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.