Sunday, December 19, 2010

Does Ridicule Stop Alienation?

I just read about a recent high conflict divorce case in Ontario, Canada in the December 17th national paper, the Globe and Mail. It has gone viral around the internet in both the US and Canada, because the judge "turned to ridicule" in handing down his custody decision. He said he used this as a "last resort" in a case where the parents were "immune to reason." He pointed out how the mother had alienated the 13-year-old daughter against her father and how the father had regularly engaged in insulting behavior and giving the mother "the finger."


I can certainly empathize with Judge Joseph Quinn’s frustration, and I quoted him favorably in my book “Don’t Alienate the Kids!” regarding a previous case of his. However, I think ridicule misses the point and often makes things worse. He points out that both husband and wife may have personality disorders requiring treatment. (From my experience as a lawyer and clinical social worker, in 50-65% of high conflict cases, there is one parent with a personality disorder – most often borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder – and the other parent is just trying to cope and protect the children.) But if a parent (one or both) has a personality disorder, then they are truly “immune to reason,” and need properly structured treatment, not ridicule.

This is comparable to the way we used to treat alcoholics and addicts in the legal system, trying to motivate them by criticizing and humiliating them. This approach failed miserably for years, as drunk drivers and others were admonished to stay sober, then went out to drive drunk again. We now know that they need a very structured and supportive recovery treatment program, focused on learning the daily skills of staying clean and sober, and managing stress and daily life in small steps with lots of repetition.

With this in mind, I think it would be better to treat high conflict parents with empathy, attention and respect – and (if both parents have a personality disorder) remove their children to a foster home while they get treatment for their disorders. I know of at least two cases where this was done in Ontario – Judge Quinn’s province.

Since there often is only one personality-disordered parent, it would help to have the court order the parents into a program like our New Ways for Families method (more about this on our website) which gives both parents short-term counseling separately and then with the children, to help the reasonable parent deal with the high conflict parent, and to see which parent is able to be reasonable and which parent isn’t.

It is often better in high conflict cases to expose the child to significant time with both parents in a “parallel parenting” structure, where each parent has significant time with the children, but minimal contact with each other. That way the children aren’t “stuck” with one parent’s behavior and point of view. They learn multiple ways of solving problems and they learn that one parent’s extreme behaviors are not accepted by everyone. Child alienation (parental alienation) grows when a child is heavily exposed to a parent with all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. If there is just one parent with a personality disorder, then in at least half or more of the cases, the child can learn reasonable skills from the other parent.

Verbal admonishments don’t change the behavior of high-conflict people. Skills training does in some cases – with structure, encouragement, repetitive practice and clear consequences. And if one parent doesn’t show sufficient change in a reasonable period of time, then children are better off with the parent who is “reason-able” – or someone else if neither parent is able to reason. High conflict parents need to be ordered into treatment, rather than admonished, humiliated, and allowed to raise their children as usual.

Even though I believe Judge Quinn’s attempt to motivate these parents with ridicule will fail (humorous as it was), hopefully it will motivate the public to get personality disordered parents into treatment and out of family court. Please refer to my book, "Don't Alienate The Kids!" and don't forget to comment.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the statement, "It is often better in high conflict cases to expose the child to significant time with both parents in a “parallel parenting” structure, where each parent has significant time with the children, but minimal contact with each other. That way the children aren’t “stuck” with one parent’s behavior and point of view. They learn multiple ways of solving problems and they learn that one parent’s extreme behaviors are not accepted by everyone. Child alienation (parental alienation) grows when a child is heavily exposed to a parent with all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. If there is just one parent with a personality disorder, then in at least half or more of the cases, the child can learn reasonable skills from the other parent.

Verbal admonishments don’t change the behavior of high-conflict people. Skills training does in some cases – with structure, encouragement, repetitive practice and clear consequences. And if one parent doesn’t show sufficient change in a reasonable period of time, then children are better off with the parent who is “reason-able” – or someone else if neither parent is able to reason. High conflict parents need to be ordered into treatment, rather than admonished, humiliated, and allowed to raise their children as usual."

Really???? You must operationally define these statements. Such as, at what point does the court decide that the parent is unsuitable to be around the child? Or, at what level of memtal trauma is this measured to the child and how, i.e. screaming, shouting, unacceptable behavior by the unstable parent? And what is a "reasonable amount of time" for the parent to show reasonable change (assuming that they really want to change)??

This "theory" sounds like an attorney wanting more money for legal fees or a psychiatrist wanting to extend fees until the parties are out of money. If the parent really does not wish to change then the entire problem is unresolvable and drags on, and on, and on.

Define how long or factors that imply that the other parent has to wait for the decision for evidence that the parent is NOT going to change???

This is really a theory. Sure, if I was getting money for this theory, then I too would want this to be extended as long as possible to sell the books, promote the theory to truly exhausted parents tryi8ng to cope with an off-the-hook parent, and also this delay would promote the purchase of books, tapes, institutes, and of course, cash into my pocket! It is pretty easy to see if the parent is unable to cope and deal with day-to-day issues the other parent is willing to step up to the parenting issues becuase they must. The high conflict parent is spoiled and just needs to take a time out and leave the child to not to be forced to be around unacceptable behavior. Forget the other points of view, the person is high conflict. Who wants to have that role model around in the first place! Get real.
Sign me as Mom with 7 month old.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Mom with 7 month old,

You addressed some important dilemmas and I'm sorry to hear that this situation is affecting your child. I believe that it is "often" best to have both parents spend significant time with the child. However, I also agree that there are situations (and I have represented mothers and fathers in these situations) where one parent should have the vast majority of the time, and the other parent should be limited because of their risky or clearly abusive behavior. I believe in restraining orders and supervised visitation in cases where protection is needed or temporarily indicated until change or no change can be seen. I agree with you that "screaming, shouting,[and other] unacceptable behavior by the unstable parent" should be stopped.

The dilemma for family courts is how do you really know who is the unstable parent? Judges are not trained to diagnose mental health problems, and mental health professionals are not good at figuring this out in the adversarial process of court, where serious mental health problems are hidden or falsely alleged, in order to "win" parenting time in many cases.

How long should it take before its obvious a parent isn't going to change? This is truly a difficult dilemma and depends on the individual involved - which is why the courts have so much discretion. Unfortunately, this does often drag out and that can be harmful to the child. It sounds like you have been dealing with that and that it has been very frustrating. I'm sorry to hear that.

These are some of the reasons that I developed the New Ways for Families program for High Conflict Institute (see our website). This method focuses on skills AND accountability back in court within several weeks. You are right: there should be some way to decide if change is coming or not, and after 12 weeks with this method its pretty obvious who can change and who can't. Unfortunately, not many courts are trying this highly structured approach yet. Maybe in the years ahead. You might want to consider whether this method could help your situation, since your child is still so young.

Best wishes,
Bill

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Mom with 7 month old,

You addressed some important dilemmas and I'm sorry to hear that this situation is affecting your child. I believe that it is "often" best to have both parents spend significant time with the child. However, I also agree that there are situations (and I have represented mothers and fathers in these situations) where one parent should have the vast majority of the time, and the other parent should be limited because of their risky or clearly abusive behavior. I believe in restraining orders and supervised visitation in cases where protection is needed or temporarily indicated until change or no change can be seen. I agree with you that "screaming, shouting,[and other] unacceptable behavior by the unstable parent" should be stopped.

The dilemma for family courts is how do you really know who is the unstable parent? Judges are not trained to diagnose mental health problems, and mental health professionals are not good at figuring this out in the adversarial process of court, where serious mental health problems are hidden or falsely alleged, in order to "win" parenting time in many cases.

How long should it take before its obvious a parent isn't going to change? This is truly a difficult dilemma and depends on the individual involved - which is why the courts have so much discretion. Unfortunately, this does often drag out and that can be harmful to the child. It sounds like you have been dealing with that and that it has been very frustrating. I'm sorry to hear that.

These are some of the reasons that I developed the New Ways for Families program for High Conflict Institute (see our website). This method focuses on skills AND accountability back in court within several weeks. You are right: there should be some way to decide if change is coming or not, and after 12 weeks with this method its pretty obvious who can change and who can't. Unfortunately, not many courts are trying this highly structured approach yet. Maybe in the years ahead. You might want to consider whether this method could help your situation, since your child is still so young.

Best wishes,
Bill