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.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Quest for significance

Parent child alienation is one risk following divorce.   Instances of unrealistic alienation, when one parent drives a wedge between the children and the other parent without good cause, are particularly troubling.  Psychologists have written many articles trying to answer the question: What drives certain parents to damage their child’s relationship to the other parent?    I suggest that the very same motivation that when positively directed can lead parents to thoughtful  post-divorce accommodations may, when misguided, drive parents toward revenge and payback. 

This motivational drive can be called a quest for significance (Kruglanski et al., 2013):  the desire to count, to be someone, to demonstrate value –particularly as defined by one’s culture or community.  This can be a powerful force, in some instances so strong that it overrides interests in personal safety and security. 

Obviously, a quest for significance doesn’t dominate all of our waking moments.  Today my time has been taken up cleaning, paying bills, and arranging my schedule. A quest for significance may be triggered, however, by actual or threatened loss of significance – such as when divorcing spouses must grapple with lost roles and identity but without clear direction about how they can be regained. In the face of such loss, people both seek out and are easily influenced by others’ advice about ways to regain  purpose in their lives – for better or worse. Consider the following example.

After years of emotional estrangement, a couple with two teenage boys divorced.  Both parents were highly distressed, the father feeling he had failed as a father, husband and financial provider, the mother afraid for her financial circumstances and ashamed to appear in their religious community.  In a word, both felt insignificant. But here their paths diverged, influenced largely by their respective communities. 

The mother’s lawyer and her sister encouraged feelings of outrage and victimization.  Her lawyer recommended an aggressive approach to the financial settlement by using access to the children as leverage: “You’re the real parent here, you deserve everything you can squeeze out of him.”  Her sister offered unqualified support of the mother and equally unqualified denigration of the father: “You’ve been wronged and abandoned, time to stand up for yourself.”   When the boys expressed worry about the father’s isolation from them, the lawyer and the sister encouraged her to tell the boys the “truth,”  specifically that their father had  failed as the head of the household and only she could handle the responsibility of parenting the boys.  The boys took the cue and refused to spend time with him, reinforcing the mother’s definition of herself as the  self-sacrificing parent unappreciated and abandoned by her ex.   

The father’s lawyer and Rabbi, in contrast, encouraged a conciliatory approach to the divorce and his therapist encouraged him to “take stock of his life.”   He subsequently left his unrewarding job and pursued long held dreams to enter law school and engage in religious studies. 

I encountered this family several  years after these events.  The father was now a practicing lawyer, deeply involved to his religious studies, remarried, and expecting another child.  Aside from his distress about being alienated from his two boys, he felt more valued professionally and personally than at any prior point in his life.  With his community’s encouragement, he had become a scholar of the law and his faith.  The mother, in contrast, continued to assert her position as wronged and abandoned.   She encouraged the boys to have the same mindset – the three a chorus of complaints about him to school faculty, religious leaders, therapists, and extended family – most of whom responded sympathetically and supportively, encouraging them to stand their ground.   They were proud of their anger, it defined them.

In sum, both parents’ sought renewed significance, but their respective communities encouraged them to find it in markedly different ways:  the father through love, the mother through bitternesss. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reasserting influence -- False Starts

Unrealistically alienated children complain that the rejected parent doesn’t know them, doesn’t understand them, doesn’t respect their feelings.  And this may be true – but not because the parent doesn’t care and isn’t trying, but because their children reject that parent’s influence, don’t respond to that parent’s efforts to come towards them, and thereby deny access to the very information that they accuse the rejected parent of not having.  The children’s willingness and ability to accept influence has been damaged – terribly so. 

Rejected parents find this extraordinarily frustrating. Some of the most important parenting tasks involve influencing our children:  1. Widening their understanding of the world through exposure to varying  cultures, lifestyles, mindsets, and ideas; 2. Reinforcing specific morals and beliefs; 3. Coaching the recognition and appropriate expression of emotions; 4. Building a sense of mastery and accomplishment through persistent effort; 5. Supporting emerging interests; 6. Demonstrating logical thinking; 7. Teaching skills of impulse control; 8. Modeling the problem-solving skills of listening and compromise; 9. Heightening understanding of the value of love, relatedness, and gratitude.

But when parents are unrealistically alienated from their children, they have limited opportunity to influence their children in the ways listed above – and when they try, the children suppress receptivity to that parent’s influence and reject the parent’s efforts to come towards them.  There are many reasons that alienated children do so.   For some, the primary fear is that others, whose opinion the children value, will disapprove, perhaps even shame them for moving towards or being receptive to the rejected parent.  In these instances, the children often convey a contemptuous attitude towards the rejected parent, mirroring the favored parent’s attitudes.  In some cases, alienated children have been told that the rejected parent is dangerous or uncaring or so inadequate that it is not safe for the child to be with him or her.  In these circumstances, repair doesn’t happen because it can’t get started.

Consequently, the first task, before repair can even begin, is to create conditions which minimize the risk of interference or fear of reprisal once the alienated child begins repairing their relationship to their rejected parent.  Ideally, family members “see the light,” recognize the damage being done to the child, and begin to support one another’s efforts to help the child have healthy, rewarding relationships with all family members.  When this doesn’t occur, the courts sometimes restrict the child’s contact with the favored parent  until the relationship with the rejected parent is repaired.

In instances when court intervention is not feasible and the adult family members “have not seen the light,” progress can sometimes be made when alienated children learn the cognitive and behavioral skills necessary to resist alienating influences.  As one teenager remarked: “Oh, that’s just my parents being my parents, I don’t pay that stuff any mind.”   But one problem encountered by this approach is that when progress is made the favored parent feels threatened and terminates the therapy or acts to alienate the child from the therapist.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

More about nudging

There are two street signs in front of our home.  One alerts drivers that this stretch of road is a school zone, maximum speed 25mph.  The second sign warns drivers of a bump ahead.  The first is a mandate: obey or risk a fine.  The second is not a law, it’s a nudge: slow down or risk damage to the car (but it’s your choice).  Although I would like to think that drivers would be more responsive to the school zone designation than the bump warning, the opposite is true (believe me, I’ve collected the data).

Social scientists have demonstrated that nudges exert a powerful effect on our choices – and they exist all around us.  They include default settings on cell phones, automatic appointment reminders from physicians’ offices, the peel of an alarm clock, a text alert, an app that calculates calorie expenditure, the candy display at the checkout counter.   Governments are big users of nudges: health warnings on cigarette packs, nutrition tables on food packaging, feedback about household energy use in comparison to neighbors.   Compliance with a nudge is always voluntary – but the direction it encourages is readily seen.

But not all nudges are effective.   A parent’s remark, this might be a good time to start your homework, may be construed as nagging rather than a well-meaning nudge and yield the opposite behavior from what the parent desired. Social psychologists who research nudges have identified a number of factors that make a nudge more or less effective, such as simplifying the message, using social norms, and providing clear direction. 

I have been applying what I've learned about nudging in my own back yard (literally).  For several years, neighborhood dog walkers who don’t clean up their pets’ mess, particularly when it is deposited in my yard, have irritated me.   So I’ve been experimenting with different nudges to encourage more courteous behavior (on the human's part).  Here’s my latest (and it works!)

Although my objective is less dog poo in my yard, the sign’s goal is to influence human behavior -- not pet behavior.  The city offered to put up a sign citing the law about pet waste and the penalty for breaking it.  But such a sign frames the problem as a legal issue and likely leads many to automatically ask themselves: Can I get away with breaking this law? (The answer: Yes).  So I turned down the city’s offer and duplicated one I had seen at a wildlife preserve. It illustrates several important features of an effective nudge by: 1. Drawing upon reciprocation (we’ve done something for you, now we ask something in return); 2. Referencing social norms (most everyone picks up), 3. Suggesting a specific behavior, and 4. Making it easy and efficient to comply (by providing the poo bags).  Like all nudges, compliance is voluntary, a free choice, but the wording has had the desired effect – I’ve not found any poo in my yard since I posted the sign.  

Although dog poo is not likely to be on most people’s list of top ten annoyances, parents can likely identify any number of child behaviors they would like to influence without nagging and coercing.  Here are some examples of how parents used the power of nudging: 
  • ·       One parent hung a simple sign on the refrigerator on days he planned to do laundry: LAUNDRY DAY. His children understood that he would do any laundry piled in the bin next to the washer, anything not left there would be the children’s responsibility. 
  •         When a mother became weary of her three teenage daughters’ fights over access to their  shared bathroom, she removed the bathroom mirror and placed well-lit mirrors in their rooms.  The girls moved to their rooms to put on their makeup and fix their hair – freeing the bathroom for one another.
  •          Early during every holiday family get-together, one father/uncle/husband/brother-in-law (guess who?) sat the family down to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase.  It’s a laugh, but also a reminder of what a disaster a get-together can be if everyone isn’t on their best behavior (and they always were).
  •          A father using a point system to reward “getting along,” posted pictures on the refrigerator of what the points could purchase when enough had been earned.
  •          A father, alienated from his daughters but still seeing them, acquired a dog as the family’s newest pet. He named her Git-A-Long. 
  •          A mother, frustrated by her ex’ uncooperativeness, scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her son and gave her ex the choice of “opting out” and rescheduling or going along with the appointment she arranged. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Reframing a straw man

One of the powerful forces at work in alienation is “frame-flipping” – portraying the favored parent as the victim rather than the rejected parent and the children.  So rejected parents do not just remarry; they want to start a new family to turn the children away from the favored parent.  Rejected parents don’t want to be left in peace to raise their children; they are actually scheming to marginalize the other parent through court actions. And rejected parents are not actually victims of the favored parents’ negative influences, but beneficiaries of a legal system that facilitates their harassment of the favored parent and the children. This is a more persuasive, more respectable form of bias, one that does not seek to bad-mouth or name-call, rather to reframe the subject and create a straw man.

For example, a rejected mother opposed to her ex’s plan to relocate the children because she wants to maintain proximity and involvement may be portrayed as over-controlling and only interested in destroying the father’s chance for happiness.    A rejected father requesting more parenting time to repair their broken relationship may be accused of being motivated solely by a wish to pay less child support.  One of the most frustrating reframes encountered by rejected parents is an alienated child’s accusation:  “You don’t care about me. I know you don’t. Because if you did, you would respect my wish never to see you again.”  The child is saying, in effect: “The fact that you are trying to care for me proves that you don’t care for me. I am a victim of your caring.”    Rejected parents also encounter advocates who declare that the issue is not about rejected parents’ rights or children’s long-term needs, but rather the children’s rights “to have a voice” – even if that means losing a parent (would these same advocates support a 12-year-old’s voice insisting upon the right to drop out of school?)     

In these instances, it is easy for rejected parents to get caught in a circular trap: justifying their actions and explaining their motivations defensively such that they run the risk of reinforcing rather than neutralizing the negative reframe:  “You don’t listen, you don’t care, you don’t respect my feelings and needs, you’re selfish, you don’t consider any perspective but your own.  I knew you wouldn’t understand.” 

To help offset the pernicious effects of such reframing, rejected parents and professionals can encourage alienated children’s independent critical thinking skills, oftentimes with carefully crafted and timed questions.   Here are five ideas:

1.       Ask general questions:  How do you know what you think you know?  Which is likely more reliable: Something you’ve seen and heard for yourself – or something you heard about from someone else?

2.       Encourage the child to question their basic assumptions:  Do you think the other parent is completely unbiased, completely objective about his/her view of me?

3.       Try reversing the scenario: You’re saying that you know I don’t care because I won’t respect your feelings and walk away.  Does that mean that since you don’t respect my feelings about wanting a relationship and want to walk away that you do care about me? 

4.       Help the child evaluate the evidence:  What is a deadbeat?  Some parents really are deadbeats, but do you have real evidence that your father/mother fits that definition?

5.       Remind the child that no one thinks critically all of the time:  Do you think your mother/father get so caught up in their anger with each other that they lose objectivity?  Does that ever happen to you?