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!

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I'm interested in hearing more about the distinction (if there is one) between child alienation and parental alienation. You may also be interested in our work to raise the visibility of parental alienation. Our website is http://www.afamilysheartbreak.com and you can write me directly at mike@afamilysheartbreak.com.

Sincerely,

mike jeffries
Author, A Family's Heartbreak: A Parent's Introduction to Parental Alienation

Bob W said...

I am very appreciative of this discussion. Of particular concern is "addressing the underlying mental health" issues in resolving problems.

What is the best approach in reaching the best psychological solution to defusing the battles?

Anonymous said...

Bill,

Please continue to post blogs on this topic. I am concerned that the "parent alienation" defense is often used precisely by the partner that has the personality disorder. After someone has been able to finally make the physical break from an abusive relationship especially mental and emotional the victim often finds that they get the new added pleasure of the abuse continuing via the legal system where they are accused of alienating the children. So the victim gets to continue to walk on egg shells throughout the divorce and custody battle and often afterwards just to avoid the accusation of parent alienation. It is a real problem and a common tactic employed by estranged spouses, the final retaliation. I have seen this over and over again.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Please continue to post info!!!! I have worked very hard to make the break from an emotionally abusive relationship where professional counselors have strongly suggested a "no contact" method for me. However, with children in the mix, that is impossible and only sets us up to be blamed for parent alienation.It is a definate cath-22 that I would like to know how to navigate through.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Mike,
Thanks for asking about why I refer to child alienation rather than parental alienation. We are talking about the some problem of a child resisting contact with a parent, but parental alienation has historically implied that the cause is all the other parent's intentional bad behavior and that there is no other contributing factors. I prefer the idea that researchers Janet Johnson and Joan Kelly described in 2001 - namely that there may be multiple factors contributing to the problem. So we talk about an "alienated child," without assuming the cause.

As I described in My Alienation Blog, I have usually seen several contributing factors. By using the term child alienation, I hope to reduce the conflict over WHO is to blame, and instead encourage really understanding WHAT the specific behaviors (and mental health problems) are feeding the alienation - and addressing these problems with changes in behavior sooner rather than later, rather than getting distracted by who is totally to blame and who is blameless.

I hope that helps. I have a lot of empathy for those who have been the target of such blame and I imagine that you may have experienced this from the title of your book. I don't mean to minimize the power of alienation and I'm glad that you're educating people about this problem, regardless of which terms are used.

Best wishes,
Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Bob W.
Thanks for your comment. From my experience, alienation has always has been associated with one or more high-conflict adults close to the child, who engage in lots of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. This is not normal behavior and is consistently associated with mental health problems, including personality disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, chronic depression, severe anxiety, and other ongoing mental health problems. (Brief mental health problems don't usually lead to alienation.)

Children absorb these problems (mostly emotionally and unconsciously) and are at risk of mirroring enough of the thinking, emotions and behavior of such adults to become alienated, even if they don't develop a full mental disorder.

I think the best approach to defusing the battle, is to say we really want to know what to do (counseling, medication, etc.) to identify and treat the mental health problem(s) that are underlying the alienation, rather than making it a parent contest over who is going to "win" time with the child and who is going to "lose."

Let's not make it about time. If a parent needs supervision or limited time with his or her child, let's make it as temporary as possible and emphasize the importance of that parent getting healthier - rather than demonizing one parent and congratulating the other.

That's a very brief overview. My book (Don't Alienate the Kids!) explains this a lot more.

Best wishes,
Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

In response to a couple anonymous comments:

I'm glad you raised the risk of being blamed for parental alienation, as you leave an abusive relationship. I hope you see my comment above about why is prefer not to use the term parental alienation, so that it is not used as a label that is used to blame one parent and free the other from all responsibility. I think its better to examine what each person in the child's life is doing, and to make changes to be careful not to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior around the child. We all need to be self-aware, rather than blaming of others.

With that in mind, I'd like to mention that I no longer agree with a "no contact" philosophy, except for a short period of time, with the other parent - even a parent with a personality disorder or other mental health problem. I think its better to have an arms-length relationship (not too close, but not too rejecting), otherwise you create more conflict rather than calming the conflict.

For ways to manage this, I would encourage you to read the chapter in my book titled "The Reasonable Parent's Dilemma."

Best wishes,
Bill Eddy

Anonymous said...

Even setting aside the alienation issue, Family Courts are by their nature a bad place to decide Child Custody issues. Courts in general expect an adversarial role between the Plaintiff and Defendant. The general idea is that the best argument will win and justice will be served. This, by its' very nature sets up a win-lose situation. Although most laws refer to "in the best interest of the Child(ren)" doctrine as the bases for determining child custody, very seldom (even in child abuse cases) do I see someone giving legal representation to the children and looking out for their best interest. The courts end up destroying the two people (parent(s)) that are supposedly going to take care of the child after the courts decision. Lawyer don't see it as their responsibility to moderate this behavior because they have sworn an oath to represent their client not the children.

Bob Hope III
bobhopeiii48@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to disagree with many of you, but through my professional experience as a custody evaluator and parenting coordinator, yes, sometime there is only one parent responsible for generating the conflict. Often this parent has personality disorders of one kind or another and sometime they engage in alienating tactics and behavior in some type of supposed "revenge" on the other parent. Generally, I would say that these parents are unfit and, yes, the other parent turns victim along with the child.

The bottom line is this: Don't be afraid as an evaluator to place blame where it rightfully belongs. No, I'm not saying that placing blame is your goal, it is not. What I am saying is that in order to identify what ails the parent-child relationship, an evaluator, PC or Facilitator must point a finger at the source of any unnecessary conflict and eliminate the problem before any healing can take place.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Bob,
I agree with you that the adversarial process is ill-fitted for parenting decisions. While I think the adversarial court process works fairly well for many legal decisions (child support, property division, protective orders, setting policy about spousal support, etc.), parenting is one area where a win-lose process does more harm than good. Most legal professionals I know would agree, and that is why creating alternate processes has been so important over the past 30 years: mediation, collaborative divorce, out-of-court settlement negotiations, etc. I think the problem arises with mental health issues, especially when they present a protection issue. Rather than trying to solve these problems in a win-lose process, they should be addressed truly “in the best interests of the children,” which to me means NOT in the context of a parent contest with a winner parent and a loser parent. You are right that this harms the children, rather than helps them. The goal should be to figure out what each parent can do to improve their own behavior – recognizing that some parents have much more work to do, but focusing on what they need to do (and are capable of doing), rather than focusing so much on winning or losing parenting time.
It’s like having a couple go to a doctor and saying: “I think she’s sick, but she thinks she’s not.” Then the doctor says: “You win – she is sick. Good Luck!” without analyzing the full problem and developing a comprehensive plan to treat it. Since the adversarial process focuses so much on win-lose, most decisions are made without a full understanding of the mental health problems involved. Also, in this adversarial process, mental health problems usually get worse and fighting over them becomes the preoccupation rather than analyzing and treating them. Parents and children get sucked into the battle, rather than the solution.
Best wishes,
Bill Eddy

Anonymous said...

I just ordered your books and am listening to your radio show.

For your research and results, both my step daughters (bio mom seems very much to have BPD but has been diagnosed with bipolar) have acid reflux and anxiety disorder. BMI's were at 1% when we finally got through 2 1/2 years of custody trials and the kids living with us as primary, her visitation.

Our legal bills are currently at 125k and going. This is just our side. We still are in battle over the financials and every day defending ourselves about exchanges and phone ordered communications.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Hi Anonymous,

I hope you find the books and radio interviews helpful. It sounds like you have made some progress in the court, but the cost is so tragic - in terms of money and emotional trauma.

You might be interested to know that according to the most recent, large study by the National Institutes of Health, nearly 40% of people diagnosed with BPD also have bipolar disorder. So you may be dealing with both. However, the methods of responding are pretty similar, so i think the books should help. The big difference with bipolar disorder is that medications can help a lot - whereas medications don't really change BPD behavior problems. It takes long-term therapy, which few people with BPD are willing to do.

Best wishes,
Bill

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Anonymous said...

I am currently dealing with a high conflict divorce. My wife is off the charts trying to alienate me from my children and any effort to ruin my life. I have read the book, Splitting, and must say it was written specificially for my circumstance. Every sentence relates to my soon to be ex-wife.

She has tried Emergency Protective Orders to keep the children from me. That was thrown out and the Judge issued a temporary order where she had the for 4 days and 3 days with me. This has been the case for over 6 months.

Our most recent hearing was to be the final; however, her attorney was under doctor's care so we dealt with my ex's need to have the kids speak with Judge about "their" preference. After 35 minutes, the Judge came back and said I had some things to work on. Granted, I have been the primary care giver for my two kids for a long time. They are 14 & 12. He created another temporary order and now I only get to see them every other weekend. Amazing. We have another 4 months before the Final Hearing, again. I have got to find and learn everything possible to assist in turning this nonsense around.

Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. BTW, when I ask my kids questions, they don't want to comment or avoid answering. That guarantees to me they have been coached.....

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Anonymous,

You describe a common problem. In short, I would recommend that you read my book "Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce." In it I recommend teaching your children 3 key skills for life, without making it personal about their mother.

My second suggestion would be to consider using Pattern Analysis to present your case to the court. This is a method described on our High Conflict Institute website Home Page, which helps organize a lot of information and helps show the pattern of behavior that otherwise might be missed in court arguments about one or two events. This might also help you show that the children used to have a relaxed and happy relationship with you before recent times. It's too bad the judge made a change without getting more information than just statements from the children.

Best wishes!
Bill

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Anonymous,

You describe a common problem. In short, I would recommend that you read my book "Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce." In it I recommend teaching your children 3 key skills for life, without making it personal about their mother.

My second suggestion would be to consider using Pattern Analysis to present your case to the court. This is a method described on our High Conflict Institute website Home Page, which helps organize a lot of information and helps show the pattern of behavior that otherwise might be missed in court arguments about one or two events. This might also help you show that the children used to have a relaxed and happy relationship with you before recent times. It's too bad the judge made a change without getting more information than just statements from the children.

Best wishes!
Bill

San Diego Mediators said...

you are doing great work by giving information on children alienation which itself a great cause and i will surely going to read your book. So that i can also assist my close one in this matter

San Diego Mediators said...

you are doing great work by giving information on children alienation which itself a great cause and i will surely going to read your book. So that i can also assist my close one in this matter