Should I Just Let Go?

multi-colored balloons floating away into the blue sky

© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. This blog is dedicated to coping with difficult communications and High-Conflict People. All too often, parents get caught up in a contentious split and the children hear it all. When that happens, some parents are faced with the decision of caving in to the dreaded words “I want to go live with Mom/Dad.”  In this article, Bill Eddy shares his view on handling parental alienation. 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. 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!”     BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as

Child Alienation: “1000 Little Bricks”

© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. [An excerpt from the book Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce] In this chapter, I explain a theory of  child alienation that I have developed called “1000 Little Bricks.” It’s based on three Cultures of Blame and the little behaviors (bricks) that children absorb from them. When these three cultures reinforce each other, it is a “perfect storm” which can build alienation. This is in contrast to what cultures are supposed to do by protecting children and building their resilience for the future. If any one of these stopped being a Culture of Blame, I believe there would be much less child alienation: 1.  A family Culture of Blame, when a high-conflict parent is involved. 2.  Today’s family court Culture of Blame, which pits parent against parent in an unnecessary contest over who is the “all-good” parent and who is the “all-bad” parent in a divorce, and which involves many family members and professionals who become emotionally “hooked” and feed the escalating conflict. 3. Our society’s increasing Culture of Blame, which turns complex problems into the simple blaming of individuals, with lots of all-or-nothing commentaries, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors repeated endlessly through the news media, entertainment and politics, which feed alienation on a larger scale and influence children’s personality development. I will also introduce the brain science which explains more about how children learn and absorb these Cultures of Blame, without anyone intending it or even realizing it. It is similar to the way that children learn prejudice. Cultures define desirable behavior, what is undesirable but tolerated, and what is unacceptable. Cultures define values, status, and punishments for their people. This is all learned, but without anyone specifically teaching it. Everyone absorbs their culture every day through thousands of comments, jokes, images, whispers, styles, gossip, accusations, praise for heroes, disparaging remarks for villains, and social punishments for those who violate the values or the power structure of the culture. A Family Culture of Blame A Culture of Blame from Day One: High-conflict parents (especially borderlines and narcissists, as described in Chapter One) naturally split people into “all-good” and “all-bad.” From birth, children of HCPs learn about this. For example, Aunt Mary has been the HCP’s favorite sister for many years. But then she goes on a trip and doesn’t invite the HCP. The HCP is offended and sees Aunt Mary now as “all-bad.” The children learn to take the HCP’s side against Aunt Mary, and this calms down the HCP parent. Then, the HCP gets in a dispute with the neighbor. The children know what to do. It’s automatic. And the other parent, who may not be an HCP, has also learned that you don’t argue with an angry HCP when he or she is splitting people into all-good or all-bad. If you do argue with splitting, then YOU become a target and treated as all-bad too. So the children have learned the family Culture of Blame: The HCP parent is unpredictable and frightening. This parent’s intense anger and blame can flare up at any moment. The family solution with an HCP parent is usually to tolerate and adapt to this inappropriate behavior – until it becomes intolerable. Most families don’t have this Culture of Blame within the family. But for HCPs, it’s all about family – the hated people are usually those they used to love, because of splitting. The people they are preoccupied with the most are usually close family members, such as the other parent, one of the children (often HCPs treat one child as “all-good” and another as “all-bad”), one of the grandparents, or other relatives. The children are used to disliking and criticizing one or more of their family members. So it’s a natural progression to absorb the HCP’s emotions about the other parent in a divorce. The child doesn’t have to be given any instructions. The whole family culture has been doing this for years – including the HCP’s relatives. And the non-HCP parent has learned to tolerate it, so the children learn to tolerate it too. It’s contagious and mostly non-verbal. Right and Left Brains The human brain is divided into a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. Each of these “brains” process different information at the same time. The left hemisphere is active in processing language, words and details. When the left hemisphere is working on solving a problem, you may be conscious of thinking about it. The left brain is more active with problem-solving tasks and planning for the future. The right hemisphere is more focused on the big picture, non-verbal behavior, and people’s moods. It is very attentive to other people’s tone of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. If someone in your environment is especially angry or fearful, your right brain will pick up this anger and fear, and your body may tense up before you consciously know why. For the first three years of life, children’s right brains are dominant and developing rapidly, in comparison to their left brains. This means that they are learning every- thing based primarily on their parents’ tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and the emotional messages they are constantly sending out. They become highly familiar with their parent’s regulation of their own emotions and their general level of peacefulness or anxiety. They learn what triggers anxiety in their parent and what calms them down. This is all learned before they really understand language. Their parent’s body language is really all they need to know. They learn the family’s Culture of Blame very quickly and thoroughly – and nonverbally and unconsciously. With an HCP parent, blaming someone becomes natural. Children quickly learn who’s powerful and who’s not in their family culture. They learn whose moods dominate everyone else’s behavior. It’s natural to want to be on the winning side – for survival. Children are on the road to becoming alienated against several people in their lives well before their

Thoughts on Shared Parenting Presumptions (Part 2/4)

© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Different Needs at Different Ages Birth to age 5: Generally, this is a period when children need lots of stability and “secure attachment” experiences with both parents. Generally, it appears best to have one parent with the majority of the time and the other parent having frequent access, although this doesn’t have to be long to be beneficial for this age child. It’s the frequency that matters. For various reasons, biological and historical, mothers have had the majority of time during these years, although fathers have been very actively and successfully involved as long as they didn’t undermine the development of a secure attachment with the mother. The most important part is that the child has a secure attachment with both parents, regardless of time: that they are predictable, consistent and emotionally available when they are with the child. I agree with the majority of researchers I have read over the past thirty years, such as the following comments in the introduction to a journal on the subject of child attachment in divorce: One widespread view shared by this Issue’s contributors is that children should be assigned to the primary custody of one parenting figure (whether mother or father) across approximately the first three years of life…. Such a position – if taken consistently by the court – should contribute to the alleviation of this often central focus of parental stress, confusion and contentiousness. In addition, many papers in this Issue may also serve to reduce the worries of the ‘visiting’ parent via an understanding that his or her relationship during infancy and toddlerhood need not ultimately be ‘secondary’ in any important sense. Thus, so long as the ‘visiting’ parent can maintain regularity of contact which involves lively, sensitive interactions with the child, the child’s opportunity for forming a full and secure attachment to that parent will remain intact. Judges informed by these views can (a) alleviate the strain incurred by both parents engaged in a well-meaning but untoward attempts at designing ‘half-and-half’ early care arrangements; and (b) reassure the ‘secondary’, ‘visiting’ parent that his/her opportunity for establishing a full relationship with the child need not be compromised. Attachment Theory and Research, Main et al., Family Court Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, July 2011 (426-463), 427. When my clients are the parents with much less parenting time during this period, I reassure them that these early years are laying the groundwork for all future relationships for the child, so that having stability and security of contact for the child with the other parent will benefit my client in developing a relationship later on of equal significance, whether or not there is equal time later on. In some of my cases, it has been the father who has had the majority of this parenting time and the child has developed quite a secure primary attachment. However, most of the time it has been the mother and there is some research that reinforces the biological precedent for this – from pregnancy to children having more neurons for processing a woman’s voice in early childhood. In either case, it is more important that the child have at least one consistently secure attachment at this age, than to have two insecure attachments with parents who are undermining each other. Of course, if the primary parent is seriously disturbed then he or she should have much less than 50% of the parenting time so that the other parent (assuming he or she is less disturbed) can provide a secure primary attachment. However, in general, both parents can have secure attachments during this age period, even if one has a lot more time than the other. It’s the interactive quality and consistency of the relationship that makes it secure or not, not the amount of time. A presumption for equal shared parenting time during these early years could undermine the child’s ability to develop a secure attachment with either parent and thereby undermine his or her sense of security and long-term personality development (insecure early childhood attachment appears to be one of the main factors in developing adult personality disorders). Age 5-12: Generally, this is the age range when children seem to do fine with relatively equal shared parenting. There are a variety of schedules (2-2-5-5; alternate weeks – with a mid-week visit with the other parent; etc.) that seem to work, so long as the parents both support the schedule. If they don’t both support the schedule, then it’s easy to make this fail. (I’ve seen many cases where one parent who is uncomfortable with the schedule says “it’s too many back-and-forths” or “too long away.” Then the child appears to absorb this parent’s concern and makes the exact same complaints – even though many other children with relaxed parents seem to do fine with these schedules.) The key here is that these are cooperative parents, and that their children have been raised with both parents actively involved. There are many other children who experience significant distress by having a shared parenting schedule, who are much happier to have a primary parent (65% or more) and less time with the other parent. Fighting against such a schedule usually increases the child’s anxiety, rather than increasing their happiness. Of course, there are some cases (domestic violence, alienation, etc.) in which I have encouraged a “noncustodial” parent to fight for a change in custody because the primary parent has had serious behavior problems. But if the effort has not succeeded after a year or two, I have advised many parents to stop the fight if they have at least 25% of the parenting time, as it will not help the child to be raised in the context of an endless battle. I have had several cases in which the noncustodial parent developed a much stronger relationship after the child turned 18 or 20, because they had stopped the battle years before when it was clear it was not succeeding.