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.  

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.