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.