Family Matters

The Schwarzenegger Kids: Coping with Parental Betrayal in the Public Eye

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Arnold Schwarzenegger with his son Patrick

Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially confirmed he’s not much for monogamy, it’s hard to know who’s got the rawer end of the deal: his four children with Maria Shriver or the young boy conceived with the family housekeeper.

Infidelity is hard enough for kids to process, but when a dalliance yields a secret half sibling, it complicates matters significantly, raising questions of love and loyalty. It’s still unclear whether the newly acknowledged son — whose gap-toothed smile and square jaw make him a miniature, if less muscled, dead ringer for his biological father — knew that Schwarzenegger was his father. On May 16, former housekeeper Mildred Patricia Baena told the Los Angeles Times that her then husband had fathered her son.

(More on TIME.com: See why powerful men compulsively cheat.)

But Schwarzenegger’s admission of paternity scuttled that carefully constructed fabrication. On May 18, CNN reported that the son he fathered with Baena was born within days of Schwarzenegger and Shriver’s youngest son, who is 13. If the boy knew the truth of his parentage all along, he must be reeling, partly humiliated, partly vindicated. If he had no idea, he’s probably trying to synthesize this week’s developments with the last 13 or so years of his existence.

“What if this kid is reading all this stuff and finding out he’s a heartbreak just by being born?” says Linda Cavallero, an 
associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “That’s a kick in the head.”

The calculations are not all that different from those of a child who learns in his teens that he’s adopted — the caveat in this case, of course, being that the boy finds out his mother’s former employer doubles as Dad.

(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 celebrity-relationship flameouts.)

“It requires a redefinition of identity,” says Richard Warshak, the author of Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing and a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

There’s likely a lot of redefining going on among Schwarzenegger’s four children with Shriver. While CNN reports that they weren’t blindsided by the news, having been briefed “methodically” beforehand by their mother, it’s undeniable that children of any age need stability. The maelstrom of the past few days has provided anything but. To add to the otherworldliness of the situation, the Schwarzenegger children probably already know their half sibling; it’s hard to imagine Baena working for the family for 20 years without revealing her son.

Now all five kids — ranging in age from 13 to 21 — are left trying to piece back together the notion of parental respect. It’s a process that any child who’s been publicly disappointed or humiliated by a parent — think adulterer, Ponzi schemer, porn star — has to go through.

(More on TIME.com: See pictures of the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Patrick Schwarzenegger, for example, seems to have been sufficiently embarrassed. He changed his last name — temporarily and on Twitter, at least — to his mother’s. Posting on Twitter as Patrick Shriver, the 17-year-old repurposed a line from “Where’d You Go?,” a Fort Minor song: “Some days you feel like s—, some days you want to quit and just be normal for a bit, yet i love my family till death do us apart.”

Meanwhile, his older sister Katherine tweeted, “This is definitely not easy but I appreciate your love and support as i begin to heal and move forward in life. I will always love my family!”

The younger kids — Schwarzenegger’s youngest child with Shriver is 13 — are apt to be more shocked because early adolescents still see parents as all-powerful; older children, meanwhile, are less naive. They can appreciate the complexity of the situation.

(More on TIME.com: The Case for Letting Your Partner’s Eye Wander)

“They can understand that somebody might be mostly good but do some things that aren’t good,” says Cavallero. “Where to the 13-year-old it could be much more shocking, the older ones are kind of like, This sucks, but at least they can get their heads around it.”

Mostly, though, it’s important for the children to realize that although Schwarzenegger disappointed his family, he’s not the enemy. “Their task is to put this new information into the entire context of their history with their dad,” says Warshak. “Parents are not defined only by their worst mistakes. These children have lost an idealized image of their father, and it would be best if they don’t lose the ability to love and receive love from him.”

That’s more likely to happen if Shriver can avoid encouraging their kids to take sides. Her brief statement on May 17 did that, highlighting her role as their caregiver. “As a mother, my concern is for the children,” she said. “I ask for compassion, respect and privacy as my children and I try to rebuild our lives and heal.”

(More on TIME.com: Can Your Mate’s Voice Be a Clue to Potential Cheating?)

Of course, the public lens that is trained on the whole fiasco doesn’t make things any easier: it can be difficult to privately assimilate a family’s new reality when the entire world is weighing in.

Cavallero couldn’t help but think of Chelsea Clinton soldiering through the Monica Lewinsky incident, recalling her “crying and saying, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ”

“As a psychologist, I think about children in situations like that,” says Cavallero. “When [Bill Clinton] was President, [Chelsea] got a lot of benefits. But she also experienced the opposite. Anyone else’s father who is unfaithful doesn’t have to go on TV.”

Related links:

See “Sex, Lies, Arrogance: What Makes Powerful Men Behave So Badly?”

See the top 10 abuses of power.

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