© 2010 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
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.
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.