Tuesday, February 16, 2016


When children align with one parent and unreasonably reject the other, observers often assume that the favored parent is badmouthing—saying negative things about the rejected parent to the children. When asked, however, favored parents often protest that they don’t speak critically of the other parent, that the assumption they are badmouthing is flat out wrong.  In many instances the children confirm that the favored parent is not badmouthing – and assert that they have reached their negative conclusions about the rejected parent on their own.   So what’s going on here?   The children’s negative attitudes typically mirror the favored parent’s – but there is no evidence that the favored parent is conveying such directly.

Recent speeches and debate statements by presidential candidates may offer an insight.  With a few exceptions, the current candidates frequently make remarks that include half-finished sentences, vague words instead of precise ones, and pregnant pauses.  This speech style is not evidence of fuzzy thinking. Rather, the candidates are using a powerful rhetorical device known as an enthymemes

One candidate speaking about immigration, for example, said “we have to have a temporary something, because there’s something going on that’s not good.”  Huh? 

The listener is left to interpret what the candidate meant by this statement.  And in practice, listeners are likely to interpret the candidate’s “something” as consistent with their own beliefs.  Furthermore, the vagueness deflects criticism – the candidate didn’t express any real position here.  Is the candidate saying too many immigrants are arriving?  Or too few?   The listener is left to fill in the gap with their own assumptions about the candidate’s position—but the candidate is free to say later on:  “That’s not what I said and that’s not what I meant.”  Who can argue with that?

It’s easy to imagine a favored parent using an enthymeme to similar effect:  “Well, you know how your father is.”   “Something is sure going on with your mother.”  “Maybe something happened to your father [mother] when they were your age.”  Without overtly badmouthing the other parent, such statements leave it to the child to fill in the gap and reach their own conclusions about what that parent means – exactly what the children say they have done when asked about their negative attitudes.    

Enthymemes come in various forms. In addition to the vagueness of “something,” speakers may use half-finished sentences, silence, or dramatic pauses for similar effect.  Consider these responses to a child reporting excitedly about the other parent’s new partner:  “Well, hmm…..”    “Let’s just wait and see if.....”   “I suppose it could be…[sigh]……maybe, a good thing.”

In each instance, the child must fill in the gap as to what the parent meant, the parent can deny badmouthing, and the child can claim the conclusion as their own, since they indeed filled in the gap with their own biases or conclusions. 

The lesson here is simple:  what isn’t said can be just as powerful as what is said.  Evaluators and therapists should listen carefully for and point out such devices when parents use them and parents should be careful about relying upon them as cover for negative attitudes. 

 Because, you know, something bad could happen if we don’t do something about it.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Scheduling tensions

There are many sources of tension when families work with a psychologist to repair damaged parent-child relationships.   One practical matter with clinical implications is scheduling sessions around teens’ school and extracurricular activities.  If the teen lives primarily or exclusively with a favored parent, that parent may assert that the teen’s involvement in extracurricular activities should be inviolable, a way to insure as “normal a life as possible,” even if the damaged relationship remains damaged.   The rejected parent, in contrast, may argue that sessions with the psychologist should take priority, perceiving that repairing a damaged parent-child relationship is more important to their child’s long-term psychological health than attending every practice: “Is it as normal a life as possible for a teen to be estranged from one of their parents?  Is a football practice really more important than a son’s relationship to his mother or father?”  Teens may align with either positon, although in my experience the majority prefers extracurricular participation over attending family sessions with either parent. 

When such scheduling conflicts arise, favored parents and teens may allege that the rejected parents’ request for sessions reflects a selfish, inconsiderate mindset.   Rejected parents, in turn, argue that the resistance to forgoing a practice or social event to accommodate a session is more evidence of the favored parents’ disregard for the rejected parents’ importance in the teen’s life.   Once parents’ views become polarized, compromise gives way to stubbornness and impasse.   
And experienced psychologists know: If he or she is able to schedule a session in a sweet spot that does not interfere with the teen’s varied activities and parents’ work schedules, the teen is now likely to complain about being over-scheduled, not having enough time for themselves, or not having time for their homework.  No good deed, as they say, goes unpunished. Tensions heighten further when family members dramatize the scheduling negotiations with loud scoffing, eye rolls, exasperated protests, and ‘I told you so.’ 

As in many conflicts, there is validity to each family member’s perspective.  Extracurricular activities offer teens from divorced families opportunities for socialization, skill mastery, and distraction from family tensions—all of which help the teen remain disengaged from their parents’ conflicts and to prepare for adulthood.  But it is also true that teens who do not repair a damaged parent-child relationship are at risk for a host of mental health and relationship problems as adults.  The psychologist’s challenge is to help find a win-win from what family members present as lose-lose. 

In the most problematic cases, the worst of the parents’ respective allegations are true. Indeed, some favored parents insist upon the teen’s participation in extracurricular activities to block therapy.  And some rejected parents insist upon sessions no matter how much they interfere with other events out of spite or to show “who’s boss.”  When faced with such assertions by litigants, experienced judges take matters in their own hands, writing orders that state clearly what takes priority and the penalties for not following the guidelines. 

But before letting conflicts rise to the point of having to submit to a court’s direction, parents might ask themselves:

  • ·       Are our children learning to appreciate different perspectives and the power of compromise?  Or are they learning to be stubborn and oppositional?  
  • ·       Are they learning that healthy relationships find ways to meet each person’s needs and interests?  Or are they learning that their individual interests should trump everyone else’s?
  • ·       Are they learning to respect our wishes, as their parents, just as they expect us to respect theirs?  Or are they learning that their parent’s wishes can be ignored? 
  • ·       Are they learning to approach a problem to resolve it?  Or are they learning that avoidance is the preferred way to manage disagreement? 
  • ·       And if the sessions are court ordered: Are our children learning to respect a judge’s authority and the law?  Or are they learning that is okay to defy a judge’s orders?  To break the law?