May 8, 2000
Elian: Behind the captured smile
By Donald T. Saposnek
Elian is smiling, therefore he is happy. After all, kids are resilient. He'll get
over this. Kids get over divorce. Kids get over traumas. His father loves him, so
he'll be O.K. Right?
William Safire, in a recent New York Times article, asked "Which Picture
Tells the Real Story?," Photo No. 1, showing the terrified child at gunpoint
during the rescue effort, or Photo No. 2, showing the smiling Elian in the arms of
his father only hours later. This question is a wonderful metaphor for the exquisitely
oversimplified polarization that typically takes place on every level in high-conflict
child custody disputes. Each side maintains that the child's true happiness lies
with them and that any other expressions of happiness are faked or coerced by the
The truth is that, paradoxically, both sides are right. A child's happiness resides
not with one side, but with his extrication from the middle of the dispute, and ultimately
with a resolution that produces a single integrated life for the child.
Elian's journey as a child of divorce began in Cuba and has been followed by a sequence
of life-altering events that have landed him in the middle of an international, front-page,
high-conflict child custody dispute. What are the psychological consequences to a
child who has gone through so much?
The stress on a young child of even a "good" divorce can be a formidable
factor in compromising a child's long-term well-being. However, as you add other
unfavorable factors to the mix, the outcomes worsen. Among the numerous variables
known to affect a child's outcome from divorce are his predivorce adjustment, his
temperament, including the degree of flexibility he exhibits, his ease in handling
new situations, his sensitivity threshold, and how his caregivers interact with these
temperament characteristics, the custodial parents' psychological adjustment, and
the quality of the respective parent-child relationships.
We also know that after one major life trauma, each additional major life trauma
has an exponential, not additive, effect on a person. Elian has experienced a lengthy
list of traumas since his parents divorced, including a terrifying ride on the open
sea, the death of his mother, his rescue and capture by total strangers, an abrupt
relocation to a different culture, language, school, and peers, and his sudden and
continual exposure to a frenzied media. His recent seizure from the arms of his Miami
caregivers by gun-wielding strangers was followed within hours by a reunion with
his father (can he trust him this time?), adding yet another breach of emotional
attachments to the list that began in Cuba when he left his father, followed by losing
his mother, then losing his Miami relatives.
And Elian smiles. He must be happy. Or is he?
Perhaps of even longer lasting emotional impact is Elian's embroilment in the publicly
and politically fueled custody dispute between his father and his Miami relatives.
Research consistently shows that the more conflict between the child's caregivers,
the worse the outcome for the child. Once a child becomes embroiled in a high-conflict
custody dispute, several classic phenomena occur, including the development of what
has been termed "tribal warfare" that is characterized by the rapid and
exaggerated polarization of the disputants, with each gathering up supporters on
the respective sides.
This phenomenon has the force of a tornado, spinning and sucking into the fray
everyone around . . . friends, families, lawyers, therapists. The sides are drawn
and reality is then systematically twisted and distorted into equal and opposite
versions of "the truth." As this process unfolds, the concept of truth
becomes philosophically trivial as it becomes increasingly elusive and impossible
to determine, even by judges and the court.
The dispute is fueled as each side rewrites history, questioning each other's motives,
intentions, and very identity, accusing one another of lying, incompetence, and even
of being dangerous to the child. Extreme cases breed distorted or even false allegations
of abuse and can result in child abduction, homicide, and/or suicide. All intentions
are backed by the full and unwavering conviction of self-righteousness.
Invariably, the capacity of caregivers to see the actual needs of the child becomes
increasingly compromised as the level of conflict rises. Each caregiver truly believes
they are representing the needs and interests of the child. The only problem is that
each view is opposite and, as such, incompatible.
Caregivers will often unconsciously (and sometimes very consciously) set up the child
to turn against the other caregiver. In this state of being "caught in the middle,"
the child copes by saying things and behaving in ways that, unwittingly and unintentionally,
contribute to the custody dispute, often telling each parent that he wants to live
with that parent and not the other. The intention of the child may be to try to please
each parent by showing loyalty, or to reunite the parents by forcing them to talk
directly with each other, to prevent a parent from becoming angry, or to express
any number of other motives. Unfortunately, the parents usually take literally what
the child has said and proceed to seek custody through the courts. The effect is
to increase the anger and mistrust between parents.
As the dilemma peaks, participants prepare themselves for litigation, but courts
have proven their inadequacy in this area. Disputants who "lose" repeatedly
appeal for modifications of the court order, thereby prolonging the fight, and, paradoxically,
escalating interparental conflict for the child, which, again, is the best predictor
of a negative outcome for the child.
Elian's case has transformed tribal warfare into an art form, with the added distortion
of sound bites, photo-op snapshots, and competing sociopolitical interests that are
sustaining the minute-by-minute, 24/7 media frenzy. The public, the media, and judges
have been encouraged to draw conclusions about Elian's response to his ordeal with
gross oversimplifications and distortions. Yet we actually know very little about
But a child's resilience is a complex matter. There are so many factors that go into
the mix, including his genetic coping abilities, the degree of predictability and
stability of his relationships with caregivers, the extent of the familiarity of
routines that are developed and stabilized in his life, and the number of future
traumatic situations he will encounter (for which Elian has woefully little reserve).
In fact, Elian will soon face one more trauma. The prospect of his being allowed
to represent his own interests in seeking political asylum absurdly flies in the
face of what we know about child development. Six-year-old children do not have the
cognitive capacity to formulate the meaning of political persecution. Moreover, if
Elian were to choose the United States, he would betray his father, an assured formula
of psychological disaster for a child.
In the end, we will see how this plays out in the court of politics. Let us hope
that sanity prevails.
Donald T. Saposnek teaches psychology at UCSC. A clinical child psychologist and
child custody mediator, he is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes.
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