© 2009 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
There is no issue more controversial and confusing in divorce than a child’s resistance or refusal to spend time with a parent after a separation or divorce. On one hand, there is “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” This theory was put forth in the mid-1980’s by Richard Gardner, MD. He explained that some parents intentionally turn their children against the other parent in a separation or divorce, in order to gain an advantage in family court.
On the other hand, there is the opposite theory that children resist or refuse contact with a parent, because that parent has been abusive or severely inappropriate with the children, or abusive toward the other parent. Therefore, this theory says these children are “realistically estranged” and the court system should protect the children by not requiring any contact with that parent.
The battle over who is to blame – the alienating parent or the abusive parent – continues to grow in family courts worldwide. In 2008, a book about alienation by the actor Alec Baldwin (“A Promise to Ourselves”) gained widespread attention. In 2009, a custody dispute was in the national press in Canada, when a judge ordered alienated children removed from the mother’s custody and given to the father, and ordered them sent them for re-programming in the United States. Then, the judge considered giving custody of the children to their 18-year-old brother instead. Then, the 18-year-old brother brokered an agreement between his parents and the case settled without re-programming. He blamed the professionals for escalating the case, so professionals are under public pressure now to handle these cases better.
While professionals are thoroughly – and emotionally – split over the cause of this alienation or estrangement, most agree that the problem needs to be addressed more effectively at the beginning of the divorce case, rather than after the children have taken rigid positions for or against each parent.
NEW WAYS FOR FAMILIES®
New ways for Families® is a new program for addressing high conflict family court cases as early in the case as possible. It is designed to address high conflict issues, including child abuse and child alienation. This article explains how New Ways maybe helpful in addressing the problem of child alienation or estrangement, before it becomes extreme in any particular case.
The New Ways approach is based on the idea that high conflict families are characterized by three common problems, which are often promoted by both parents to various degrees, as well as other friends, family members and professionals:
1. All-or-nothing thinking
2. Unmanaged emotions
3. Extreme behaviors
Often, in high conflict families, one parent engages in highly-aggressive, highly-emotional behavior, to which the other parent responds with highly-aggressive or highly-passive behavior. This mutual “dance” of extremes is frightening and confusing to their children. This dance has often been occurring since the day the child was born and was established long before the separation or divorce. In some high conflict families, both parents contribute relatively equally to these extremes. In other high conflict families, there is one particularly difficult parent and the other parent is generally reasonable, but walking on eggshells. In both types of families, these three characteristics can dominate the family mood and decision-making.
Therefore, in developing New Ways for Families®, this author included tasks to confront these three family characteristics in new ways, which do not blame either parent, but instead focus both parents on learning the following skills (“new ways”), as early in the case as possible:
1. Flexible thinking
2. Managed emotions
3. Moderate behaviors
New Ways is structured in four steps, each of which may reduce the risk of alienation developing in a separation or divorce.
Step 1: Getting Started
Step 2: Individual Parent Counseling (6 weeks)
Step 3: Parent-Child Counseling (6 weeks)
Step 4: Family (or Court) Decision-Making
STEP 1: GETTING STARTED
New Ways can be ordered by the judge at a hearing, or agreed to by signed stipulation of the parties. The order or stipulation does not assign blame to either parent, and puts both parents into the identical counseling structure.
Prior to beginning the counseling step of New Ways, each parent is expected to prepare a “Behavioral Declaration” which focuses on specific problem behavior of the other parent, in a very limited space, namely two pages. By so limiting this declaration, it does not reinforce the escalation of highly emotional and all-or-nothing allegations against the other parent. It discourages the attack on the other parent as a whole person, with no redeeming qualities. It focuses on “problem behaviors” rather than the person.
This declaration also includes three statements by each parent describing the positive qualities of the other parent. This goes against their automatic rigid, all-or-nothing thinking. In alienation cases, it is common for one or both parents to only speak in negative terms and to withhold any positive recognition of behaviors or skills of the other parent.
In addition to the behavioral Declaration, each parent prepares a Reply Behavioral Declaration (in reply to the other parent’s concerns expressed in his or her Behavioral Declaration). This Reply Behavior Declaration allows the parent the opportunity to acknowledge behavior problems and to say how he or she intends to work on those problems. This reduces the pressure to simply defend one’s own past behavior. Instead, it focuses on developing positive new behaviors.
If all professionals involved in a case encourage the acknowledgment of problems and help the parents focus on making efforts for positive future behavior, it is expected that less pressure will pass to the children to take sides in the parents’ dispute.
If attorneys are encouraged to explain and support this emphasis on positive future behavior with their clients, it is expected that there will be less anxiety for the clients and more ability to consider new ways of parenting in the future.
Lastly, in getting started, the parents each pick their own Individual Parent Counselor from a list of therapists trained in New Ways for Families®. This shows respect for the parents and reinforces their role in decision-making regarding the separation or divorce.
STEP 2: INDIVIDUAL PARENT COUNSELING
The focus of the Individual Parent Counseling is practicing the three basic skills (flexible thinking, managed emotions, and moderate behaviors), rather than on blaming the other parent.
The New Ways Parent Workbook repeatedly encourages the parent to write down and think about these three skills. This is an encouraging process, without blame, criticism or shame. The focus is repeatedly on future behavior. The therapist and the client discuss current problem situations and how to address them using these new skills (“new ways”).
Whenever the parent blames the other parent in the discussions, the counselor can say “how could you use flexible thinking to address this situation?” Or: “How could you use managed emotions to help solve this problem?” Or : “What moderate behaviors could you use in response to the other parent or your child to manage this problem?”
When a parent starts blaming the other parent or is concerned the other parent is getting away with things, his or her counselor can say: “Remember, the other parent is working on the same issues in the same workbook.” This way each parent can be directed back to their own behavior, knowing that the other parent is being told the same thing.
In some cases, one parent may be “high conflict” and the other may already be reasonable as a parent and may already uses these three skills regularly. In this case, the counselor for the reasonable parent can reinforce these skills as ways to help deal with and in some cases “manage” the more difficult parent. By responding with moderate behaviors to the difficult parent’s extreme behaviors, a reasonable parent may be able to calm the dispute. The way this parallel counseling is structured, a counselor doesn’t have to decide which parent is more difficult, but can reinforce using these skills to manage the other parent regardless of whether he or she is really the more difficult parent.
This method creates a non-defensive, non-blaming environment, which is absolutely necessary for new skills to be practiced and truly learned. The usual high conflict environment of cases with allegations of child abuse and/or parental alienation, actually prevents behavior change from occurring and new skills from being learned. New Ways is structured in the opposite direction so that learning new skills can take place.
In some cases, one or both parents will be unable to learn and demonstrate these low conflict skills of flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. In these cases, they will be unable to reach agreements and make their own parenting decisions. In these cases, they will end up back in court and the judge can observe their learning (or not) regarding these three skills.
A parent cannot get a Verification of Completion signed by his or her therapist, until he or she has completed six full individual counseling sessions and completed his or her Parent Workbook, as well as the Behavioral Declaration and Reply Declaration described in Step 1. This gives a motivation to the parent to complete the process and to work within the New Ways structure, rather than missing appointments or being preoccupied with blaming the other parent in traditionally less-structured counseling sessions.
STEP 3: PARENT-CHILD COUNSELING
The Parent-Child Counselor is specifically assigned by the court or jointly selected by the parents (and their attorneys, if any). In either case, the Parent-Child Counselor starts in a neutral position and is appointed as a neutral expert for the court. This counselor will only be provided each party’s Behavioral Declaration, Reply Behavioral Declaration and related court orders. This helps the Parent-Child Counselor avoid being pulled into an adversarial decision-making role for the parents. It prevents them from swamping the counselor with highly emotional declarations which detail every “transgression” of the other parent. It also helps keep the focus on future behavior rather than past negative behavior.
However, the parent-child counselor will be aware of the worst allegations against each parent from their brief statements in their Behavioral Declarations. The parent-child counselor can address these issues in a productive way, rather than becoming emotionally hooked with the volume of allegations and detail that usually arrives in their office in documents.
The parent-child counseling is structured to keep parents on an equal basis, in terms of number of appointments involving the child and the order of issues addressed.
The first of three sessions for each parent focuses on having the parent teach the children the three low conflict skills of flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. By having each parent teach these same skills to the children, the children learn that both parents support these skills. In addition, the children learn that the parents are expected to be using these skills. In other words, the child is discouraged from forming a negative alliance with a parent around all-or-nothing thinking, un-managed emotions, and extreme behaviors. The child will know that these are “officially” incorrect behaviors. This will help the child resist a “good parent” and a “bad parent” view of their family. In reality, alienated or estranged children are primarily demonstrating those three negative behaviors in concert with one or both parents.
The second session for each parent (which cannot occur until both parents have completed the first parent-child session), focuses on each parent hearing the children’s concerns about the separation or divorce. This also helps deal with the alienation issue, because the child sees that each parent is open to the child’s feedback, with the assistance of the parent-child counselor. In other words, the child can complain to their parents, which is a helpful thing as part of growing up. In the process, the parent-child counselor helps direct the parent to receive the child’s concerns without judgment, without anger and without giving in.
When the child experiences an “all-bad parent” listening in a non-judgmental manner, it may loosen up their all-or-nothing view of that parent. Also, when the child experiences the “all-good parent” listening to negative concerns, the child will be encouraged to take a more flexible approach, rather than having to absolutely treat that parent as “all good.” This experience should assist the child in being less alienated or estranged. This may take a lot of repetition in many more-severe cases.
The third session of parent-child counseling focuses on how each parent and child may act in new ways towards each other and toward the other parent. This should create a momentum towards change in the relationship of the child with each parent. By the “all-good parent” encouraging the child to move forward with activities with the “all-bad parent,” the child will learn that he or she has permission to have a more reasonable and balanced relationship with each parent. By meeting with the “all-bad parent,” the child will learn that steps are going to occur to re-engage the child with that parent. The steps may need to be small, but inevitable.
Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement for re-engagement with the “all-bad parent” will nudge the child forward. This is much more desirable than the all-or-nothing thinking that is applied to many alienation cases, in which a child is simply moved from one parent to the other, in very dramatic and controversial manor. While the author will not rule out that this may be appropriate in a very small number of extreme cases, it should only be used when the New Ways method has been thoroughly tried first. The author’s belief is that by using this approach earlier in potentially high conflict cases, that the number of cases that would reach such an extreme intervention will be very, very small – much smaller than exists today.
On the other hand, there may be some cases in which there is domestic violence or child abuse, and it is appropriate that the child is primarily with the “all-good parent.” However, even in these cases, it is very important for the child to learn that no parent is truly “all-good” and that no parent is not truly “all-bad.” Such an all-or-nothing approach to both parents is harmful to the child’s upbringing, sense of self, and sense of others in close relationships. It interferes with learning which behaviors are appropriate for healthy relationships. If a child learns that everything that one parent does is good, than the child does not learn to distinguish that parent’s healthy behaviors and unhealthy behaviors. If a child learns that one parent is all bad and that everything he or she does is all-bad, then the child does not learn to distinguish that parent’s healthy behaviors and unhealthy behaviors.
NO CONTACT BETWEEN PARENTS
The parent-child counseling, as well as the individual parent counseling, is designed so that neither parent needs to have contact with the other parent during the entire process. This helps prevent high conflict encounters, and protects a victim parent from an abusive parent. Therefore, this method can be safely used with parents in which there are allegations of domestic violence and or child abuse, as well as alienation or estrangement. These issues don’t have to be resolved in order to enter and learn skills in New Ways for Families. By avoiding judgments of blame and a preoccupation with past behavior, while also protecting children and parents, the family has a chance to learn new behaviors that will be more helpful in the long run than any judgments regarding past behavior.
Temporary court orders before the counseling begins, and future court orders after it is over, can still provide protection for a parent and/or children, and future findings can still be made. However, the focus is to be on future behavior. There are so many high conflict families with children that we cannot just accept their failure. For the sake of their children, we need to teach their parents skills for successfully raising their children – so that they do not also become high conflict parents! New Ways has duel goals: Protection against abuse and/or alienation, while focusing on teaching positive skills.
Lastly, the parent-child counselor observes the parent behavior with the children in these three sessions each. By observing three sessions with each parent, the counselor can see an ability to change after receiving feedback and direction from the counselor. Ideally the parents will settle their parenting issues immediately after the parent-child counseling, possibly even before the third session. However, in cases where settlement cannot occur, because of one or both parents inability to develop positive skills, then the family will go to court. In that case, the parent-child counselor can testify at court at the request of either parent or the judge.
However, this counselor does not write a report, as reports tend to escalate parents into high conflict behavior and posturing. Instead, if the parties are able to settle their case, there will be no information that goes to the court other than the completion of the Parent-Child Counseling and their settlement agreement. If they are unable to settle, then that counselor can testify about what was observed. Traditionally, evaluations and reports tend to inspire defensive behavior, more than they resolve. New ways is designed to avoid escalating into high conflict behavior.
However, since the Parent-Child Counselor can testify at court, the court can have current information about each parents’ parenting behavior, which is much more useful than reports of what each parent did several months or years ago. In addition, the Parent-Child Counselor can report on each parents’ ability to change his or her behavior. It’s this ability to change which is the focus of new behaviors and helping families move into positive directions rather than negative, all-or-nothing “attack and defend” cycles of behavior, which inherently spill over to their children and inherently develop into child alienation in many cases.
STEP 4:FAMILY (OR COURT) DECISION MAKING
In this last stage of the New Ways for Families® process, the parents make their own decisions, if possible. All the professionals involved in the case are encouraged to support the parents in making their own decisions, rather than trying to make decisions for them. This may include attorneys, court mediators, private mediators, collaborative professionals, or others. At no time do the parents have to meet together in order to reach a settlement. Even in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, etc, parents can stipulate to future treatment programs (such as drug treatment, such as batterer’s treatment, etc,) and to parenting classes, without having to go to court. The New Ways individual counseling and parent-child counseling can be used to encourage settlement and acceptance of the need for future change. It is expected that some parents who have engaged in negative behaviors will agree to accept treatment for those behaviors, rather than having to go to court and have them publically discussed.
If the parents are unable to reach their own agreements, then they can always go before the judge. Rather than starting out the case with allegations against each other, the judge asks parents to report what each has learned from their counseling in New Ways. This places the burden equally on each parent to explain what he or she has learned, and allows the judge an open-minded opportunity to hear how realistic each parent is. A reasonable parent will be able to talk easily in terms that demonstrate flexible thinking, managing emotions and moderate behaviors. In addition, reasonable parents using this process will feel safe to admit some of their own short comings and things they have learned to do better.
On the other hand, a parent who continues to demonstrate unreasonable behaviors, will expose him or herself to the court as unable to admit past short comings and unable to describe new learnings – because he or she does not believe they need to change and learn anything. Such reports will help the court.
After asking for a report of what each parent has learned, then the judge should quiz the parents on problem parenting scenarios based on their Behavioral Declarations. In this process, the court will listen for realistic self-awareness of problems and solutions. The burden is on each parent to explain what he or she has learned, rather than on the report of an expert that was written before the hearing. This also helps reduce the likelihood of alienation and high conflict behavior. The parent will prepare for this hearing by acting in a more positive manner rather than in a more negative manner. This emphasis on demonstrating one’s own positive skills, rather than emphasizing blame of the other, may help reduce the conflict in the family, which may help reduce the pressure on the children to take sides.
Only after reporting back learnings and demonstrating new solutions to old problems, will the parents be able to fight about each other in the court hearing. Only after the court has formed his or her own impression of each parent’s abilities, will the court hear testimony and argument for and against each parent.
New Ways for Families® is designed in this way to block high conflict behaviors and to reinforce the use of positive skills. This is a new method and is being tried in several cases. For the reasons described above, attorneys, courts and therapists are encouraged to try this new approach to handling child alienation as well as other high conflict issues in family court.
Ask for New Ways!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high-conflict disputes with the most difficult people.