Sunday, December 19, 2010

Does Ridicule Stop Alienation?

I just read about a recent high conflict divorce case in Ontario, Canada in the December 17th national paper, the Globe and Mail. It has gone viral around the internet in both the US and Canada, because the judge "turned to ridicule" in handing down his custody decision. He said he used this as a "last resort" in a case where the parents were "immune to reason." He pointed out how the mother had alienated the 13-year-old daughter against her father and how the father had regularly engaged in insulting behavior and giving the mother "the finger."


I can certainly empathize with Judge Joseph Quinn’s frustration, and I quoted him favorably in my book “Don’t Alienate the Kids!” regarding a previous case of his. However, I think ridicule misses the point and often makes things worse. He points out that both husband and wife may have personality disorders requiring treatment. (From my experience as a lawyer and clinical social worker, in 50-65% of high conflict cases, there is one parent with a personality disorder – most often borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder – and the other parent is just trying to cope and protect the children.) But if a parent (one or both) has a personality disorder, then they are truly “immune to reason,” and need properly structured treatment, not ridicule.

This is comparable to the way we used to treat alcoholics and addicts in the legal system, trying to motivate them by criticizing and humiliating them. This approach failed miserably for years, as drunk drivers and others were admonished to stay sober, then went out to drive drunk again. We now know that they need a very structured and supportive recovery treatment program, focused on learning the daily skills of staying clean and sober, and managing stress and daily life in small steps with lots of repetition.

With this in mind, I think it would be better to treat high conflict parents with empathy, attention and respect – and (if both parents have a personality disorder) remove their children to a foster home while they get treatment for their disorders. I know of at least two cases where this was done in Ontario – Judge Quinn’s province.

Since there often is only one personality-disordered parent, it would help to have the court order the parents into a program like our New Ways for Families method (more about this on our website) which gives both parents short-term counseling separately and then with the children, to help the reasonable parent deal with the high conflict parent, and to see which parent is able to be reasonable and which parent isn’t.

It is often better in high conflict cases to expose the child to significant time with both parents in a “parallel parenting” structure, where each parent has significant time with the children, but minimal contact with each other. That way the children aren’t “stuck” with one parent’s behavior and point of view. They learn multiple ways of solving problems and they learn that one parent’s extreme behaviors are not accepted by everyone. Child alienation (parental alienation) grows when a child is heavily exposed to a parent with all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. If there is just one parent with a personality disorder, then in at least half or more of the cases, the child can learn reasonable skills from the other parent.

Verbal admonishments don’t change the behavior of high-conflict people. Skills training does in some cases – with structure, encouragement, repetitive practice and clear consequences. And if one parent doesn’t show sufficient change in a reasonable period of time, then children are better off with the parent who is “reason-able” – or someone else if neither parent is able to reason. High conflict parents need to be ordered into treatment, rather than admonished, humiliated, and allowed to raise their children as usual.

Even though I believe Judge Quinn’s attempt to motivate these parents with ridicule will fail (humorous as it was), hopefully it will motivate the public to get personality disordered parents into treatment and out of family court. Please refer to my book, "Don't Alienate The Kids!" and don't forget to comment.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Should I Just Let Go?

In this holiday season, here are some thoughts on one of the most important issues for parents coping with an alienated child. Many alienated parents ask whether they should just let go. The child may ask you to just get out of his or her life, or you can see the tremendous stress your child is experiencing by having to please one parent by rejecting the other. It is a painful decision and many “rejected” parents do decide to stop all contact with their child, to relieve the child’s pain, especially after talking with their lawyer or the child’s counselor. It is often seen as a regretful, but necessary decision, as a way to end the conflict in the family.

As a social worker and family law attorney, I strongly encourage parents not to just let go. While it may make sense to back off some, I don’t believe it is in a child’s long-term interest to have a parent say goodbye. Children need two parents (as well as grandparents and other adults) to learn skills for life and an attitude that important conflicts should not be resolved with all-or-nothing decisions.

For many years it was common for professionals to advise their clients to just let go and simply wait until the child was 18 and could act (and supposedly think) for him or herself. Then the alienated child would reconcile with the alienated parent and they would get along just fine. But from my professional experience and recent research, many children remain alienated well into adulthood.

For example, in her recent book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Amy Baker reports that it was 20 years before many of the adult children reconciled with their rejected parents. However, once reconciled, many of these adult children said that they wished that their alienated parents had not let go. They desperately wanted to know that the rejected parent still loved them and had tried to maintain some contact, even if it was an occasional card or gift.

After 30 years of working with children and families, it is clear to me that children maintain a relationship with each of their parents in their minds. Children need their parents’ love – both parents’ love. Even if a parent has restricted contact with a child, because of court orders or requests from a child, all children want to know that they are loved – even by a “bad” parent. Many years ago I drove children to see their parents in prison – and the children loved their parents and learned from their parents, despite all of their extremely bad behavior. It’s not healthy or normal for a child to reject a parent.

So what’s an alienated parent to do? I think it’s best to say or write to your child something like this:

“I love you and I will never stop loving you, even if you try not to listen (or you tear up this letter). You need both of your parents, to learn from and to know there is more than one way to solve problems as you grow up. I can see the pain and frustration you are going through by having your parents in so much conflict these days. But losing contact with one of your parents is not a healthy solution. I wouldn’t want you to lose the important relationship you have with your mother/father, either. You need both of us in ways you can’t know or understand at this time. Therefore, I am going to back off a little bit, but I am going to send you occasional notes, cards and small gifts, to remind you of my love and to give you suggestions for how to solve life’s problems as you grow up. You can reject all of these, if you want to at the time. But I won’t abandon you in my efforts to help you as you grow up.”

Then you can send occasional notes, cards and small gifts, and include examples of successes in your life. Children love a winner, even if they can’t admit it. Share lessons you are learning in life that your child can also learn – especially life lessons that teach flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors (rather than all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors). Include support for the other parent in regard to some of his/her positive contributions. Don’t make it a parenting contest, even if the other parent does.

Whether or not your child has shut you out, it’s your child’s needs that are most important, and your child should know that you don’t think abandoning him or her is a healthy alternative. If the other parent hides these from your child, at least you will have them to show when your child is an adult and open to hearing from you.

Of course, it is best if you have the other parent’s support or court orders for an active relationship with your child. However, if you have tried your best to assert your parental role for your child’s benefit, and you are seriously considering letting go of your relationship with your child, then “backing off without letting go” seems to be a healthy compromise for some parents facing this dilemma. Send him or her a card or a small gift with a positive note. In the long run, you’re likely to be appreciated regardless of what they say now.Find more in my book "Don't Alienate The Kids!"

What do you think? Please comment. I value your opinion.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Best Parenting Skills

I just finished reading an article about best parenting skills, based on a large research study, in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind. It has some interesting results, which surprised me and also got me to thinking about the problems of borderlines and narcissists as parents – and how to respond to them.

The top four out of ten skills were:

1. Love and affection: Pretty obvious, I think. Supporting the child, focused time together and physical affection were the winners.

2. Stress management: This was a big surprise, but it makes sense. If you’re stressed, the child gets stressed. If you can demonstrate managing stress, your child has two benefits – an emotionally available parent and lessons for life about managing his or her own stress.

3. Relationship skills: This was also a surprise. Apparently if parents demonstrate healthy relationship skills with the other parent and other people, it rubs off on the kids. This isn’t something you can teach kids, except by showing kids.

4. Autonomy and independence: This makes a lot of sense. Help your child to be self-reliant and independent. Too much control and preoccupation with safety can actually backfire and has been shown to create a less happy parent-child relationship and less happy child.

Looking at these skills and understanding the opposite behavior of many high conflict parents (HCPs), helps explain why reasonable parents often face issues of child alienation and often have real concerns about abusive behavior by the HCP co-parent.

Borderlines have lots of mood swings and stress management is one of their biggest problems. Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy for treating borderlines, puts a big emphasis on teaching methods of “distress tolerance.” When some borderline parents (but not all) are distressed, they strike out physically or verbally at those around them, especially children who can’t argue back or leave. Narcissists often deal with stress by leaving or otherwise becoming very self-absorbed and emotionally unavailable. If managing stress is the second most important parenting skill, this is a great loss for any child.

Healthy relationship skills are particularly lacking for borderlines and narcissists (as I’m sure you know if you’ve read this far). Anger, rage, blame, withdrawal, alienation of friends and family, verbal and physical abuse, are all common characteristics of these behavior patterns – in fact, relationship deficits are part of the diagnosis of both of these personality disorders. Yet this is proving to be a very important part of parenting, even though it has nothing to do with how parents treat the children – its about parents treat each other.

Not allowing autonomy is another key characteristic of borderline parents – they cling to others, especially their children. They may fill them with fears of the world around them, of other people, and especially of the other parent. They reinforce being dependent on them and agreeing with them. When I hear a parent say their child totally agrees with him or her, it’s always a bad sign. Kids need autonomy and independence to grow into autonomous and independent adults.

So what’s a reasonable parent to do? Eliminate the child’s exposure to his or her High Conflict Parent? It’s a real dilemma, but I am convinced that the better solution is for the reasonable parent to do an extra good job of demonstrating these skills themselves. It’s a burden, but one that can be successful if the reasonable parent has sufficient time with the child to show stress management in his or her own life. Kids are truly more comfortable around a relaxed parent, even if the child acts rejecting – its great role-modeling for them and they do mirror both parents (regardless of what they say) to see what works in their own lives. This is important to know, if you are a “rejected” parent, so that you don’t share your stress and pass it to your child too much. (Of course, don’t stress yourself about being perfect at this!)

Likewise, you can demonstrate healthy relationship skills with a new partner and other significant people in your life and your child’s life. Even if the other parent is a borderline or narcissist, you can still show what it’s like to have healthy and happy relationships with those around you. Children are looking for the behaviors that work in their own lives, and healthy relationship behaviors are very appealing.

In short, do the best you can do with your own life and your time with your child as a reasonable parent. And someday the family court system will recognize that alienated children are the result of High Conflict Parents who lack key skills and are totally unaware of it – and require them to develop new skills. In many ways, the problem of child alienation in high conflict divorce is less what the other parent is doing, and more what positive skills the other parent is NOT doing. See: Don't Alienate The Kids!

What do you think? I am sure you have an opinion so please leave a comment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Should Parental Alienation be a Diagnosis?

I believe that some children are alienated against one of their parents for no specific appropriate reason. As a social worker, I believe that alienation can be a form of emotional abuse. As a lawyer, I have won changes of custody related to alienation. However, I do not believe that an alienated child should be diagnosed as having a mental disorder.( see: Don't Alienate The Kids!)

The American Psychiatric Association is currently considering revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The next edition is due to come out sometime in 2012 – the DSM-V (the fifth edition). The APA has decided to consider including Parental Alienation Disorder in the DSM-V. On the surface, this could be a good thing, as it would bring legitimacy to an issue which has been highly controversial and misunderstood. But under the surface, I believe that it would create more problems, for the following five reasons:

1. It will feed the Culture of Blame in Family Courts: If it is a psychiatric diagnosis, then family courts will become further bogged down in fights over the diagnosis and who is the “all-bad” parent causing the parental alienation. Such high-conflict court battles are a significant factor in causing alienation, not solving it. A diagnosis will become a new weapon in the Family Court Culture of Blame – and create more alienation, not less, in high-conflict divorces.

2. It will build resistance to behavior change: I believe that child alienation is the result of high-conflict behavior by at least one person (usually with a personality disorder), but often by several people in a child’s environment – much of it inadvertent. I developed the New Ways for Families program of High Conflict Institute to take out the blaming and put in short-term skills training at the beginning of family court cases before anyone has been judged to be an “all-bad” parent. Once a parent has been identified as the all-bad parent, it is next to impossible to get him or her to change anything in their own behavior. Whereas, before such findings have been made, both parents can learn and use skills for dealing with each other and with their children through programs such as New Ways for Families. It’s much easier to get a parent to try flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors, if they don’t have to be defensive about their past behavior.

3. It will further isolate children: Thirty years ago I started working with children as a therapist. They often loved the counseling, but hated having a psychiatric diagnosis. Their families and friends often teased them and they felt awkward, alone and different. If you give a child a diagnosis of parental alienation disorder, what will it mean to the child’s sense of identity growing up? Children of high conflict families often blame themselves already for the family’s problems. It seems to me that it will add more weight to the wrong person. It would be more appropriate to diagnose a parent with a personality disorder, because that is more often the driving force behind child alienation anyway.

4. It will distract from looking for other problems, such as abuse: I’m a social worker and I also believe that child abuse and domestic violence are real. Sometimes these problems are present when a child becomes alienated, and often they are not present. But there will be the temptation to see alienation as the one and only problem and identify one parent as the one and only cause. In many cases, this will cause those trying to help the family to miss other problems that also need attention.

5. It will distract from focusing on solutions: Child alienation (I prefer to call it child alienation rather than parental alienation, to avoid any presumptions that its one parent's fault) is a result of the child’s exposure to excessive amounts of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors, by one or more people in the child’s environment. The child needs to learn that these three problems are not the way to live, rather than reinforcing them by eliminating one parent and then the other. The favored parent needs to change these behaviors as much as possible, regardless of who has physical custody. Often the rejected parent reinforces these problems by inadvertently getting angry at the child or prematurely giving up on the child (at the child’s insistence). Professionals need to show empathy for both parents and the children, rather than getting emotionally hooked into reinforcing that one parent is “all-good” (their client) and that the other parent is “all-bad.”

For more about my point of view as a therapist and attorney, see my book Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce.
What do you think on this controversial subject? Please leave a comment. Please remember to be respectful of each other’s opinions.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kids and Self-Esteem

I just got back from a 2-week vacation hiking in Peru. It’s a really beautiful country, but also really poor. On the plane, I read a book called the Narcissism Epidemic, and a few thoughts clicked in my mind, connecting Peru, self-esteem and child alienation in divorce.

In the Narcissism Epidemic, the authors (researchers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) make a very important point: Self-esteem comes from success; success doesn’t come from self-esteem. They give one example after another of too much self-esteem (overconfidence; narcissism) leading people to fail. It’s the opposite of what you would think. It actually hurts kids to give them the message that they should always be the center of attention, that they get to make most of the decisions about their lives, and that they are automatically special. Too much of this can lead to narcissistic personality disorder.

Instead, it’s important for kids to learn that it takes effort and learning skills to succeed. Ironically, the researchers found that Asian children have the lowest self-esteem and the highest academic success. It makes me think about the rental car company that was always trying harder. When people are over-confident, they don’t try very hard. This doesn’t mean that children should feel bad about themselves, but that children shouldn’t get the message that they are superior to everyone else or that life is filled with automatic rewards. And they shouldn’t get the message that children can decide how to live or who to live with.

This brings me back to Peru. In the city and in the countryside, children seemed happy. Children as young as 5 years old were working on the family farms, herding cattle, helping plant corn and potatoes, and running the snack stands for passing hikers. They were an important part of the family effort. Their happiness and self-esteem came from their important role as a contributor to the family. Schools were very important buildings in the communities, and the children seemed to take their school books and studying very seriously. Of course, my view was very brief and from the perspective of an outsider. But a study reported in the New York Times in 2005 indicated that people from several countries in Latin America (including Peru) had happier people than you would expect from their economic situations – so perhaps my observations were accurate.

This brings me to children’s self-esteem in divorce. Unfortunately, in our more “modern” culture, we often feel that we must be overly careful about not hurting children’s self-esteem – especially children of divorce. Many divorced parents feel guilty and afraid to set limits, to have expectations, and to upset their kids. In fact, it’s important for kids to get the message that you believe they are resilient, that they can succeed with effort and learning skills, and that emotions are just emotions – not something to tiptoe around.

Divorce, in and of itself, does not harm children. It’s the way children are taught to interpret the divorce. High-conflict divorce hurts kids because it includes a lot of anger, blame, sometimes abuse and sometimes false allegations. If a parent doesn’t take his or her anger out on the child or the other parent, then children don’t become alienated. If a parent supports the other parent as much as realistically possible, then children don’t become alienated.

I met a judge once after I gave a seminar to judges, who said that he was raised primarily by a single mother after a divorce. He said he thought he actually benifitted because he was expected to be more responsible around the home, to manage his emotions in an appropriate manner and to be more respectful than other children. I believe it is possible for children of divorce to actually learn more skills for being more successful in life than many non-divorced children learn today in our narcissistic culture, where they can be focused on themselves.

What do you think? Does divorce itself damage childrens self-esteem, or is it the way children are treated by parents, teachers, family and friends after a divorce? And if children are allowed and encouraged to make most of the decisions about their own lives, doesn’t this encourage alienation by allowing a child to “choose” not to see one of his or her parents? How do you teach your child to help others and contribute to your family, even after a divorce? Please read my new book, Don't Alienate The Kids! and please leave a comment.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Clear Court Orders for Shared Parenting

I’ve been asked to say more about clear court orders when a reasonable parent shares parenting with someone with a borderline personality or narcissistic personality. This is an issue in most high-conflict divorce cases. People with borderline or narcissistic personality disorders often find the loopholes in family court orders (apparently to get a sense of power and control to compensate for feeling so powerless in general and especially from having to live under someone else's rules).

In general, the court orders must be very specific about WHO does WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. For example: “Parenting exchanges will be done ‘curbside,’ meaning that the returning parent shall pull up to the curb in front of the other parent’s house at the scheduled time. The receiving parent shall open the door to indicate that he or she is ready to receive the children. The returning parent shall remain in the car while the children get out with their belongings and go to the other parent. The parents shall not converse or have negative non-verbal interactions during these parenting exchanges. A positive wave and smile are encouraged, but not required, during a parent exchange.”

Any subject that has been in controversy may need such specific orders, such as having parents communicate only by email, with a maximum of one email per day, which contains only one topic per email, and it must be about care of the children. In one court case, the judge ordered the parents to communicate by email using the B.I.F.F. method described by the psychological evaluator in the case. (I developed the B.I.F.F. method and it’s described in my new book Don’t Alienate the Kids!)

Such specific orders help borderlines, narcissists, and everyone restrain themselves from engaging in unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors (such as used to occur at their unstructured exchanges, and with frequent disparaging phone calls or emails). With such specific orders, I have seen some reasonable parents share parenting with a borderline or narcissistic parent over several years.

Of course, the larger issues must also be addressed in court orders, such as a schedule that is appropriate for the children that avoids terms that create a parent contest, with a winner parent and a loser parent. For example, many fights are over the terms “physical custody” and “visitation” which imply an important parent and an unimportant parent. There is no need to use either of these words. (Various states and many Canadian provinces use the term "access" instead of visitation.)

A specific and clear parenting schedule is sufficient in a court order, without labels. If one parent has more time, it doesn’t mean the other parent has a lesser role. Most research shows that the influence a parent has on a child’s development is not directly related to time. From my experience, alienation is less about parenting time and more about the spill-over of intense emotions and extreme behavior by a high-conflict parent and other high-conflict people in the child’s life. Therefore, each parent should be the best parent possible during his or her time, even if one has more time than the other.

Of course, an exception is to establish who has “legal custody” meaning the right to make big decisions. Most divorced parents have “joint legal custody” (terms vary by state and province), which means they get to share in making decisions about the children’s school, doctor, activities, and counseling. In some cases, the court orders Joint Legal Custody, but makes specific orders identifying one parent to make the educational decisions and the other parent to make the medical decisions.

This is an increasingly common approach in high-conflict families using a “parallel parenting” arrangement, in which the parents have minimal or no direct communication. Some such families also have a Parenting Coordinator, who helps resolve future disputes after the basic court orders have been made. By interpreting and refining the court orders to be even more specific, the Parenting Coordinator can close the loopholes and help the parents manage better.

In short, successful shared parenting with a borderline or narcissistic parent may be possible in many cases, so long as court orders are highly specific to manage the unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. I have seen this work in some (not all) cases, and I believe it is preferable to arrangements that seek to eliminate the other parent. Of course, protection is an issue and safety must be provided. But if we don’t want kids growing up alienated, then they need to have some relationship with both parents. Clear court orders are one way to help manage potentially alienating behavior without all-or-nothing solutions. I cover this in more detail in my new book "Don't Alienate the Kids".

As always, I value your opinion so please leave a comment. Tell me what you think?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Can Narcissists Share Parenting?

In my last blog, I asked the same question about borderlines. Borderlines and narcissists seem to be the most common high conflict personality disorders in high conflict divorces – especially in family court custody battles. (Sometimes a high-conflict parent has traits of both.) They often have a hard time sharing, but for different reasons. Sometimes they can share parenting with a reasonable parent, with clear structure and clear consequences. This often requires clear court orders, which I will address in my next blog.

Narcissists see themselves as superior, so they often have a hard time sharing parenting as equals. I have had cases as a family law attorney with narcissists showing no interest in having custody of the children and almost no interest in parenting at all, until something goes wrong in their lives (such as a divorce, loss of a job, loss of a new relationship, business deal gone bad). Then, to cope, they suddenly see themselves as perfect parents and want custody of the kids. Or perhaps they re-marry and their new spouse says “You should have custody.”

Then, they start a custody battle and sometimes win the battle. Then, they often lose interest again and have someone else raise the child for them, such as a girlfriend or new spouse. In one case I had, the father took an out-of-town job during the weekdays and left his teenage son home alone. Fortunately, the boy on his own initiative returned to his mother (my client) and lived with her again.

On the other hand, there are narcissists who start out with custody. They see themselves as owning the children and increasingly have difficulty sharing decision-making and care of the children with the other parent. Sooner or later, they find something they think is wrong with the other parent and go to court to reduce that parent’s time with the children.

When the judge doesn’t do exactly what they want, they often feel insulted and sometimes take matters into their own hands. Sometimes they run away with the children, so that they can have total control. I just heard from a father (one of my former clients), who recently reunited with his son at age 18, after his mother ran away with him at age 3. I don’t know if she was a narcissist, but I know that she wanted total control and didn’t like sharing. For more about why a parent may do this, including personality disoders and attachment issues, see my new book “Don’t Alienate the Kids!”

If you want to see a good example of a narcissist before, during and after the divorce, just watch the movie “The Squid and the Whale” from several years ago. You can see how the narcissist’s alienation starts well before the divorce, and that the problem isn’t intentional behavior - it’s his personality. This is just how he is, without even thinking about it. Sound familiar? Please don't forget my new book"Don't Alienate The Kids".

Have you shared parenting with a narcissist? If so, because I value your opinion, Please leave a comment, what worked or what didn’t work?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Can Borderlines Share Parenting?

In my new book (Don’t Alienate the Kids!), I suggest that it is important for children to have two parents – especially to prevent child alienation which can lead to difficulties in adult relationships. This means shared parenting in separation or divorce, even with a parent with a personality disorder, including borderline personality disorder (BPD). Of course, safety issues must be addressed, to protect children from physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. In some cases, this means supervised visitation, but in most cases this is not realistic or necessary. This means that there may be more time with a reasonable parent, or even equal parenting time.

But this is not an easy question. I have had cases as a therapist and as a family law attorney in which a Borderline has attempted suicide after losing a custody hearing. I have had cases in which a Borderline left town after losing primary physical custody. It is very hard for a Borderline to share parenting, because of their all-or-nothing thinking.

Yet to exclude a Borderline parent is to teach children that all-or-nothing parenting is appropriate. And to seek court orders that exclude a Borderline parent, or takes away primary physical custody from a Borderline, just feeds a high-conflict battle that goes on for years. This is especially true because family courts are generally uninformed about personality disorders, and the adversarial setting reinforces extreme behaviors while minimizing mental disorders.

Borderlines (and I use this term to indicate a condition, not a whole person – just like an alcoholic or diabetic) typically share their all-or-nothing thinking repeatedly with their children, and the DSM-IV (the manual used by mental health professionals) says that the children of Borderlines have a 5 times greater chance of developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) themselves.

This means that shared parenting with a Borderline requires a very reasonable other parent, who can teach the children lessons that will help them not develop the disorder themselves – lessons such as flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. I have had a few cases where this did work, even in a 50-50 arrangement. In some cases, the Borderline has had 60% of the parenting time. In others, the Borderline has had a much smaller percentage, such as 15%, but it has been stable after a lot of work and clear court orders.

I am interested in the points of view of parents who are sharing parenting with a Borderline – whether after a separation or divorce, or even currently during a marriage – and professionals who address this issue in family court. As a parent, are you sharing parenting successfully with a Borderline, or has the Borderline made it impossible to raise your children to be reasonable themselves? As a family law professional, how do you decide what to recommend or what orders to seek? Please check out my book, Don't Alienate The Kids!

Can Borderlines really share parenting?  I value your opinion so please leave a comment, Let me know what you think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Alienation a One-Parent Issue?

I am responding to a comment left by a custody evaluator and parenting coordinator. It goes to the heart of the problem of child alienation or parental alienation, and how to handle it. He/she basically says: Sometimes there is only one parent responsible for generating the conflict, sometimes this parent has a personality disorder, and professionals shouldn’t be afraid to point this out. I agree partially and disagree partially.

My view is that alienation is usually the result of the behaviors of many people (family members, professionals, and today’s larger Culture of Blame), which I described in my first blog about this on July 8, 2010 and which I explain in depth in my new book Don’t Alienate the Kids! I agree about the personality disorder part, as I see this as one of the biggest factors in alienation. A personality disorder is an often-hidden mental health problem that involves some or a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors.

Where I disagree is in turning the alienation problem into a win-lose problem, which identifies one parent as the source of the problem, which escalates that parent in a way that makes things worse for the child and the other parent. I take a family systems’ (family culture) approach to handling the problem of child alienation – and in deciding how to treat it and manage it in family court.

When I worked as a therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in psychiatric hospitals with intact families, many had one parent with a substance abuse problem or severe mental disorder (schizophrenia, major depression, suicidal behavior, personality disorders, etc.). But we really had to help the whole family. While one parent had a disorder, usually there were things that the other parent could do differently to be more effective and less stressed. This is not to say that the other parent was to blame for the problem, but that what they were doing was often reacting too aggressively or too passively, which reinforced the problem.

Also, the children needed to be educated (at their age level) about the problem and how they could cope better with it. When there was a mental illness, the whole family system naturally adapted to the illness and needed to learn how to re-adapt to get healthier and manage the problem –whether it could be permanently improved through proper treatment or if had to be contained and lived with. In rare cases, there would be restrictions on the disordered parent’s contact with the children (not allowed to be alone), but overall the parents weren’t viewed as a “winner” and a “loser.” Mom or Dad had a problem that needed to be addressed by everyone – with knowledge and compassion.

I believe a similar approach makes much more sense in divorce and separation cases. Unfortunately, handling parenting issues in the adversarial family court process has slowly changed the thinking of many mental health professionals (as therapists, as evaluators, as court mediators, etc.) into one of finding individual blame rather than addressing these problems as a system.

Thus, the custody evaluation process often makes both parties much more defensive, often inadvertently clouds the issues for the court (I know this as a family law attorney for 17 years), and often takes over the child’s life for the duration of the evaluation (because one or both parents don’t have the emotional boundaries to protect the child from it). The child knows one or both parents are preoccupied with losing and being misunderstood. While many therapists, evaluators and mediators – and many lawyers and judges – try to overcome this divisive aspect of the evaluation process, fundamentally it is part of the adversarial win-lose process and we see this fail parents and children every day.

This is why I developed the New Ways for Families program for family courts as a family systems approach involving both parents in brief, structured cognitive-behavioral counseling. It helps those parents who do not have a mental health issue deal with a parent who does, without making the focus one of blame, but rather learning positive skills to help the parent and the children cope. If that does not help the parents enough to make their own reasonable decisions, then a court may order an evaluation. Ideally, a brief, focused evaluation that does not go on for long and is designed to explain a problem rather than pick a winner.

Ultimately, Parenting Coordination is an excellent family systems approach to alienation. My ideal is for families to go into New Ways for Families to learn conflict resolution skills at the start of the case (as soon as one parent says the other needs restricted parenting), then have a Parenting Coordinator for the rest of the case. This is far superior to putting parents into a win-lose process on parenting issues, which reinforces alienation rather than reduces it. We need to accurately identify mental health problems, develop treatment methods that include assistance to both parents and the children (even if only one parent has a disorder), and manage the case in family court with compassion instead of competition.

Please read more on this subject in my new book "Don't Alienate The Kids!.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Alienation Blog

For the next few months, I’m going to be blogging about child alienation – the subject of my new book: Don’t Alienate the Kids! This is such a huge and important subject these days. It appears that about 15% of children become alienated when their parents go through a divorce (and it appears higher for unmarried parents). And this number seems to be rapidly growing in the last few years.

Why do I care about this problem? For the past 30 years I’ve been working with children and parents, first as a teacher, then as a child and family counselor, then as a family law attorney, and now I also train judges on managing high conflict people in court. I have seen dramatic changes in how children are raised over these 30 years – especially the influence of TV shows, news programs and the internet. I believe these influences are increasingly negative and beyond the control of any one parent, and there are many people who have similar concerns.

We need to support each other and we need to help parents – rather than criticize them – when going through a divorce. Children are the future and belong to all of us. They become adults who lead successful or disabled lives in their relationships at home, at work and in their communities. I believe we are disabling children in many of today’s divorces, as they learn lessons that will undermine them as adults – unless all of us help redirect some of the basic values of today’s society.

With this in mind, I’ll be blogging about three Cultures of Blame:

1) The Family Culture of Blame when there is a high-conflict parent (often with a personality disorder) who unconsciously teaches his or her children all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors from birth. I don’t blame this parent, as it’s a condition they didn’t choose and they can’t see. Instead, we need to intervene and stop or change this behavior as soon as possible. From my informal surveys of professionals, about half of such families have two high-conflict parents, and about half have one parent who is reasonable and just trying to manage the situation by “walking on eggshells”. In many ways, I am gearing this blog to such “reasonable parents” who are searching for explanations and answers about dealing with a high-conflict spouse/partner.

2) The Family Court Culture of Blame, where parents and family law professionals fight over who to blame for one issue or another. Child alienation is one of the biggest fights these days, as some parents and professionals blame it all on “the alienator” – the favored parent who they believe has purposefully alienated the child against the rejected parent. Other parents and professionals blame it all on the rejected parent as “the abuser” who must have done something wrong, even though the worst behavior of that parent is usually so minor that it just doesn’t fit.

Of course children need protection from child abuse and child alienation, and that is what makes these cases so difficult. We need to address the real underlying mental health problems, rather than making it a contest with a winner parent and a loser parent – which doesn’t help either of them or the child. This parent contest is part of the problem, as it makes it harder to see abuse and alienation, and properly manage them. In many cases, there may be both alienation and abuse.

We need to stop the parent contest, and take a much more broad and supportive approach to parents dealing with a child who rejects one parent – who could be Mom or Dad; who could be the custodial parent or the non-custodial parent. It’s no longer a gender issue. I have dealt with the full range of these kinds of cases, and the full range of professional behavior – some are part of the problem, while many are trying hard to be part of the solution. My focus is on behavior in family court, not who to blame. We all need to take responsibility, including me! We all have made mistakes and need to learn.

3) Society’s Culture of Blame, promoted by the full range of today’s media, which seems to have become addicted to conflict and extreme behavior. By pushing violence, disrespect, self-centeredness, extreme emotions and individual blame for complex problems, this culture is stressing and alienating ALL children. The rate of anxiety is higher than ever for all children. I believe it is a significant factor in children becoming alienated from a parent as a way of coping with divorce in today’s Culture of Blame. They have been trained to blame.

So I hope you will share your comments, questions and experiences. I look forward to a spirited (and respectful) discussion of this controversial and important subject!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New Book About Alienation Released

After three years of hard work, I've finished my book, Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce.

High-Conflict divorces are on the increase. With it, more cases of child alienation are appearing - when a child resists or refuses to spend time with one of his or her parents. For the past 25 years, families and family courts around the world have been fighting over who is the "all-bad parent" who caused this problem: Was one parent really abusive? Or did the other parent purposefully alienate the child against the "rejected" parent? (This problem is often referred to as Parental Alienation Syndrome.)


The battle rages over:

Who is the "all-bad" parent who caused this problem?

And who is the "all-good" parent?


In this new book, Don't Alienate the Kids!, I present a new theory of child alienation in divorce. In my theory, there are no bad parents - just bad behaviors, many of them inadvertent by many people including family, friends, professionals and the family court adversarial process. All of these bad behaviors combine into "1000's of Little Bricks" that build a wall between a child and one of his or her parents. It's really a result of a Culture of Blame that builds up around the child - and the child joins in.

But parents, family, friends and divorce professionals have a choice. They can use these bricks to build a Foundation of Resilience instead - even during a divorce. Eddy says that the goal of the book is to explain all of the little behaviors (little bricks) that parents and professionals should avoid, and all of the little behaviors (little bricks) that they should use to build this Foundation.

Rather than fighting over "Who to Blame" or seeking extreme solutions, the key message of this book is for parents and professionals to repeatedly use:

FLEXIBLE THINKING

MANAGED EMOTIONS

MODERATE BEHAVIORS

And whenever they fail at this task, they should use repairing comments and positive statements about the others involved.

I'm no stranger to high-conflict behavior. There are many parents who have "high-conflict personalities" who are very unlikely to change at all. They will just keep blaming the other parent and negatively influencing the child. My goal is to get the reasonable parent and professionals to avoid getting "emotionally hooked" into the battle. Rather than fight over which parent to eliminate, my approach focuses on containing the conflict, protecting the children and including some involvement of both parents in the children's lives. The book shows how parents and professionals can teach the children skills of resilience - to the best of their ability - rather than seeking extreme decisions in family courts.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

High Conflict People and Workplace Violence

Now we have another workplace shooting incident to analyze. This one apparently by a female faculty member at the University of Alabama. The early news reports indicate that she was denied tenure and wasn’t as good as she thought. These comments echoed the thinking of a medical student who I had just read about the day before – he didn’t shoot anyone, but appealed his expulsion to the Supreme Court, at an extraordinary cost to all involved. It’s costly to the educational institution, and sometimes dangerous, to be around a high-conflict person when they don’t get what they want – even if they’re otherwise brilliant. Being a high-conflict person has nothing to do with intelligence.

But there are some warning signs! High conflict people may be 10-20% of our society, and of most modern industrial societies. However, most don’t kill anyone. Predicting violence is still not possible, but certain ways of “high-conflict” thinking should raise concern. These ways of thinking often attract people to positions of high authority and respect – which universities provide – yet their personalities cannot manage the ordinary bumps and rejections along the way.

1. They feel extremely entitled – they believe they deserve more than almost anyone else.

2. They are unrealistic in their self-assessments –they believe they are better than anyone else.

3. They tend toward all-or-nothing thinking – they interpret ordinary events as indicating extreme success or extreme failure.

4. They can’t manage their emotions – their upset feelings often overrule their logical thinking.

5. They are preoccupied with blaming others – for problems they clearly caused themselves.

6. They lack self-awareness – they can’t see the impact they have on others and don’t feel empathy.

7. They can’t take negative feedback, even if it would help them – and they react sometimes violently.

The above are long-term personality patterns for high-conflict people (HCPs). They are often the result of temperament and life experience. Today, we see two general types of HCPs:

The abused: These HCPs grew up with abuse and learned that their actions don’t affect the consequences – when they were bad or good, they still got hit.

The entitled: These HCPs grew up with few limits or negative consequences – whether they were good or bad, they still got what they wanted.

In both cases, they don’t connect their actions to the consequences very well. Therefore, when things go badly, they often over-react and create more problems for themselves – which they blame on others, and attack those they blame.

They are also heavily influenced by what they see in terms of bad behavior around them. So, watching all the images of this shooting will increase the likelihood of another shooting, and another, and another. As a society, we have to learn that violence is contagious, especially when HCPs visually observe it. If we want to decrease such violence, we need to convince the news media that it should only be shown as text, and should not be allowed to lead on any news program. Of course, some of today’s media decision-makers may have some of the characteristics of high-conflict people. So they may lack awareness of the role they play in escalating the problem, they may lack the empathy to use self-restraint, may believe they are entitled to do whatever they want, and may enjoy the money the next tragedy brings in.

But the rest of us also watch the news and buy the products. How many more of these incidents do we need, before we become aware as a nation that our high-paying voyeurism is part of the problem?

[Bill Eddy is the author of “It’s All Your Fault! and gives seminars for legal and workplace professionals. See www.HighConflictInstitute.com]