- · 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?
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
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: