Saturday, May 19, 2018


It’s understood that divorced family members see family conflict through their respective narratives.  In extreme instances, one parent may see it through the “I’m being terrorized for wanting to be a parent” narrative and defend their efforts to hold the other parent accountable.  The other parent may see it through a “I’m trying to protect myself and the children” narrative and condemn the other parent’s actions.  If the children resist aligning with one or the other, they may hold a sad, resigned “divorced parents will be divorced parents” narrative.

Mental health professionals generally see such situations through the  “extreme polarized conflict hurts everybody” narrative.  Each situation starts with a wonderful achievement, the birth of the children, that later evolved to a terrible wrong – the lost opportunity for the children to develop in a family culture of understanding, love, and peace. 

When matters go awry, most divorced families try, often in fits and starts, to address this wrong and create two loving, cooperative households.   And thankfully, most accomplish this goal.  It may be an uneasy peace, but they make it work over the changing landscape of their children’s development and life’s challenges.  

But in more troublesome situations, some family members’ mindsets shift from “let’s figure out how to get along” to “let’s figure out how we can eliminate you.”  In these instances, family members replace the future oriented question “What can we do?” with a focus on the past: “Who should we blame?”   Energies are not pointed to inventing solutions; energies shift to developing the most persuasive argument that the other is to blame for past disruptions.  The tactic is moral condemnation, the goal is vindication. 

The conflict becomes more acute when one or more family members conclude that complete victory is the only acceptable outcome.  Rather than searching for accommodations and less than perfect solutions that allow the family to function reasonably well, the goal shifts to getting everything they want – as though someday the other family member will simply disappear.  Anything less is unacceptable; planning shifts from finding solutions to creating dramas that illustrate how put upon we are.

The problem in such situations is that family members caught up in this new narrative turn from identifying incremental solutions that advance everyone’s  interests, thereby setting the stage for later improvements,  to expressing moral outrage and justification for continuing to attack rather than cooperate.   

When faced with such a partner, accommodating rarely works.  It runs the risk of reinforcing rather than discouraging the untoward behavior.   Responding tit-for-tat is also problematic; it likely leads to escalating conflict rather than a mutual desire to back away and it involves the respondent in the very type of repugnant behavior they had been condemning. 

A more nuanced approach is required: one that sets limits on what should be discouraged and reinforces what needs to be more evident. Filing a contempt motion in response to repeated harassment is a limit. Showing financial records to the children to counter  the other parent’s accusations of being a deadbeat is another type of limit.  But when setting such a limit, family members must be quick to recognize constructive behaviors from the other party, however unlikely it seems, and be prepared to respond in kind.  


Monday, March 12, 2018

Fail to help at a rate the child can stand

A challenge for parents is to create a “holding environment” in which their children can learn adaptive behaviors and problem solving skills.  This means a space that is safe and uncomfortable.  Imagine a mother running alongside her three year old son as he learns to bicycle. He is safe to the extent that his mother is alongside to catch him if falls, reach out if he gains too much speed, or help him up if he takes a spill. But he is uncomfortable because he is doing the work of learning to shift his balance, pedal, and turn the handle bar.  If Mom does all the work by holding onto the bike, he will learn little; that would not be a holding environment. But if she is alongside prepared to help but not touching him, she has created a holding environment.

I see this problem crop up with divorced parents who feel extra-protective of their children because they feel so distressed that the children must grow up in a “broken home.”  The problem becomes particularly acute when divorced parents don’t trust one another’s judgment about what is both safe enough and uncomfortable enough to create a healthy holding environment. One mother protested the father taking the children on a hike up a “Fourteener” in the Rockies, asserting it was too dangerous; the father protested that she was preventing the children from experiencing the reward of mastering challenges. Neither one trusted the other’s judgment regarding the appropriate level of risk to which to expose their children.

Tensions heighten if the parents turn their philosophies against one another. One Dad logged his 9th grade son’s homework assignments, checked his son’s work, and kept in daily contact with the teachers about missed assignments. He asserted that his exceptional daily involvement demonstrated his superiority as a parent. Mom, in contrast, kept an eye on her son’s progress, spoke to him about how he could manage his work more efficiently, identified the consequences of failing, but otherwise let him fend for himself.  She complained to the court that the father was so over-involved that their son was not learning how to self-manage his academic responsibilities. 

Let’s consider again our three year old learning to bicycle.   A good holding environment is one in which he can’t avoid the problem (how do I avoid falling over) but still safe enough to experiment with different skills. If his mother holds him by the seat as he rides along, he may feel like he is bicycling, but he isn’t.  Left free, in contrast, he must do the work of learning to pedal to maintain momentum, shift his weight to maintain balance, and turn the handlebar – knowing Mom is there to reach out and insure his safety if he needs help. 

Of course, children don’t need a holding environment for every challenge.  One boy might careen down the slope without needing his parents’ support, happy to take the risk of falling in pursuit of speed and mastery.  But faced with a difficult essay assignment, the same boy might want his parent or a tutor to handhold him every step of the way.  When faced with such demands, parents, coaches and instructors must learn to “fail to help at a rate the child can stand,” gradually stepping back as the child progresses and achieves mastery.  

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Under the right circumstances, serendipity – unpredictable, unexpected, impossible to plan events – can create new systems dynamics or changed mindsets that trigger rejected parents and their children to heal their damaged relationships. 

The first time I encountered this, a college student who had been estranged from his mother since early adolescence showed up unannounced at her door during a semester break, asking to repair their relationship.  He explained that after reading the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments on social influence in a psychology class, he realized his paternal grandparents had used similar strategies to alienate him from his mother. His mindset had shifted: I was brainwashed, I’m thinking more clearly now, I want to fix this. Similarly, the mindset of three siblings alienated from their father, a scientist, changed when they chanced upon a YouTube video of him presenting research at a conference. Seeing and hearing the importance of his work and the high regard of his peers prompted them to see him as someone to admire, not to denigrate.

Changing family dynamics, even tragic ones, can also prompt repair. In one instance, a 16 year old boy, alienated from his father for four years, finally responded positively to his father’s repeated initiatives after his maternal grandfather died unexpectedly.  Free from the grandfather’s disapproval, this teen felt safe to move towards his father again.  In another sad case, the accidental death of a younger brother prompted his older sister to set aside her grievances and her father’s influence to resume a positive relationship with her mother. 

In other cases, the turning event was a change in one or the other parent’s life.  Illness can play a role, such as the instance of a mother who prompted her daughter to repair her relationship to her father when the mother was diagnosed with cancer.  In other cases, a favored parent’s desire to move out of state to join a new spouse or to take a new job prompted them to insist the children repair their relationship to the other parent and resume regular parenting-time in order to gain permission to move. 

In almost all instances, another factor stood out: the rejected parents had not stopped reaching out to their children – however infrequently.  Despite birthday cards and texts unanswered and holiday gifts unacknowledged – even returned – these parents kept trying.  Sometimes contact only occurred, at the rejected parent’s insistence, in a therapist’s office – in one instance for six years before regular parenting time resumed. In effect, these rejected parents persistently let their children know that they still cared about them and were receptive to repairing the relationship at any time. They did not walk away – despite the fact that many of the children (and some of the favored parents) behaved despicably towards them.    

And when serendipitous events prompted repair, the rejected parents responded openly and positively to their children’s return.   Rather than voicing their hurt and resentment about being treated so shabbily, these parents shared the philosophy of letting bygones be bygones and being grateful they could move forward in relation to their children. 


Friday, July 14, 2017

We're supervisionalized

In some instances of damaged parent-child relationships following divorce, parents and children only have contact in supervised visits or in therapeutic sessions.  In most cases, the stated goal is to repair the relationship efficiently and for the parent and child to resume regular contact outside of a professional setting within a reasonable time.  There are situations, however, that drag on for protracted periods, sometimes extending to years of therapy and/or supervised contact.    In more than one instance in my experience, children have spent more than half their life relating to a parent exclusively in a professional setting.

When progress finally occurs in these cases and the goal of contact outside the therapist’s office is discussed, a new problem occasionally emerges: family members have learned to relate positively within the confines of a professional setting and are so used to doing so that they resist venturing out.  A teen who had been in various therapeutic settings for six years with the rejected parent struggled to find words to express this dilemma.  After mangling various terms, the teen arrived upon a wonderfully insightful description: “We’re supervisionalized.”  Like prisoners and mental health patients who become so institutionalized after long confinement that they don’t know how to function outside the confines of the institution, this teen was pointing out that family members didn’t know how to be in relation to one another outside the confines of a professional setting – and were frightened at the possibility of doing so. Just as prisoners and inpatients may need life-skills training and coaching before they re-enter the world to avoid recidivism or relapse, so these family members needed further education (and occasionally, a gentle shove). 

In my experience, two factors in the current legal-mental health effort to help these families can contribute to the problem.  The one I see most often occurs when courts over-rely upon progress in therapy and the treating professionals’ recommendations to determine if, when and at what pace regular contact will resume.  Such over-reliance upon the treating professional’s opinions can over-burden the therapeutic effort as family members see each session as an opportunity to plead their case as to why they should or should not have contact. In effect, the therapist’s office becomes an extension of the court room.  It also puts therapists in a bind: making a recommendation to a court that counters what one or more family members want strains, may even end, the therapeutic working relationship.  So...many therapists in this situation do what might be understandably expected to protect their therapeutic relationship: they keep their opinions to themselves (in the name of being neutral) and let the therapy drag on.  It is oftentimes more effective for the court to retain authority over parenting time and to charge the therapist with the task of helping the family make the plan work – rather than asking the therapist to determine the plan. 

A second problem occurs when therapists take a one-sided advocacy role, either for or against resumption of contact.  On countless occasions I have heard children’s therapists and family therapists counsel against contact outside of a therapeutic setting because the children feel “uncomfortable,” that contact should only resume when the children are comfortable doing so.  But would these same therapists encourage parents to hold their children back from attending school because the children are uncomfortable about going the first day?  Or that parents should forgo their children’s scheduled vaccinations or needed medical treatment because the children are uncomfortable going to the doctor’s office? 

And when therapists advocate strongly for a parent who wants to resume outside contact, they may find that doing so increases the other family members’ resistance rather than persuading them to concede.  Indeed, the teen referenced at the beginning of this post recalled that previous pressure to spend time with the rejected parent outside of supervised visitation only increased their resistance to doing so: “I wasn’t about to give in and lose the war.” 

In either instance, the advocating therapist may contribute to supervisionalized family members rather than helping them move on.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

Before you send that angry email....

A mother was angry that her ex planned to move to a neighborhood different from the one they had both lived in since their divorce.  Although he was allowed to do so by the terms of their divorce decree, she felt he moved to spite her rather than having any real practical need to do so.  She subsequently sent him a critical, self-righteous email saying that he was not acting in the best interest of the children, that his motives were selfish and ill-considered.  Did she expect her communication to persuade him to change his plans?  Of course not:  “It just felt good to let loose on him.” 

She did feel better – but to what end?   Her email confirmed in the father’s mind that he was prudent to move further away from her, that it was this type of behavior that had marred their post-divorce working-relationship: “She hits send, I hit delete.”    

Divorced parents would be wise to ask themselves before they send a contentious email or text:

       Will this communication help our working relationship?

       Is this communication likely to lead my ex to listen to my point of view? 

       Am I doing this to feel better rather than expecting to make a difference?

If the answers to the first two questions are No and the answer to the third is Yes, then there is a substantial risk that such a communication will make the situation worse for the sender in the long run, even if he or she feels self-righteous gratification in the short-run for having sent it.  In the above instance, for example, the father turned aside all of the mother’s subsequent inquiries about trading parenting-time periods and coordinating school events and extra-curricular activities.   Her email achieved the opposite of what she sought.