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!