Tuesday, December 21, 2010
A little boy who has just finished spending two hours with his father in a weekly supervised visitation is asked by the Supervisor if he would like to say good-bye to daddy when it is time to leave the room. The child looks at the Supervisor with a surprised look on his face and says “I don’t have a Daddy” as he hugs the man who is his father. Dad looks confused and turns to the Supervisor for help on how to respond. The Supervisor speaks to the child gently, “It’s okay to just say good-bye to Daddy.” The child looks at the Supervisor as if she has just grown an extra head and says “He’s not my Daddy! Mommy said he used to be my Daddy but he isn’t my Daddy anymore.”
During the visit, the child had opened a new toy the father brought for the visit. The child was clearly delighted as he got a big grin on his face and began twirling around and “flying” the toy through the air. When Dad asked if he could take a picture of the child with his new toy, the child said “Mommy said you can’t take any pictures of me.” The child was still smiling and twirling as he said it. When it was time for lunch and Dad brought out a Happy Meal, the child said “Mommy said I can’t eat anything from you cuz’ of the poison.” The child then sat down at the table and ate the meal with his dad while chattering away about the new Woody toy and the movie Toy Story 3 which they planned to watch after lunch.
What would you do in this situation? If you were Dad? If you were the Supervisor? How would you talk to this child about what is happening? It’s not as easy or simple as it might seem because this little boy has absolute trust in his Mommy to tell him the truth, to protect him from dangers in the world, and to support him in embracing all the good life has to offer. The child assumes that Dad and the Supervisor are wrong because, for him, it’s very easy and very simple: mommy loves him so of course she is telling the truth. But she is not – she is denying the child himself each time she denies the truth of the father’s existence in the world and the presence of the father in the child’s life. The person in need of intervention here is the mother, not the child.
I think some of R.D. Laing’s ideas about family lies and mental illness can be helpful. He thought that if you really listened to a schizophrenic, the patient would tell you how his or her world worked. The language might be metaphorical, even a little unreal, but it was logical in the context of growing up in a family where plain speech had been penalized and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others. In Laing's families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths that one family member is allowed to speak of, but that another member is forbidden to speak of. The weakest and most vulnerable family member finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a vicious circle of invalidation. Madness…mental illness…may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.
I’m not suggesting this little boy will develop a mental illness but I think anyone would agree that his sense of what is real and true versus what is false lays a foundation for mistrust of both himself and others that will stay with him, shape him, and inform him as he develops and grows. Whatever else is going on here, it is clear that his mother wants to be rid of one-half of who this child is…his father. How does she do that when it is half of her own child she wants to eliminate from her world?
This mother’s approach to co-parenting flies in the face of decades of research that clearly supports the need of each child for a relationship with his or her parents…both of them! Sadly, it may take months or even years for action that will protect this child from his mother’s toxic hatred toward the father. And it may never happen. Family courts are notoriously slow to act, as is the child welfare system. If a bone is broken or a wound bleeding, the detriment to the child is clear. But when the abuse cannot be seen, felt and/or touched, time is required to sort it out. Depending on the child, there may not be much time.
If you are reading this you are, most likely, NOT a co-parent who is this bad for your child. But you may know someone who is! If you do, speak up. Get involved. Tell the mother (or father) that you are concerned and why. Give him or her the chance to understand how damaging their behavior is to the child. If they can’t or won’t get it, then be prepared to tell someone who can help the child. Every situation is different so there is no one person who is the right one to tell. But there is almost always someone who cares enough about a child to go to any lengths to protect them. Find that person and at least make the effort to help.
Colin Powell speaks passionately about the importance of the community system that exists to protect children. He also speaks about the lack of one and challenges each one of us to action, when he says “When that community system doesn’t exist, we can’t sit back and say ‘well, that’s too bad.’ The rest of us have to step forward.” If you have a child who is suffering or know a child who is suffering, please take some action to help.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Adult-generated questions typically do not lend themselves to spontaneous sharing and closeness. Quite the opposite. You are setting the agenda and your child is going to do the very best they can to give you answers that are pleasing to you. Far better to greet your child warmly and happily, genuinely expressing your hope that they had a great time. Then get into settling them back in to your home and their life with you. Trust that your child will share with you if and when they get the urge. Your job, Mom or Dad, is to nurture a relationship with your child that encourages and supports honest communication.
You may think you're being subtle when you indirectly, covertly, and ever so gently probe for more information and yet more details. Children aren't fooled. Depending on their age, they'll tell you what you want to hear to please you and reassure you, or they might decide to challenge you or even confront the fact that you are putting them squarely in the middle between two people they love.
If you really want information from your child about his or her life that will bring you closer together, then let it emerge naturally as the two of you spend positive and enjoyable time doing activities you both like. Listen actively to your child's verbal and nonverbal communication. Active listening requires your full attention, not focus divided between the child and driving or the child and a cellphone or email or whatever.
Knowing your child demands an investment of time, energy and focus on your part as a parent that can reap great rewards in the form of a close and loving relationship built on trust and honesty. Check yourself. Make sure you really want that deep, personal knowledge about your child and that you're not just hunting for ammunition to use in your adult war. Self-honesty is where genuine connection begins.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Here is my version from the point of view of a 2-home kid!! Peace means my family living in harmony with each other without conflict or hostility and each of us feeling safe, valued and respected.
Some co-parents came from a place of peace this week here at Hannah's House. A co-parent offered make-up time to the other parent when it was not required by anyone - it was an act of generosity, an act of peace. Another parent said yes to a request that their co-parent be able to spend their birthday with the child when the issue of the parents' birthdays had never even been addressed in a court order. To some people, these may seem like small even inconsequential acts. But not to the 2 home kids effected by these acts of parental kindness.
These are huge wins for the child. Every child wants to feel like Team Mom and Team Dad are fully rooting for the child to win, to succeed, to feel loved, and to feel treasured. Saying yes to your co-parent can be a wonderful gift for your child. Offering your co-parent something extra, something above and beyond what is expected or ordered can ultimately be a wonderful gift of generosity to yourself in terms of the good will it can create in your co-parenting relationship.
Everybody wins if your child feels loved by both parents.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
What do you think?
scenario 1: One parent carefully chooses new toys for his or her children. The children are delighted with the gifts and have fun playing with them with the parent. The other parent picks the children up, takes the new toys away from them and throws the toys in the garbage or immediately drops them off at a charity for donation.
Scenario 2: One parent trims the child's hair. The other parent doesn't like it so they shave the child's head.
Scenario 3: One parent gives 28 days written notice for vacation instead of 30 because of late confirmation on an annual family reunion. The other parents says no because the request was 2 days late.
Clearly parents rationalize each of these choices. And, if honest, they would admit to some satisfaction in thwarting the parent's happiness or peace. Some parents not only rationalize but practice denial of the reality that they are harming their children by, in the first example, actively demonstrating their intolerance for the other parent; in the second example, using the child as a tool to covertly criticize the other parent; and, in the third example, use a technicality to deprive the child of contact with the extended family of the other parent.
Go ahead and indulge yourself in the fantasy of getting back at the other parent. That can be a healthy exercise when you still have a lot of unresolved anger, disappointment and hurt feelings. But when it comes time to take action, think about your kids. Think about what you should do in their best interest for a life unburdened by the need to take care of you and your adult concerns and worries. If you do that, in a reasonably honest fashion, you will probably take the high road most of the time.
Taking the high road as a coparent means bearing some discomfort from time to time, letting the other parent benefit from a decision, and giving up a couple of hours or days so your children gets a "yes" instead of "it's not my fault your mother/father can never....." Go ahead and try it -- let them have the positive experience of you taking the high road and modeling compromise for their sake.
You will end up feeling better about yourself and your children will be happier because they don't have to deal with your revenge and moral superiority. Harsh? Maybe for some parents it is. But for many who continue to say no out of spite long after it's time to move on, it's a fair assessment.
Monday, April 26, 2010
For discussion purposes, the MPAA offers the following rating structure for movies:
* Rated G: General Audiences — All ages admitted
* Rated PG: Parental Guidance Suggested — Some material may not be suitable for children.
* Rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned
* Rated R: Restricted — Under 17 requires accompanying by a parent or adult guardian
* Rated NC-17: No one 17 and under admitted
Note that a common criticism of the rating structure is that sex is considered more objectionable than violence which results in excessive and extremely graphic violence being allowed in PG-13 movies. Consider that current research findings show a link between childrens' exposure to R-rated movies and early drinking, smoking, and both violent and sexual behavior. The research also suggests that children who see R-rated movies become more prone to sensation seeking and risk taking.
The reality is that children of all ages are sometimes exposed to subject matter and situations just as a part of life that may make some parents cringe. No matter how thoughtful and protective a parent may be, things happen in life that are unexpected and unplanned. That said, parents need to exercise control and provide guidance consistently when they can. And I don’t mean when the parent is rested and happy and content, etc. Not realistic. Parenting means being consistent, making tough calls, and tolerating discomfort with our children no matter how we are feeling.
So figure out what your values are and get clear about your rules in the areas of movies, television, games, and media in general. Then lay it out for your kids, engage in dialogue, enforce when necessary, and engage in dialogue again. Since no parent can protect a child 100% of the time, dialogue is critical if a parent is to have a meaningful impact in shaping their child’s values and behavior over time.
If you have at least a cordial coparenting relationship with the other parent then put this on the agenda for a coparenting meeting whether you do those by phone, email, or in person. Talk about your views and find out what the similarities and differences are. Where they vary, engage in dialogue. Don’t preach, belittle, or rant. Just talk. Share the basis for your views within your comfort zone in the coparenting relationship, but don't try or expect to change the other person’s point of view. Get clear about his or her values and rules and then you can respectfully disagree if that is the case. Each parent has the opportunity and the responsibility to teach children critical-thinking and self-assessment skills. That’s where you want to put your focus and your energy.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
So let's say you stick to your guns and keep the focus on the issue at hand and you get the kids to bed. Once they are down for the night, and you get a cup of tea, you sit down at the computer and email your co-parent. The response you get back makes it clear that either your child fabricated a tall tale or your co-parent has. In this situation, you probably want to give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt. The moral development of children can be a great mystery in just about any family situation, but the issue of honesty tends to be a particular challenge for children living between 2 homes.
This developmental issue in and of itself makes a good case for the critical importance of a good-enough co-parenting relationship between the parents/important adults responsible for 2 home kids. The more estranged the adults, the more likely it is that children will use that communication gap to manipulate the truth and their way out of uncomfortable situations in both homes. Parents sometimes contribute to or even cause the problem by being dishonest themselves about why they don't speak to the other parent. If you are a model of blame and rationalization when it comes to your co-parenting relationship, then you have set the tone for your children, and not in a helpful way.
Truth-telling takes courage, sometimes a lot of it. Most 2 home kids have seen eye-rolling, grimaces, and smirks when talking about the absent parent in the other parent's home. Or they may have heard sighs, grunts, and inappropriate adult communications about that parent. This leads them, too often, to feel like they need to hide any positive feelings they have for a parent when in the others' home. It will definitely have a negative impact on their self-esteem and their ability to trust the people closest to them. And it will shape the way they think about truth and honesty in relationships.
While children need and deserve to be protected from all the gory details of the divorce/separation/adult relationship, they also need and deserve honesty when it comes to both parent's acknowledgment of their own deficits in being an effective co-parent and doing so without the defenses of blame and rationalization. If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize or ask for forgiveness. Then work at doing better, don't just give lip service. An honest effort to do a better job at co-parenting goes a long way with 2 home kids working at learning how to go back and forth between 2 parents they love very much.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
We want our children to be safe physically, mentally and emotionally. Parents do everything in their power to protect their children. And sometimes, no matter how good a job a parent has done with that, bad things happen to good people. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way it is sometimes. Children fall down and get hurt. Children get diagnosed with illness. Children get hurt by other people. Children end up in situations that are risky or dangerous and it’s not because they haven’t done everything we have taught them to do to stay safe. It’s because we cannot control everything and everybody. We cannot predict the intentions and motivations of other people our children encounter. We can only do our very best to safeguard our children.
Inevitably, our children will get hurt – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and we cannot prevent that. Not completely. And when they get hurt we second guess ourselves by asking what we did wrong or what our child did wrong. We try desperately to understand how this could have been prevented. We struggle to find some way to believe that we are not powerless sometimes to protect our children. This is a painful reality for a parent to really accept because it is frightening to feel that lack of power.
A young girl in our local community is missing. A registered sex offender has been arrested on suspicion of rape and murder. She went running in a busy community park after school during the afternoon. School dismissed at 2:30 pm. By 5:30 pm, her father was driving around the neighborhood looking for her because she was late getting home on her usual schedule and it was not like her to fail to communicate about that to her parents. Our local paper ran an editorial this morning titled “Teach your children well.” The editorial concludes with: “We still don’t know what happened in this case. But anyone can make a mistake and let her guard down. And, tragically, in the world in which we live, it only takes one mistake. Parents, teach your children well.”
Really?! A mistake?! How can this editorial board consider, even for a moment, that this young woman did something wrong? It’s an automatic, unthinking and defensive response of people who desperately want to believe that this could have been prevented if only the young girl had…done what? Not gone running as she had hundreds of other school day afternoons in that very park? Taken her cell phone and, what, made a phone call to 911 after the guy probably blind-sided her with a body slam to the ground which is what he did to a previous victim who escaped? The suggestion that this girl did anything wrong or that her parents failed her in any way is a tragedy. No doubt there are some things that could have led to a different outcome but those preventive solutions that are far too late for this family and have absolutely nothing to do with her. Some of the responsibility lies with the judicial and correctional systems. And, ultimately, the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the brutal human being who hurt her.
Parents do the very best they can. Children do, too. The nature of being human is that we struggle sometimes with the best and worst in ourselves and in others. And sometimes, no matter how vigilant and positive and successful and careful we are, bad things happen to good people. When this happens, the only thing we can really do is reach out to each other for sustenance and support and healing. I strive to be the kind of parent, friend and community member who understands that sometimes there is no way to prevent the hurt that comes with just living life. I want to be someone who helps with the healing. And I hope that if I ever blame someone living life as thoughtfully and carefully as they possibly can for a horror that befalls them that is completely outside their ability to conceive let alone control, that someone gives me a great big smack on the head and says “knock it off you arrogant, insensitive moron.”
Monday, February 1, 2010
Given that, the first thing you want to do is acknowledge what an important topic it is, “This sounds really important.”
Second, assure the child you will answer their questions and make a commitment to do that soon, like sometime in the next day (24 hours.) “I will sit down and talk with you about this before bedtime tomorrow night. I want to make sure we have the time to talk about this at a time when we both can focus on it.” Don’t answer spontaneously on the spur of the moment. Even if you think you might be able to handle it, don’t take the risk that you might blow it in even small ways.
Third, immediately email or call your most trusted, reliable, balanced adult confidante and start talking it through with them. Prepare, prepare, prepare...the three most important factors in discussing divorce with your child.
Prior to having this discussion with your child is a great time to refresh yourself on the developmental tasks and stressors that are a part of your child’s life just based on their age. Even though it may feel like it to you sometimes, every problem or challenge in the life of a child is not because of the divorce or separation. Clearly it’s not easy to sort out where the trigger is sometimes, but it is really important to broaden your perspective and remember that life offers its own challenges for each of us just because we are alive and on the planet and trying to live a life.
Once you have grounded yourself through dialogue with a trusted confidante and oriented yourself about ordinary developmental stressors, initiate the conversation with your child. If your preparation has been done well, you will be able to (1) stay focused on your child’s needs not your own, (2) answer their questions in a child-friendly manner that protects them from adult burdens and emotions, and (3) let them know that you have your own struggles with accepting the changes in your family.
Your goals are to (1) provide emotional support, (2) share age-appropriate information for the purpose of reducing anxiety and (3) connect as openly and honestly as you can. If the child asks about money or sex tell them those are adult matters that are the responsibility of the grown-ups - tell them that even if, or especially if, it is clear that the other parent has already told them way too many details! Somebody needs to be an adult in this situation if they are actually an adult -- meaning kids cannot be in the adult role!! You only have control of yourself so make sure that you make the right choice.
Do affirm that the changes are final and share how difficult that is.
Don’t offer false hope of reunification.
Do reassure your child in the love of both of his or her parents.
Don’t even hint that one parent is preferred over the other.
Do remind your child that the changes are not his or her fault, that they are those of the adults.
Don’t use your child as a go-between to create distance between the child and his or her other parent.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Really? How many topics in your child’s life are you neutral about? Health? School? Toys? Friends? Video Games? Television? Grooming? Manners? Clothes? Sex? Drugs? Alcohol? Cigarettes? Religion? Politics? The truth is that parents aren’t neutral about much of anything in a child’s life and that’s a good thing because adequate parenting means caring, commitment, concern, involvement, engagement, participation. In short, parenting requires all of the things that neutral is not. If we’re really neutral about something, it means we’re unconcerned, nonchalant, not personally connected, casual about our involvement, comfortable with not taking part and comfortable with not giving assistance or support. And that describes someone who is not a good parent when it comes to anything that is important to our child.
No. Neutral is not what parents are toward their child, especially when it comes to the child’s other parent. And if you are really working at being neutral then your child feels it and it doesn’t feel good. How does it feel when someone you care deeply about responds to your need for recognition, love, support and approval with a lack of concern or interest? We all have had that experience in an important relationship. And we all know exactly how it feels. It feels awful and we struggle to understand why that other person that is so vital in our life is treating us as if they don’t love us, they don’t care, as if we don’t matter to them. To a child with a parent working at being neutral about something the child feels strongly about, neutral feels like rejection, abandonment, a lack of love. It feels like Mommy or Daddy suddenly goes away.
So what do you do? You keep your focus on your child and their enthusiasm, not on the topic. Imagine that your child is talking about anyone or anything he or she loves and feels excited about. You’re supporting your child’s sense of wonder and connection to the world. Keep your focus there and you will be able to engage. Say “that sounds fun!” or “You are so lucky!” It’s your job to find a way to connect to your child and support him or her in exploring the world and in feeling safe and happy in the knowledge that they can tell you anything and you will not go away.
If you continue to struggle with staying connected to your child when they are talking about the other parent, then get some help from other adults. Friends, family, a therapist, a spiritual advisor – find someone you can talk to about the adult feelings and reactions you have when the other parent is the focus of the child. Talk it through and practice until you develop the ability to stay focused on your little one. When you disconnect from your child it affects your relationship with him or her in potentially profound ways and you need to work at figuring out how to change that. Being a parent of a two home child is not easy sometimes. It requires skills that are new and different from parenting a child with both parents in one home. Acknowledge that to yourself, remind yourself when you forget how challenging it really is, and reconnect to yourself in a forgiving way.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Most of our kids are back in school after the Winter Break or are about to go back and all the new stuff from the gift-giving frenzy of the holidays is finding a home. For our 2 home kids this can be stressful if there are strings attached to the gifts, especially if it’s not talked about and they have to guess. For example, a young girl gets dressed for school and is ready to walk out the door to catch the bus. Her father says, “Hey. What are you doing? You can’t wear that jacket today. Your Mom is picking you up after school and that jacket belongs here. I bought that jacket. It’s brand new!” Bam! First she heard of it! Silly girl, she thought the gift was for her, not for her Dad or her Dad’s ‘house.’ Of course some parents and step-parents just have to say more, like “you know that nothing ever comes back from your Mom’s house.” Now the happy girl, excited about seeing her friends and showing off her new clothes is angry, resentful, embarrassed, and so on. And why? Because Dad didn’t tell her when he gave her the present that there were restrictions on it. And, by the way, he didn’t tell her as part of the preparation to go back to school and back on the regular sharing schedule. He waited until the last minute when it would absolutely be guaranteed to create some kind of tension.
Now, some of you are probably already having a dialogue with yourself or somebody else about this issue. You may be a person who thinks that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on gifts given to kids…that if you give a gift it belongs to the receiver or it’s not really a gift. Or you may believe it is reasonable for parents of 2 home kids to have some items that always stay in 1 home. Or you may be a parent who resents the other parent ever being able to see or touch anything that was bought with your own money so you make sure that never happens. And so on. There are many points of view on this…and we are not getting in to that part of it. This is about clear communication from the parent to the child and it is about the parent taking responsibility in a direct way for whatever his or her rule is about gifts/stuff bought and given in his or her house.
So who ‘owns’ the jacket and how do you safeguard resources without burdening your children? The discussion about what does and does not go back and forth between the 2 homes should start early. Some parents start it at the time of the parental separation by making sure the child makes choices about what goes to Mom’s house and what goes to Dad’s house from the very beginning. The parent makes it clear just what items are controlled by the parent and which are items the child gets to make the decision about. Sometimes you can communicate this limit when the discussion first starts about something the child wants. Your son or daughter’s birthday is in a few months and they let you know they really want a new bicycle or a PlayStation or Wii or laptop or iPod. Let them know right away if it will be available to go back and forth or if it will be a 1 home gift only.
While it is important to be consistent with your approach, you don’t want to be too rigid about it. For example if the Wii doesn’t go back and forth between homes but the child is having a birthday party sleep over with friends at the other parents house where there is not a Wii and they really want to play Rock Band it would be a great idea to be flexible for that special occasion. The good will you build between you and your child will feel great to both of you. So remember, it’s not that important what limits you set or why they are important to you. What matters is that you are clear and open with your child about what the rules are. It makes going back and forth a little bit easier for everybody!