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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Don't Become an Adversary to Your Child!

Family breakup is a disruptive process that feels chaotic for all family members, and traumatic for some. Parents are responsible to work together to make sure that everyone in the family makes a successful transition to a new family structure that feels safe and secure and loving.

Some parents are unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for this basic parenting role. Instead they invest energy in blame, sabotage and competition. The traditional adversarial Family Court process sets up and reinforces this win/lose approach to sharing children, resulted in children who feel divided and conflicted. It is easy for parents to get swept up in the contest to present the most compelling story to a theoretically neutral judge who decides whether Mom or Dad is the most convincing. In criminal systems, this process is sometimes referred to as accusatorial.

When accused, our immediate reaction is to defend. Especially when our bond to our child is at stake. Yet, investing in defense, documentation, zealous representation and advocacy does not leave resources of time or money for parenting. Children can't be put on a shelf while Mom and Dad fight it out. As difficult as it is, at least one parent needs to focus on the immediate daily needs and routines of the child or the outcome will be defeat for the little ones, regardless of which parent "wins."

You chose each other to co-create a child. The history and the details of your personal choice are matters for you to explore and understand, not stories to be used to injure, exploit, and harm your child.

Here is a list of "don'ts" for you, if you are the parent who is serious about protecting your child and truly placing your child's needs above the competition and battle between you and your coparent:

Don't say negative things to your children about your coparent.
Don't interfere with or limit your child's time with your coparent.
Don't block phone messages, letters, cards, or gifts from your coparent.
Don't make it difficult for your child to reach and communicate with your coparent.
Don't express displeasure when your child talks about or shows pictures of time with your coparent. Don't detach from your child when he shows affection for or says positive things about your coparent.
Don't say or imply that your coparent doesn't love your child.
Don't create situations that pressure your child to reject your coparent or to choose you instead.
Don't say things to make your child feel unsafe or insecure with your coparent.
Don't confide in your child about adult matters that your child shouldn't know, like marital concerns or financial disputes.
Don't ask your child to spy on or secretly obtain information about your coparent and report back to you.
Don't ask your child to keep secrets from your coparent about things your coparent should have been informed about.
Don't refer to your coparent by their first name or by a formal address and their last name (e.g. Ms Smith) when talking to your child.
Don't refer to your new partner or spouse as Mom or Dad and expect your child to do the same.
Don't pressure your child to rely only on your opinion and approval.
Don't encourage your child to disregard or think less of your coparent's rules, values, and authority.
Don't make it hard for your child or make your child feel bad about spending time with your coparent's extended family.
Don't create situations in which your child will be angry with or hurt by your coparent.

Many parents who read this list find themselves repeatedly saying or thinking "But..." "But..." "But..." That is the nature of an adversarial/accusatorial system of problem resolution. When you find yourself defending and reacting, take a deep breath and shift your focus and energy to your child!

Focus on being positive, taking the high road, and being fully present to love and nurture your child when you are with them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Why Isn't This Considered Child Abuse?

A 5 year old returns to his mother's house and asks his step-father, "does my mommy really love my daddy more than she loves you?" An 8 year old returns from a week-end spent with her father, and tells her mother "it's your fault that daddy doesn't have any money anymore." A 14 year old, angry when her father won't buy her a new cell phone, tells her father "you're a loser anyway who can't even pay child support and spends all your money on your girlfriend." The parent who hears these words from a child rarely reacts in a helpful way to the child because it is so clear the child is echoing something heard in the home of the other parent. And the immediate response is almost always in reaction to the other parent, as the parent demands "why would your mommy tell you that?" Or exclaims "your daddy has plenty of money?" Or sarcastically says "gee, I wonder where you heard that?!"

The parents who talk to their children or even in front of their children about the child's other parent are engaging in parental alienation behaviors. For most parents, these moments are rare and typically occur only in the first few months of the transition from living together in one home to living apart in two homes. These hurtful disclosures are also rarely intentional and most parents regret the words almost as soon as they are spoken when they realize the hurt they have inflicted on their child.

Unfortunately about 10-15% of parents struggling with family break up either don't notice that they are hurting their child, or they don't care because they place a much higher priority on making sure that the child knows which one of their parents is good and which one is bad, which one is right and which one is wrong. These parents have deficits, either temporary or permanent, that prevent them from being able to protect their children from abuse and maltreatment.

So why isn't it child abuse when a parent repeatedly engages in behavior that is clearly harmful to the child? The answer is complicated. Children are rarely protected from the psychological abuse of a parent, whether the family situation emerges in a Juvenile Court context (Welfare & Institutions Code) and or in a Family Court context (Family Code.) The exception in both Juvenile Court and Family Court is domestic violence. Children exposed to domestic violence in the home are considered to have been victims of child abuse and the law requires that those children be protected from further abuse. Exposure includes visual and/or auditory and does not include any physical abuse of the child.

Domestic violence exposure was not always considered to be child abuse. It came to be categorized as child abuse as a direct result of research documenting the devastating effects on children exposed to parental violence. The harm to these child victims of exposure to domestic violence occurred regardless of whether the domestic violence between the adults included physical harm to one of the adults. Perhaps the research on parental alienation behaviors will eventually result in similar changes to the law in order to protect children exposed to parental psychological abuse from a life time of problems startlingly similar to those documented in children exposed to parental domestic violence: low self-esteem leading to depression and alcohol/drug addiction; relationship difficulties involving psychological control and manipulation; and excessive dependency on others for approval and attention that prevents self-sufficiency and adequate adult adjustment.

Parents who use parental alienation strategies with the intent of harming the child's relationship with their other parent, can be considered to be psychologically maltreating their children. The expression of these strategies inevitably and directly results in children feeling worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another's needs, a commonly accepted definition of psychological maltreatment proposed by Binggeli, Hart, & Brassard.

Parents who use alienating strategies also behave in other ways that add the child's feeling of being abused and mistreated. They intrude on the child's life in every area in order to prevent the child from feeling comfortable or safe anywhere except in the presence of the abusive parent. Parents who abuse their children lack empathy and are unable to accept or acknowledge any needs or perceptions the child may express that are different form those of the parent. This lack of empathy and intolerance of interpersonal differences are the hallmarks of the child abuser.

For now, it is an unusual experience for a child victim of parental alienation behaviors to be removed from or protected from the abusive, intrusive parent. The parent's constitutional rights usually take precedence over the child's need for safety and security because there is not adequate proof or belief that the child needs protection. When a judge does see and understand the profound psychological damage to the child, they find themselves stuck for adequate intervention strategies. In most communities, there just are not adequate resources available to provide all members of an estranged and traumatized family with any hope of finding some peace and resolution. Hopefully, these community challenges will be addressed.

These real world realities and limitations do not change the fact that it's child abuse. Any parenting behavior engaged in with the intent of doing harm to a child's sense of love, safety and well-being in their family relationships is, in fact, child abuse. Perhaps it's time to just call it what it is instead of denying it. Like any real problem that interferes with a positive life, the first step to being able to solve a problem is to admit that it is a problem.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Coparenting Means Parents Supporting Each Other for the Good of the Child

Many parents give no thought to coparenting until they separate. This is unfortunate because coparenting actively begins around the time that discussions about conception of a child begin or, at the latest, immediately after conception. Parents make a multitude of decisions on behalf of the in-utero child from the basics of health and nutrition to the more advanced idea of implementing the findings from research on music and language exposure during gestation. For parents who complete marriage preparation classes, coparenting discussions may begin long before the parents even marry. The basic question each member of a couple needs to answer and share with his or her partner is "How will I support you in becoming a parent?" Once the child is born and begins to grow and develop, the question changes slightly to "How will I support you in becoming a better parent?"

The  concept of coparenting mutual support is particularly important because we know from the research that coparenting problems at 2 years of age can predict 7-year-old childrens' psychological problems, including somatic (body) complaints (my tummy hurts), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactiviy Disorder (ADHD). These findings emerged from an examination of coparenting couples who were cooperative with one another versus competitive with one another, as well as couples where one coparent had a harsh style of discipline. The psychological problems in children occurred as a result of the competitive coparenting relationships, but not the cooperative coparenting, or those in which a parent was a harsh disciplinarian.

Successfully transitioning from married to divorced coparenting is complicated and challenging for any coparenting couple, but particularly so when the parents have had a competitive coparenting relationship. Simply put, these are parents who believe that he or she knows the best way to parent and has worked to prevail in decision making and active parenting by overriding, overwhelming, shaming, controlling, or simply ignoring their coparenting partner. The transition from 1 home to 2 homes is probably going to be painful for the children with poor outcomes in almost every life area, unless both parents learn to do three things.

First, focus on the children rather than him or herself or their competition, the other coparent. Second, regulate their emotional responses by learning to let go of divorce/separation anger as quickly as possible. And, third, choose carefully the battles about time and money rather just letting loose at every perceived opportunity.

For some people, these 3 important tasks/skills can be learned in a coparenting class. For others, some individual coaching and support may be more helpful. And for still others, typically those who have unhealed childhood traumas or devastating adult traumas, education combined with some personal therapy may be necessary. It is the responsibility of the parent to recognize and protect the vulnerability of the child rather than exploit it. Unfortunately, the competitive coparent will almost always exploit the child by actively engaging the child in the court battle and the adult issues.

If you find yourself coparenting with a competitive coparent, than find other social coparents in your circle of friends, family and community to provide kind, loving and nurturing adult models for your child. You can't change your child's legal coparent but you can certainly work actively to provide some health and balance sot that your child gets to have the experience of seeing parent-figures supporting each other for the good of the child.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Putting Your Child First - Time, Intention, Effort

For many years, I have used the metaphor of a PLANT to teach basic parenting skills. P is for protecting. LA is for listening actively. N is for nurturing. T is for teaching. The basic idea is that the child, like the plant, needs to be thoughtfully placed in the proper environment; watched for signs of health and thriving versus signs of deprivation; provided adequate amounts of sun, shade, water, and fertilizer; and pruned at the right time in the right way for maximum health and growth. The child, like the plant, cannot thrive if it is left in its pot, placed haphazardly wherever it is convenient, then passed by with occasional thoughts of "I really need to move that, plant that, water that, prune that, fertilize that" and so on.

Unlike a plant, we can't just throw away the neglected child and go find or buy a new one. Neglect of a child, if unmitigated by enough positive parenting, can lead to a lifetime of challenges and struggles. Bringing a child into the world is a choice, whether we make that decision through a planned and loving decision with a committed partner or through an unplanned pregnancy. But neglect of a child is rarely a conscious choice for a parent. Neglect emerges in the context of our own life challenges and struggles when they overwhelm our ability to meet even the very basic needs of a child.

Once a parent is overwhelmed, children are at risk unless there is adequate support in the circle of people who love that child and in the community which supports all of the children who live there. Unfortunately, parents often don't discover the lack of support until they desperately need it. They must rely on luck, fate and the kindness of strangers to help them find their way. This is especially true when the break-up of the family is the source of the stress, and the circle of people who love the child begin to take sides, break into camps, and badmouth the group on the other side of the divide.

What does all of this have to do with "Putting Your Child First - Time, Intention, Effort?" Putting our children first is easy and enjoyable when we enough resources internally and externally to do so. When a family breaks apart, no one is the same. The emotional and physical changes are dramatic. Children suddenly feel afraid that a parent who has left will never come back; that the parent who stays may quit loving them, too; that their heart will break.

Children can't wait for a parent to stabilize after the capsize of the family any more than a plant can wait for someone to notice that they are dying from a lack of care. Children need to be "put first" as quickly as possible during family transition and parents need to keep it as simple as possible. Children don't need big amounts of toys/goodies, money, or special outings. Children do need frequent and reliable focused tending from both parents and with anyone in the circle of people who love them that would be usual for them, pre-breakup!

Research on families in transition has taught us that there are a couple of things parents can do daily that will build a stable bridge to a new life for everyone in the family. First, pay attention to the daily/weekly transitions for the child to ensure routine, preparation and predictability; and, second, show warmth and affection toward your child at least once a day! So, if parents focus on just 3 things during the first hour or so of the day, children will make it through the major changes safely: time, intention, and effort.

All 3 can be accomplished with few just a moments of the day. Each time you leave your child or reunify with your child, greet him or her, make eye contact, smile, hug, kiss, and take a moment to connect. Tell and show the child you are happy to see them, or tell them when you will see them next, not that you missed them or that you will miss them. "I missed you" takes on a whole new meaning when the child is now separated from you due to catastrophic life changes over which they have no control.  Don't burden them with your sense of loss. Make transitions warm, secure and routine. This one focused change conveys to the child all of the elements of time, intention and effort because they feel it, they experience it every time there is a transition.

Experience is how children learn about themselves and about the world, including how to be in a close and loving relationship which is what they learn from us, their parents! Parents don't need to be a perfect gardener for their growing child, just good enough. For the plant, enough sun, enough shade, enough water, enough food, and enough pruning. For the child, enough protection, enough listening actively, enough nurturing and and enough teaching.

Song: Plant a Radish

Monday, May 11, 2015

Estrangement Can Be a Natural Result of Distant/Insensitive Parenting

When children don't want to spend time with a parent, it is much easier to blame someone else in the child's life rather than taking a good long look in the mirror to find answers. It's easier to point the finger at the other parent and say the children are simply repeating what they have been told.

What if, instead, you ask for feedback about your style of parenting from people who are more likely to be objective?

Here are some people you could approach:
1  You could ask the teachers of your children, unless you don't know them.
2  You could ask the coaches of your children's teams, unless you don't have a relationship with them.
3  You could ask the counselors who have been court-ordered to provide support to your children, unless you have refused to take your children to the counseling.
4  You could ask the children's pediatrician or dentist, unless you have never met them, made an inquiry, introduced yourself, or gone to an appointment.
5  You could ask the parents of the children that your children hand out with, unless you have no idea who they are,

If you discover that you don't have anyone objective to approach, then you have some decisions to make, the first of which is getting honest with yourself about what is going on! Perhaps no one is trying to alienate your children from you. Instead, maybe they have become estranged from you as a direct result of your choices.

While it is much easier to reassure yourself by saying "well, that's how I was raised and I turned out just fine," you may decide that it is time to get serious about the direct effects of your parenting style, behavior and choices on your children.

If you do that then start trying to find ways to connect with other Moms or Dads who are finding ways to have a meaningful presence in the life of their 2 home child, and who who have a warm and positive relationship!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

To Turn a Child Against a Parent Is To Turn A Child Against Himself / Herself

"Parental alienation" is a controversial label. In part this is related to Dr. Richard Gardner's early attempts to create a diagnostic category of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The attempt was well-intentioned and opened an area of discussion and inquiry that contributed significantly to awareness and understanding a critical dynamic in many Family Court cases. PAS itself was, not surprisingly, discredited. The reasons are complicated and varied, and relate directly to the extraordinary diversity of problematic family dynamics which present in families as they separate and then reconstitute in new formations.

Dr. Douglas Darnall, author of Divorce Casualties, further contributed to this important topic when he sought to differentiate PAS, the syndrome, from the alienating behaviors coparents use to diminish each others parental roles when caught in a struggle over custody of a child. His contribution was essential to ensuring that the dynamic itself did not disappear from our conversations with mothers, fathers, and other adults in care-providing roles with a child learning to live between 2 homes.

Dr. Richard A. Warshak, author of Divorce Poison, has also made significant contributions to our exploration of those parental behaviors designed to turn a child against his or her parent. His book is an excellent resource for parents who have been designated by the court system as "High-Conflict" as they try to understand how their own behavior may contribute to the stress on the children.

While there is still no consensus on the issue of Parental Alienation, most mental health professionals with forensic experience know that many parents compete for the love and favor of their children during difficult family transitions rather than working to shield their children from the stress and strain of the adult traumas. This fear-and-anger fueled competition leads to behaviors which hurt children, though often not intentionally. Few parents set out with the goal of hurting their own children as they work so hard to carve out a significant place in their child's life.

Rather parental behaviors which alienate the child from the other parent and, ultimately, from him or herself, occur out of a sense of desperation, powerlessness, or hopelessness. No parent knows how he or she might respond if the vital role of Mom or Dad is threatened in a profound and lasting way. Parents in that position are often quick to explain that they would never say anything bad about the other parent to their son or daughter. These parents don't realize that words are not required. The negativity toward the other parent is usually felt so deeply by the child that no words are necessary. 

Losing time with and the opportunity to care for a child is painful for a parent. Losing a sense of safety and security in the world is terrifying for a child. The child's need for reassurance must trump the parent's need for self-worth if that parental sense of integrity comes at the expense of the child's innocence and trust in those who are supposed to ensure it. If you are struggling with your own sense of competence and worth as you make difficult family transitions, reach out for help. There are coparenting classes, support groups, and affordable therapeutic services for families in transition. You do not have to do it alone.

San Diego's Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House provides these support services and more. Email today