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.


Anonymous said...

This is great feedback. It is hard though -- when you are dealing with this personality disorder, you are also dealing with courts, GALs, lawyers, bills, bills and bills and very little support and help. The court system offers no protection for the child in this situation or even the parent suffering. And the parent's suffering passes down - it is hard to be whole when you are the target of someone else's target and rage. All the blaming, gaslighting, gameplaying, humiliation, degregation really affects one's self esteem even when you know intellectually the other person is not well. I am in internal conflct with this situation constantly. I am working with a therapist though, but I still can't shake it all because it is constant.

I try like heck to give her the best I've got, but sometimes I do get angry and we actually argue -- she is 3 and we argue. It is kind of weird --- what I teach her though is that it is okay to be mad, it is okay to be frustrated and it actually okay to disagree with me -- it is all how it is resolved in the end. And there are lots of hugs and apologies coming from both sides after an argument. I teach her that her voice matters, but sometimes I get veto power particularly if it pertains to health or safety. I have been working on breathing exercises when I get stressed and have been trying to teach her that also ... any other tips. my stress levels are really really high -- particularly in the morning when trying to get out of the house and also when I open the mail and receive more legal bills.

The other thing I made a pact to myself -- my goal with my daughter is to teach her "how to think for herself" while I know he teaches her "what to think." Recently, he told her that I didn't want him calling her -- when it was the judge who put an order in effect protecting me from all the crazy phone calls he was making. My daughter came home from time with her father and we talked about it. She was sad. I don't know what possessed me to handle it this way, but I asked her in exactly these words "is this something you believe?" I didn't say do you believe mommy or daddy ... just is this something you believe. She stopped, paused and said "no." I was really really surprised and I asked her why. She said because you always ask me if I want to talk to Daddy and I always say no --- you also try to get me to talk to him. Story over. I was shocked but realized teaching her how to put the pieces together for herself in a healthy way was a lot better than retaliating or getting into it or trying to convince her that her Dad isn't telling the truth. It is hard though. He did tell me that she must know who I am ... she must know I am 100% to blame for all. He has said over and over again that his goal is to make her hate me and figure out what I've done and how I've pushed him away and that she is not with her father the way she can be because of me.

I love my daughter so so so so so much. I keep praying I have enough strength to get her to a healthy place when she becomes an adult. I am not operating at 100% because of the situation, but I am giving her what I can.

Sorry for going on. What you wrote just resonated.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your interactions with your daughter sound wonderful. It is great that you are encouraging her to learn how to think, rather than to tell her how to think. Asking questions is often one of the best teaching methods, such as you did when you asked if she believed something about you. Your ability to find balance, even under stress, will help you both a lot. And I think your comment may help others who are facing a similar situation.

Best wishes,