you cannot predict the awful things that the parent might say to the child and how the child will interpret those messages. It can be horribly destructive to a child whose self-confidence is already straddling the fence to begin with (an improvement over the complete lack of self-confidence in previous years). Worse, the effects can last a lifetime; one instance of misdirected blame can permanently scar a child straight through adulthood. As the acting parent, it’s important to listen to the child, pay attention to what he or she is saying and hear the messages that have been received and/or interpreted from such a discussion.

The key is to be ready to build the child back up without displaying disrespect (dismay, or disappointment) to or about the biological parent. I have also found that not everything my child reports is accurate, and may contain enough truths that his mother said that it all seems highly likely. I take what he tells me, listen for accuracy and open it up for discussion. For instance, he might say, “Mommy told me that I have to improve my behavior when I come home from visiting her house or else I might not get to see her anymore.” I’ve found that a given statement can contain multiple “authors”. I’ve found that he may add his own interpretation to the message he heard from his biological mother as he relays the message to me.

Regardless of the accuracy of the message, I always remind my child that his mother loves him, and then I proceed to dissect the facts to determine where each part of the message came from. By doing this, I can help him determine fact from misinterpretation (his or his mother’s) - give him access to and a better understanding of the facts - without letting him take the blame for things for which he cannot control. So far, I’ve found that this is the best way to give him the facts and show him respect by not insulting his biological parents or his own misunderstandings of the information. I think it’s really the only way to go.

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Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

The expenses do add up, so if you’d like to pitch in, please feel free to donate a few bucks. I really appreciate your generosity!