Sunday, December 22, 2013

Apology given, apology received

In families, everyone makes mistakes. But what is the best way to apologize and repair what was broken?

Psychologists, ethicists and theologians have identified the key elements of apology:  accepting responsibility, making recompense, committing to do better, and expressing understanding of the other’s experience. 

But there are other ways as well, that may be just as effective, although less direct and less verbally driven. 

A young teen, over-identified with his parents’ angry view of one another, verbally attacked his sibling during a family therapy session.  He then verbally attacked the therapist when the parents were asked to remove him from the room because his behavior had become abusive.  In the subsequent family session, he declared that he would say nothing further, that he was “done” with therapy and the therapist if he wasn’t going to be allowed to “say what is on my mind.” He busied himself with an art project rather than participate directly although he hinted with evident attentiveness to the discussion that he wanted to be part of the group again. Most significantly, he did not take after his sibling as he had done repeatedly in prior sessions.  He “got it” that he was expected to modify his behavior towards his sibling and self-corrected, but how was he going to repair matters with the therapist, whom he had also attacked? 

Rather than tackle this head on, knowing such would likely trigger another meltdown by this exceptionally reactive and defensive boy, the therapist waited to see how he would solve this dilemma for himself.  And he did.  In a subsequent session, the boy said he had seen a short video in school (a TedTalk by Eduardo Briceno) that was helpful to him.  After playing it on his mother’s smart phone, he explained how the video had given him a new perspective on personal challenges and personal growth, how he could see each setback as an opportunity to learn rather than a measure of success or failure, and that he immediately thought it would be a good addition to the therapist’s tool box of educational material.  In other words, he gifted the video to the therapist and the family.

And with that, he had “squared” himself with the therapist—who accepted his “apology” gracefully and without further comment.  This boy had found a way to repair matters without losing face or embarrassing himself; he could leave feeling proud that he had brought something positive to the family and to the therapist, rather than ashamed that his prior comments had been so mean and hateful.  

Apologies succeed when the bid is genuine and the recipient is receptive.  In the above instance, the therapist and the parents recognized the boy's effort, accepted the way he presented it, and let the matter be settled. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Misinformation and bias

Narratives, or "frames," are important cognitive tools that organize information and manage complexity. Narratives also allow for efficient communication, although sometimes at the cost of completeness.  To describe someone as a "dog person," for example, may prompt the listener to picture what she likes, how she spends her time, and what she enjoys talking about.  And while this picture, developed from just two words, may capture a great deal about our dog lover, it leaves out what the frame did not include, such as the "dog person's" passion for gardening and bicycling. Narratives also create the conditions ripe for the inclusion of misinformation, such as the incorrect description of our subject as a "cat hater," which can be highly resistant to correction when it fits well into pre-existing frames.

Narratives play an important part in understanding post-divorce conflicts.  Conflicting divorced parents usually create a narrative that explains and justifies their involvement in the dispute. Oftentimes, a court's or evaluator's challenge is to sort out whether, or how much, of a parent's narrative is an accurate frame from which to view the confict. One mother justified blocking the father's access to the children as a form of protection. She sought support for her position by alleging: (1) that he was an abusive, controlling husband, who (2) frightened the children and (3) committed adultery.  Although a psychological evaluation, collateral sources and court findings did not support the mother's narrative, the mother's counselors as well as the children, extended family members and allied professionals continued to perceive the father as a danger.

What cognitive factors contribute to people maintaining a false picture, even when provided accurate information?  One factor is repetition: the more times information is repeated, the more likely it is to be believed and the harder it is to correct if it later turns out to be incorrect.  And when new information is compatible with what is already believed, it is likely to be accepted and incorporated into the narrative. Thus, once a narrative shapes a worldview, even incorrect beliefs can become fixed in the mind's eye and resist correction. Interestingly, presenting factually correct information can "backfire," prompting counter-arguments to information that contradicts the prevailing narrative. The father in the above case, for example, showed his children bank statements demonstrating that their mother's allegation that he did not pay child support was false.  The children, however, reacted by accusing him of falsifying the statements, saying the statements were further evidence that he was a "deadbeat liar."  They felt more certain of his bad character after they saw the bank statements than before.

Lack of skepticism also contributes to misinformation becoming entrenched in a particular narrative, particularly when there are relatively few "voices" expressing doubts about the accuracy of the information or the source's motivations. People suspend doubt and go along with the a prevailing point of view ("popular opinion") in part to avoid being an outlier. But casting doubt on a source's motivations can introduce a skeptical mindset.  Teenagers, for example, are less susceptible to tobacco industry advertising when the companies' motivation is defined as an effort to manipulate the teens into using something that will ultimately harm them.

The next post will identify several other strategies for overcoming misinformation, bias, and the backfire effect. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rejected Parents: Remaining hopeful when all seems hopeless

When Michael divorced, he expected a rough patch before
he and his ex and their sons settled into new routines. But when he started trying to fulfill his parenting time schedule,"it was a nightmare."  At first, the boys resisted accompanying him and refused to go to his home. Eventually, they stopped accompanying him altogether. Despite having had good relationships with him prior to the divorce, now they mimicked their mother's contemptuous attitudes towards him. Counseling was ineffective -- it just became another setting for the boys and the mother to berate him.

Despite being discouraged, Michael never gave up."I was tempted to walk away but I never lost hope that by hanging in there, the boys would eventually realize how much I cared."  Another rejected father, Jon, said something similar: "I trusted that my son would ultimately see through this objectively and realize what had happened; that's what kept me hopeful."

Like others facing challenges, hope enabled these fathers to persist despite repeated and devastating rejections and mistreatment.

So what is hope?  The late psychologist, Charles Snyder, suggested that hope has three elements: goals, agency, and pathways. Agency is confidence that we can direct our lives -- the knowledge that we have the skills and staying power to achieve our goals. Pathways are the strategies and routes we use to get there. Hope is closely associated with optimism -- but it is more than an expectation that good things will happen, hope focuses on specific goals.  Jon said: "I experienced my father's unconditional love and appreciation; I wanted my son to experience the same from me; I never lost sight of that."

But maintaining hope is more than an individual enterprise -- it requires help.  Michael recalled: "I doubted at times that the boys would give me a chance, but I had a lot of people telling me to keep trying, they helped remind me of what was important."  Similarly, Jon relied upon his religious faith and community to "live in peace and to forgive, even in this terrible situation."  Tellingly, both Michael and Jon deliberately rejected the advice of those who counseled them to give up, to exact vengeance on their ex's, or to accept the hopelessness of their situation in the name of "moving on."

In contrast to Michael and Jon,I find that Rejected Parents who lack hope are most at risk to give up and walk away. They often lack social supports, focus on immediately discouraging circumstances rather than a long term goal, and view themselves as helpless to make a difference. Rather than planning and taking action, they shut down, believing they do not have the ability or means to overcome the present challenges.

Contrast that attitude with Michael and Jon's.  Michael didn't have the resources to pursue matters legally, so he determined to make himself a weekly presence in the boys' lives -- whether they liked it or not. He consistently showed up at the start of his parenting time, even when the boys only came to the door to yell profanities at him. He attended parent teacher conferences, paid for their religious education, sent them text messages, and attended their games.  For years, this is what he did. Jon was similarly persistent, compelling treatment by court order, never giving in to his son's pleas to "just leave me and Mom alone," and asserting his parental rights and duties through the court.

It's important to note that Jon and Michael remained realistic about the challenge of reconnecting with their lost sons. They did not have over-optimistic expectations.  Neither one set out to achieve a quick fix or a relationship without problems. Indeed, both anticipated that it might be well into their children's adult years before reconciliation occurred. They learned to measure success in small increments (Jon's son accepted a birthday card without comment rather than berating him as he had the year before) and to take a philosophical attitude about their sons' rejections, "they know not what they are doing," Michael said. Both Michael and Jon eventually reconnected with their children, Michael after five years, Jon after three.  As Michael said, "there were many days and nights, years even, when I despaired. But alongside my despair, I always hoped that if I just kept at it, something would break free."

Next post: How to rebuild hope when all seems hopeless 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Parent child alienation: Understanding the Favored Parent

In instances of unreasonable parent-child alienation, the Favored Parent's motivations to remove the other parent from their children's lives often come under the scrutiny of court officers.  One of the most common explanations is vengeance--the Favored Parent is assumed to be exacting payback for the other parent's perceived misdoings.

I find, however, that many Favored Parents are not driven by a need for justice as much as they are by an over-riding interest in promoting their children's success in a particular academic, athletic, or artistic endeavor that binds their children to them. Perceiving that the other parent's involvement will interfere with the children achieving the success the Favored Parent dreams for them (and themselves), they attempt to remove the other parent from a position of influence, just as they would fire a coach, or hire a new tutor, or change dance studios if they concluded their child needed something different to succeed--no matter how the child felt about the change.

While practicing in Texas, for example, I encountered several Favored Parents who dreamed that they and their children would raise cattle, live on a ranch, and rodeo together, living the cowboy life in the West. Perceiving that the other parent's lack of interest in this lifestyle would turn their children away from cowboying, they bullied their ex's to leave the community with false rumors and threats. In other instances, Favored Parents intended for their children to succeed as teen movie stars, musical prodigies, or pro athletes.  The other parent, preferring that their child have a "normal" childhood with a wide range of experiences, resisted these efforts and, as a result, became peripheral, irritating figures in the child's -- and the Favored Parent's -- efforts to achieve fame. In other instances, Favored Parents were invested in their children achieving exceptional academic success, attending Ivy League colleges, and going on to high status professional lives. When the other parent was not perceived as on board with these aspirations, the Favored Parent portrayed them to the children as unsupportive, uncaring, and unimaginative.

Although these Favored Parents insisted at the time that they were insuring that their children could follow their own dreams, I suspected that these parents were projecting their dreams onto the children, without regard to the children's preferences and interests.  The children, fearing the Favored Parent's rejection if they did not comply, went along, but sometimes only half-heartedly so.  Of course, if the children did fulfill the Favored Parent's dreams, then the Favored Parent felt justified, vindicated even, for undermining the child's relationship to the other parent.  But the long term outcome is not always what the Favored Parent planned. One teen, being groomed by the mother to attend an Ivy League college and become an international diplomat (her own unrealized goal), ended her dream by attempting suicide, necessitating his placement  with the father. In a tragic example of blowback, a teen who rejected his mother while being raised to be a cowboy by his father shot him in self-defense during a subsequent confrontation.

In other instances, a Favored Parent's dreams for participating in their children's planned successes are thwarted when a Court, recognizing the alienation, places the children with the Rejected Parent. Unfortunately, these parents then often do what the children always feared they might: They walk away, rejecting the child who no longer meets their projected need.   

Monday, May 20, 2013

"What we have here is a failure to communicate" Prison guard to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

Joe worked hard to help his 14-year-old son find the right baseball team. He took him to tryouts, spoke to the coaches, compared costs, and matched game schedules with his son's other activities. He did it all and he did it well.  And his son was super-excited about the team they chose.

Then Joe approached his son's mother, Linda, about paying half the sign up, travel, and uniform costs. She replied: "You've got to be kidding! No way!"  Joe was hurt and angered: "What else could I have done? I did all the work, saved you all the hassles. I thought you would be happy that I took on the responsibility."

What had Joe done wrong?  As far as working relationships go, he failed to do the most important things of all: communicate, consult, and listen.

Consider Linda's point of view:

"I don't like surprises."  
Joe startled Linda with a "done deal" that incurred significant costs.  She resented not being asked for input and worried about the long-term financial commitment. And now Joe wanted an on-the-spot decision.  Thus, she made a hasty emotional decision: "Forget it."   In short, Joe had not provided her time to make a reasoned decision.

"What in the world were you thinking signing him up for such an expensive program?"
Good question. Joe may have sound reasons for choosing an expensive program, but how would Linda know?  He hadn't informed her along the way as to the options and why he eliminated less expensive alternatives.

"Don't my thoughts count for anything?"  
Apparently not. If Joe wants her to share the cost, he better learn to share decision-making. Without a request to be involved, Linda feels her viewpoint is not just unwanted, it is without merit -- at least from Joe's perspective. Linda wants Joe to solicit her views, not ignore them.

"What choice do I have? Pay up or look like a jerk to our son? What kind of choice is that?" 
Linda feels coerced. Joe has created a wonderful opportunity for their son to enjoy a sport -- and an equally wonderful opportunity for Linda to look like a spoilsport. Of course, she can go along with Joe and pay a portion of the fees--but at the cost of feeling trapped into a plan she does not endorse.

Before deciding: Inform, ask for advice, listen. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Another exchange, same old mistakes

For one divorced couple, it's deja vu all over again.  Mom didn't want to drive the children to Dad's home; Dad didn't want to drive to pick them up.  The subsequent exchange, when it finally occurred, was accompanied by such acrimony that the police came, yet again.  This isn't the first time. In fact, the children and the police are on a first name basis.  What's going on?

First, each parent applies a double standard, saying and doing things that they accuse the other of doing. Mom, for example, complains to anyone who will listen that Dad is a fat slob more interested in watching football than being with his children.  But just last week Mom was outraged when Dad accused her of being more interested in dating "whatever guy is around" than spending time with the children.

Second, they expend excessive energy questioning one another's motives and preciously little on the facts.  Dad complains that Mom tries to control him by making him look bad in the eyes of the children. He perceives that she will stop at nothing to make his life miserable: "She's all about making me look like a jerk to the kids."  Mom, for her part, says that Dad's primary motivation is to leave the hard work of raising the children while taking credit for their good adjustment: "He's a free-rider, has been all his life."

Third, neither one accepts responsiblity for their part in the debacle.  Rather than quickly acknowledging mistakes and moving on, both rationalize, obfuscate, and deny.  Time and effort that could be better spent -- and enjoyed -- with the children is spent on tit-for-tat accusations and denials.

What Mom and Dad need to do is simple--but hard to carry out: admit their mistakes.  On this occasion, it was Mom's turn to drive the children to Dad's home but she had forgotten about her  doctor's appointment. She would have done well to say she was anxious about the appointment, irritated with herself for creating the scheduling conflict, and regretted over-reacting when Dad wouldn't help her out.  Dad, who really wasn't doing anything important that evening, could acknowledge that he refused to help out of pique and over-reacted when she over-reacted.  Both could improve matters by simply saying: "We screwed up, we can do better."

Don't let your standard be a double standard. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Listening to an alienated teen

Transcript of a text exchange between a father and his alienated teenage son:

Father:  (1:49 PM) Will you come over on Saturday? I have an X-box.
Son:      (1:50 PM)  Shut up.
[Translation: A completely alienated child would not respond at all.  The reply “shut up” conveys an underlying wish to reconnect.]
Father:  (1:54 PMI will set it up and practice until you come over so I will be hard to beat.  I love you. Dad.
Son: (1:56 PM)  Shut up. I hate you.
[Translation: The son is trying to provoke the father into an angry response that would justify the son’s rejection and obnoxious behavior towards his father.]
Father:  (2:05 PM)  The last time you played real well and showed improvement.
Son:    (2:08 PM  I hate you. Die.
[Translation: The father’s persistence is creating uncomfortable ambivalence in the son: "Should I accept his reaching out to me or reject him?" He reacts by  trying to provoke the father to “go away” so that he does not have to feel bad.]
Father: (2:15 PM)  Hate is a heavy burden to carry. I love you whether you hate me or not.  You can not break my love for you. I hope I see you soon. Dad
Son: (2:17 PM) God, what is it going to take?
[Translation: The son's resistance is softening.  He is asking, in effect: “Exactly how strong is your love for me?”]
Father:  (2:25 PM)  I am sorry for the things I’ve done to make you so angry and to hate me.  I love you very much and my heart will not leave you as long as I live.
Son: (2:38 PM)  God damn you, respect my frickin feelings.
[Translation: “You are making this very difficult for me, I’m all mixed up now. If you would only act like a bad father like I want you to  I could treat you like a bad father.”]
Father: (2:45PM)  Let’s work on this together. Dad
Son: (2:57 PM)  WTF
Father: (3:00PM) I don’t understand your abbreviations.
Son: (3:02 PM) look it up
Father: (3:03 PM) Where?
Son:  (3:04 PM) look it up
Father: (3:05 PMthat means you want to teach me the X-Box thing?
Son: (3:06 PM) ha ha
[Translation: Like any teenager, the son enjoys knowing what WTF means when the father doesn’t: “I’m hip, you’re not.”]
Father: (3:07 PM) I have 2 controllers and 10 games.
Son: (3:08 PMLeave me alone. Do you speak English?
[Translation: The son is still engaging:  still provoking his father, but also inviting him to continue trying.]
Father: (3:09 PM) I will pick you up on Saturday at 11:00
Son: (3:10 PM) No
Father: (3:11 PM) Noon?
Son: (3:12 PM) No
Father: (3:13 PM) 1:00?
Son: (3:14 PM) No.
Father: (3:15 PM) If you come over any later, you won’t have time to hook up the X-box and teach me how to play.
Son: (3:16 PM) 3:00 to 6:00
[Translation: Thanks for hanging in there with me.  You've convinced me that you can handle my sh... I’ll come over and beat you at X-Box instead of beating you up relationally.]
Father:  (3:18 PM) Okay, I will pick you up at 3:00 on Saturday and if you have any X-box games, please bring them.
[Translation: “All sins are forgiven, let’s be father and son again.”]


Monday, March 25, 2013

The Power of Apology

The recent headlines carried a story of President Obama's facilitation of an apology by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu to the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. The apology was important; it lead Turkey and Israel, two important allies of the United States, to agree to resume the diplomatic relations that had been suspended for a year following Israel's interdiction of a Turkish flagged ship that lead to the death of multiple passengers.  Leaders from around the world have praised Netanyahu for the political courage to make the apology and Erdogan's courage to accept it.

But apology is important to all of us, not just between states at odds.  How many times have you said or have you heard others say: "All I want is an apology!"

Why apologize?
When a co-parenting relationship has been strained by untoward comments or bad behavior, an apology can make things right again. Apologies restore dignity, trust, and a sense of justice. But delivering an effective apology may be more complicated than you realize..and responding constructively to an apology can also be difficult.

Should you always apologize?
In a word, no. Humans have a razor-sharp antennae for insincerity. If you don't feel apologetic, don't apolgize. You will do more harm than good.

What makes an effective apology?
There are four important elements to an effective apology:

  • Acknowledge that one's behavior caused hurt, embarrassment or fear. "I am calling to apologize for the things I said yesterday. My comments were out of line an embarrassed you in front of the children. I hurt you unnecessarily."
  • Express regret. Although saying "I'm sorry" is not enough for a complete apology, it is a necessary part of rebuilding trust.
  • Commit to fixing the problem and not repeating the behaviors.  The apology should include a commitment to improved behavior and better self-restraint. "I've learned a lesson here; I won't bring up stuff when I'm upset. And I will fix this with this kids and let them know I messed up, not you."
  • Explain why the behavior occurred. Explaining why the behavior occurred may help but only if it does not seem to excuse the bad behavior. "I was upset because all my weekend plans fell apart and I took it out on you. I shouldn't have done that."
Responding to an apology
The key to responding to an apology is sincerity. If the apology can be genuinely accepted, a handshake or thank you can complete the repair.

But if you are not ready to accept an apology or to respond in kind, it is helpful to acknowledge the importance of the apology having been made, but indicate that more time is necessary before the apology can be accepted. 

Exchanging apologies
When misunderstandings occur, people often hurt each other. To repair a relationshiip, it is often necessary for people to exchane apologies--each one acknowledging responsibility for ther part and agreeing to avoid such hurtful behaviors in the future. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Disputing parents divide the pie

When parents locked in litigation complain to me about legal fees draining their financial resources, I tell them a story related by Francisco Ingouville in his book, Onthe Same Side

Two boys who had received a pie in payment for a job couldn’t agree how to share it.  When their argument turned violent, an older neighbor stepped in and asked what was going on. After learning what the argument was about, the neighbor said that what they needed was an impartial arbitrator, a role he immediately took on. After bringing out a knife and cutting the pie in two, he inspected the two halves.  Concluding that one piece was larger than the other, he picked up the larger piece and bit off a large portion.  He compared the two halves again but now it was the other half that seemed larger. Without hesitating, he applied the same strategy to the now larger piece, taking a sizeable bite. But once again, the half that was too small was now the larger of the two. The two boys, who were still at odds, stood and watched as their halves grew smaller in turn until there was nothing left. Yet no one could deny that the neighbor had imparted justice, since the boys received exactly the same.
Disputing parents who rely upon third parties to resolve their disputes risk more than financial resources—their pieces of the pie.  They also lose the opportunity to build a positive working relationship for co-parenting in the future,  to create novel solutions, to feel pride in a job well done, and to make decisions based upon their interests rather accept an authority’s decisions based upon their legal rights.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Parent-child alienation: Sibling perspective

In some parent-child alienation cases, siblings are alienated to different degrees or, more rarely, align with different parents, such that the family is cleaved—one set of siblings aligning with one parent and the other set aligning with the other parent. It is important in such instances for parents and divorce professionals to consider child-related factors, not just parent behaviors, to explain why a particular family falls out this way.

For example, one child might have a special affinity for one parent’s interests and temperament while their sibling is similarly attracted to the other parent.  In the case of an adult brother and sister who were alienated from their mother as children, for instance, the brother turned back towards the mother as he moved into a professional career similar to hers. His sister, in contrast, pursued a sales career like her father’s and remained estranged from the mother: “We don’t have anything in common.”

In other cases, older siblings may have established enough autonomy to resist the pressure to “choose sides” while their younger siblings succumb to such pressure and become alienated.  The opposite is also true—an adolescent sibling who blames one parent for the divorce may become alienated while their younger siblings, na├»ve to the circumstances of the divorce, remain positively connected to both parents.  The introduction of a step-parent and step-siblings can also impact one sibling differently than another. In one family, for example, a mother with two sons and a daughter married a man with three sons.  Her sons were delighted but the daughter felt outnumbered and picked upon by the five boys. She turned away from her mother, whom she blamed for this turn of events, and allied with her father.  

Yet another factor operates when a sibling is determined to establish a unique place within the family—perhaps to establish a separate identity, perhaps to reduce competitive tensions. One divorced family had two adolescent boys, the older of whom was a nationally ranked athlete and honor roll student being recruited by several Ivy League colleges.  His younger brother, perceiving that he could not match his brother’s academic and athletic accomplishments, struggled until his father arranged for him to take flying lessons. He discovered there a talent and an interest that allowed him to achieve success without being compared to his brother—but he felt frustrated by his mother’s disapproval for an activity she deemed dangerous.  Determined not to be dissuaded, he subsequently refused to spend time with her until she accepted his newly found passion.

It is critical for parents and divorce professionals confronting the problem of parent-child alienation not to become so over-focused on the parents'  behavior that they overlook or minimize such child-related factors.  In the instance of the boy who loved flying, for example, the mother alleged the father intentionally undermined her relationship to their son by signing him up for the lessons. She softened her position, however, as she came to understand her younger son’s view of himself in relation to his older brother and how important it was for him to feel he had something unique, something special about which he and the family could feel proud.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What do we do if we can't reach an agreement?

When divorcing parents plan to make joint decisions as part of their parenting plan, they often wonder: "What will we do if we can't reach an agreement?"  It is a good question. In fact, all divorced parents can anticipate that there will be times that they won't see eye-to-eye on how to solve a problem. Parents still have options, however, even when it seems an agreement is out of reach. Listed below are steps that can be taken, listed from least to most intrusive, to break an impasse. Except in the cases of emergency or when the children's safety is at stake, it usually helps to start with the least intrusive option and work from there up the list until the problem is solved.

1. Walk away if the problem is not a high priority. Save the hard negotiating for the important issues.
2. Get third party advice. If the issue is about schooling, consult a teacher or educational professional. If it is about a medical or psychological concern, ask the pediatrian's advice. If it is about the parenting-time schedule, ask other divorced parents how they solved similar problems.
3. Use a parent facilitator or parent coordinator to meet with you and the other parent regularly to work out parenting issues.
4. Agree for a third party to make the decision for you. If you can't agree whether the childen need counseling, for example, you might agree to follow  the pediatrician's recommendation.
5. Attend mediation.
6. Hire an arbitrator to listen to your perspectives and to make the decision for you.
7. File a motion with the court to modify your parenting plan.

Remember, starting with less intrusive options before resorting to more aggressive strategies, such as arbitration or filing a motion with the court, avoids escalating tensions. And don't be afraid to ask your ex which of these problem-solving strategies he or she thinks might work: "We're stuck, how about if we ask the pediatrician what she thinks?"  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rejected Parents: Left out in the cold

The Army conducted a study to determine why its personnel could only work for one or two hours in the Arctic cold in contrast to the local Inuit who could work six to seven hours in the cold.  Although the study looked at a wide number of physical and psychological factors, it identified just one difference between the Army personnel and the Inuit: The Inuit expected to be cold.

The experience of Rejected Parents in cases of unrealistic parent-child alienation is similar to that of the Army personnel unfortunate enough to be posted to the Arctic—they are left out in the cold by their children, unexpectedly rejected.  And like the Army personnel who retreated to shelter after just an hour or two, many Rejected Parents retreat from, even give up, contact with their children to protect themselves from repeated hurt and conflicts.

So what can Rejected Parents do not to give up while waiting for circumstances to change or legal decisions to be made?  One option that many Rejected Parents find helpful is to turn to others facing the same problem.  On-line support groups, for example, offer many Rejected Parents the practical and emotional support they need to maintain hope and the will to continue trying. It also helps to read about parent-child alienation, learning its characteristics and the dos and don’ts of responding.    

But here is an entirely different idea, and not one that you will find in the professional literature.  As reported recently by Claire Suddath in the Bloomberg Businessweek, Jia Jiang is a young internet entrepreneur in Austin, Texas who became exceptionally disheartened when investors repeatedly turned down his requests for funding.  To overcome his subsequent lack of confidence, he devised a plan: 100 Days of Rejection Therapy.  Based on the notion that if became used to weird looks, rude responses and flat-out rejections, he would build up his resistance to the pain of rejection, enabling him to continue seeking funding, he set out to ask one preposterous request per day.  He asked a security guard to lend him $100, a policeman to sit in his car, a stranger to play soccer in his back yard. But if you read the posts on his blog,, something becomes clear. Not only is he getting better at accepting rejection, he is getting better at asking.  Indeed, people are beginning to say yes, even to his outlandish requests.

I am not suggesting that Rejected Parents follow Jia’s example and seek out rejection, nor am I making light of the hurt when a child rejects a parent. I am suggesting, however, that Rejected Parents would do well to expect rejection, to build up their tolerance for their children’s rude and unpleasant behavior, and to never, never give up. Like Jia, they may learn that with practice, they get better at asking, better at accepting no, and better at “getting to yes.” 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Be hard on the problem; be soft on the person

Rejected Parents often have difficulty distinguishing between the problem and the person.  Such confusion leads to tense interactions, misunderstandings, angry reactions, and lost opportunities to reconnect.  One mother, for example, didn’t respond to her estranged daughter’s first text in many months, in which she proudly reported making the drill team.  “She didn’t let me know she took extra dance lessons, she didn’t tell me she tried out, she didn’t ask how I’m doing. She probably sent the text hoping I would send her some money, nothing new there.”  

The barrier in many of these instances is the Rejected Parent’s emotional reaction, what neuroscientists call an amygdala hijack.  This mother, like many Rejected Parents, focused so intensely upon her emotions of hurt and betrayal that  she set reasoning aside and lost sight of her goal to reconnect with her daughter.  Driven by her emotions, she saw the problem as residing within her daughter (“she’s selfish, mean-spirited, manipulative”).  But the problem was not her daughter. The problem was their estrangement.   

This mother resisted redefining the problem when offered an alternate perspective, angrily blaming her daughter and then her ex-husband for their estrangement. This is not to say that the daughter and the  father didn’t contribute to the problem. But by maintaining a mindset focused so intently upon the persons, the mother was captive to her emotions of hurt and betrayal. She was reacting, not problem-solving. If this mother is to make progress with her daughter, she must adopt a new mindset—seeing their estrangement as a problem to be managed, moment by moment, rather than a situation to assign blame. She might have said: “Your hard work paid off, you have good reason to be proud. I look forward to seeing you perform.” 

This doesn’t mean that Rejected Parents shouldn’t set limits.  This mother, for instance, must learn to speak directly to her daughter about how they will resolve  conflicts, without getting so tangled up emotionally in reaction to her daughter that she doesn’t recognize opportunities to reconnect.  If the daughter did indeed ask for money, the mother might say: “I understand your dance lessons have been expensive but I’m uncomfortable giving you money for something that I’ve been left out of.  Let’s talk about how we can be more a part of each other’s lives going forward.”  

Learn more about managing relationships to alienated and estranged children by reading earlier blog posts or from the DVD, Welcome Back, Pluto.