Category Archives: ongoing conflict

Family Restructuring Therapy for Co-Parenting

 

Upset child from arguing parents

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Family Restructuring Therapy is based on the work by Dr. Stephen Carter and is an active and directive process used to address ongoing conflict between co-parents that seriously affect the children. It provides new ways to co-parent, and can be used to develop and refine parenting plans. It can be used to rebuild a working relationship between parents, and between parents and children. Parents are actively coached how to make agreements and adjust agreements based on follow-through. No one shall be pressured to make an agreement. Progress or lack of progress is documented by the therapist and may be reported to the Court. Continue reading Family Restructuring Therapy for Co-Parenting

Visitation Refusal

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

“Do I have to go?” All parents hear this from their kids about not wanting to go somewhere from time to time. But during and after divorce, hearing this from your kids about spending time with the other parent causes concern for both parents. In conflictual divorces kids learn that the gap in parental expectations may widen. At some point, the child either aligns with the parent that holds the most power, or will find power in protecting a parent. Peter J. Favaro, an expert on custody, gives an example: “In one case, where two children protested so violently over having to see their father they would vomit repeatedly prior to visitation, I scheduled a surprise home visit and walked into the house to find the two girls hanging off their father’s back, behaving affectionately toward him and displaying none of the discomfort they displayed for the mother.” With one parent the kids learned how to behave and with the other parent they learn how to behave. Sometimes these expectations clash. It sure is tempting to back up your child when he or she resists time with the other parent, especially if the kids either get “sick” or have to get “sick” to make a point.

There are endless reasons to resist visitation that kids learn are effective. Maybe one will act “insulted” that he has to visit. Or maybe another will complain that “It’s boring.” The parent hearing these complaints may sympathize with their child, which reinforces the refusal. For sure, parents do not want their kids to not like them. It would be easier to think of excuses for not having to go, or provide a number of suggestions for dealing with how hard it is to be over at the other parent’s house. Kids also do not want to face the parent they are disappointing, so avoidance becomes preferred. The other parent pursues compliance by guilt and make statements like, “I’m your dad. How could you do this to your dad?” Or, “Look at all the things I’ve done for you.” Maybe “Remember these pictures? Remember all the good times we had?” Another factor reinforcing resistance may be the local family counselor or therapist who does a great job listening and validating the child’s point of view. The kids develop a script to be used with both parents and the therapist, and practice makes perfect, inadvertently reinforcing the refusal.

How often does this happen? Probably more than is reported, but studies show that 11-15% reject or resist contact with one parent while remaining aligned with the other parent (Johnston, 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005b; Racusin & Copans 1994; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). In custody-disputing samples 20% reject a parent, and 6% are extreme examples like the one listed above (Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b; Johnston 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005c). Boys and girls both refuse equally, and adolescents are more likely than younger children (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Both moms and dads experience resistance. Research is also clear that children of divorce generally do better with good relationship with both parents (Kelly 2007). In retrospect, adult children wished they had spent more time with non-custodial parent (Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Finley & Schwartz 2007; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). Both parents together are proven to play an important role in child development and adjustment (Parke, 2004; Schwartz & Finley, 2009). In spite of what we know about what is good for kids: “Visitation refusal is at what I believe to be an epidemic proportion, and sadly it often leads to long term estrangements between parents and children” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph,D.).

One’s instinct may be to find someone to blame, but there is not a simplistic target. Some want to blame one parent and call it alienation, and some want to blame the other parent and call it estrangement. Usually there are four contributing factors: situational factors, one parent, the other parent, and child factors. Situational factors are coincidental factors that affect parenting time. For younger kids, separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate for their age. For all kids there are also expected and typical regressive responses to the stress of divorce and separation. Also, mood, behavioral or other psychological disorders in the parent or child affect visitation resistance. Some children unconsciously want to care for a parent. Often, if allowed, kids feel sad for the parent that is alone without a partner. There are other causes at the place of visitation and child may not be aware or able to communicate. For example, maybe someone else who is there is concerning the child. Maybe there are fears, like at night. Or maybe the child does not care for the food, or sleeping arrangements. The child may also miss the other parent, friends or a pet. All situational factors should be explored.

Parental factors are patterned and not an isolated incident. Negative comparison to the other parent, either implied or stated by words, body language or even the parent’s emotions are deciphered by kids that one parent is better than the other parent. Particularly destructive are both obvious criticisms of the other parent to subtle negative attributions. Often comments are either exaggerations of the other parent’s flaws, or weak rationales that do not reflect a normal range of parenting differences. An example of a weak rationale would be “Your mom is controlling because she makes you brush your teeth after every meal.” Comments about the other parent are usually one-sided, lacking ambivalence or empathy. An obvious example would be a dad calling Mom “crazy” and the child begins to not respect her. Another example would be a mom justifying statements about her “daughter’s father” because “She needs to know what her father is really like.” Or perhaps, a child innocently or purposely is able to “overhear” Mom or Dad’s conversation with someone else.

On the other side of the coin is the parent who contributes to the problem anywhere from making common parenting mistakes to estrangement through domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. Some parents are strict or demanding, especially compared to the other parent. Some parents are more sensitive and responsive to needs. One mistake made by a parent of a child refusing visitation is to “give the child space.” This method becomes self-perpetuating. Another accusation by a parent is that their child has been “brainwashed.” This occurs even in the case where the child witnessed domestic violence; the parent may still believe the child’s statements were inculcated by the other parent. Even in the case where the child has been coached, pitting the parent’s perceptions against the child’s experience discounts the point of view and individuality of the child, thus reinforcing the influence of the competing parent. “It is easy to see how toxic parents can become in their ability to serve as a secure base or a haven of safety when they get so preoccupied with their own needs, pride, shame, or selfishness, or their anger at the other parent over betrayal or humiliation. How can I comfort my child when I myself am frightened? How can I tolerate my child having successes under your supervision if it is all about me, not about them?” (Everett Waters).

It is difficult to be fully aware of what is going on in your child’s head when you are so stressed and burdened in the aftermath of divorce. Child factors include thinking errors that make the child susceptible to influence. Thinking errors include dichotomous (black and white) thinking about past events that lead to overgeneralization in predicting the future. Essentially, the child without realizing it rejects the positive aspects about his or her experiences with the other parent and is more likely to jump to negative conclusions. Emotional reasoning is concluding that negative feelings mean the parent is to blame and feed fears leading to catastrophic thinking. The signs in the child have been identified by research. Again, these are patterns and not isolated incidents.

The child practices a critical stance until it becomes dogmatic. Rationales over time become weaker. For example, one reason a child wanted to live with Dad is that he has more trees in his yard. Borrowed scenarios become needed to justify the child’s stance so events he or she has heard about become evidence against a parent. If the child hears that a parent is an “alcoholic,” then when the child sees the parent with a drink, the evidence mounts against them. A marked quality of the rationales against a parent is the lack of ambivalence and empathy for the parent. The positive aspects of the parent are not seen. A child becomes defensive of his or her statements. In one instance, when asked about a picture of a child and her father at the park, the child commented, “I was just pretending to enjoy myself with you.” The child develops a clear alignment with one parent. Can you imagine a child say, “He buys me too many toys. He’s just trying to spoil me.” Visitation refusal spreads from one parent to family members of the parent. True to form, the child denies hope for reconciliation.

The effect on the child is the development of a phobic response, anticipatory anxiety, and avoidance. Research documents the effect of high conflict between parents lead to self-blame or over-inflated self-esteem leading to future relationship problems, depression, suicide, self-harm, anxiety, behavioral problems, academic and learning problems, substance use, lower career attainment, and future resentment of both parents.

Asking Mom, “Do I have to go to Dad’s tonight?” leads to a connection with Mom. A child may feel she already lost one parent in the divorce; she does not want to lose the connection to the other. Moreover, a child refusing visitation confirms what the parent believes about the other parent. Child and parent mutually reinforce the need for protection, concern, and approval. The child’s attitude and behavior becomes a test of loyalty and then it becomes impossible to love both parents. Visitation refusal and supervised visitation reinforces belief that it is justified.

Overcoming the barriers to visitation is formidable. The younger the child the easier it is. Infants to two years old can be fussy, have difficult temperaments and have developmentally appropriate separation anxiety. Experts recommend shorter, but more frequent visits along with education on parenting and co-parent communication. Keeping log books to be exchanged between parents can allay some fears that the child is properly cared for. Eating, sleeping, elimination, play and child care routines can be documented by both parents for effective co-parenting. Recruiting trusted family members to observe a parent’s care can also increase trust.

Age two to six can be described as fickle. When my youngest was three he would say he was full at a restaurant until we left, and then he would promptly announce he is hungry. Kids this age are easily influenced, which can be both positive and negative. They have an insufficient understanding of the concept of time, so stability and continuity means a predictable schedule. Stability and continuity does not mean spending nearly all the time at one parent’s house over the other. Two to three weeks of short daily visits can be scheduled to prepare for a normal schedule. If the parents cannot work together without tension, separation anxiety can be alleviated by the “drop and dash,” where one parent assures the child the he or she will be back, that Dad or Mom will take care of the child, say “goodbye,” and then leave to not prolong or reinforce the anxiety. Or, another family member or friend drop off. Transitional objects like familiar toys or pictures can also be used to reduce anxiety.

For older kids the “drop and dash” may not work. In addition, oppositional and defiant behavior may be more difficult to address for fear that kids will exaggerate the discipline used by the other parent. At this age it becomes more crucial that both parents must insist on parenting time. For teens that “know more” than parents, busy is normal. Offer flexible time, some non-negotiable time and some negotiable time. “Often the most insidious kind of visitation interference comes from parents who claim, ‘I tell him he can spend as much time as he wants with his (mother or father), but that it is his decision and I respect his decisions because he is a mature child. If my (ex-husband/ex-wife) is not skillful enough to provide an environment that my child wants to visit I really don’t see that as my problem. They are going to have to work that out between themselves.’ Those who cannot see the absolute destructiveness of statements such as these are usually lost causes” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph,D.). Kids then conclude that a relationship with the other parent is not important. After all, they do not have to do it, unlike going to school, homework, chores, eating your vegetables, going to the dentist, etc.

Interventions are listed here from most expensive to least. A guardian ad litem and custody evaluators can assess the capacity of each parent to prepare and promote parenting time. Parenting Coordination provides education, mediation and arbitration. Family Restructuring Therapy teaches co-parents how to cooperate in the best interest of the children. Reunification Therapy bolsters a new relationship between parent and child. Mediation can be used to develop parenting plans. Co-parenting educaiton is widely available, even online. The least expensive and least time-consuming option may be the most refused: “Removal of privileges and a clear show of support for visitation with the visiting parent can often completely eliminate visitation refusal problems” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.). Most kids know that if a parent means what they say, they will have consequences.

Supervised visits, which may be necessary, may mean to the child or parent that the supervised parent is bad and confirm parent’s and child’s fears. The transition to supervised visits is interesting, because it can encourage the child play it up versus act naturally. On the positive side, supervised visitation can also be used to jump-start a stalled relationship if the supervisor is friendly and the environment is conducive to building a positive relationship. Children who refuse to go in the room with the other parent while one parent is consoling, over time become comfortable and feel less of a need to show ambivalence. “Research performed in my office indicates that the easiest way to achieve reconciliation with a child who does not want to visit is to make small talk, and not talk about the ‘family situation'” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.).

References Carter, Stephen. (2011). Family Restructuring Therapy. Scottsdale, AZ: HCI Press. Fabricius, W. V., & Hall, J. A. (2000). Young adults’ perspectives on divorce: Living arrangements. Family & Conciliation Courts Review, 38, 446–461. Favaro, Peter J. Problem Solving In Cases Involving Poor Visitation Compliance in Parents and Visitation Refusal in Children. www.behavioranalytics.net/Favaro-Presentation.pdf Fidler, B., & Bala, N. (2010). Children resisting post-separation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review, 48, 10–47. Finley, G. E., & Schwartz, S. J. (2007). Father involvement and long-term young adult outcomes: The differential contributions of divorce and gender. Family Court Review, 45, 573–587 Johnston, J. R. (1993). Children of divorce who refuse visitation. In C. Depner & J. Bray (Eds.), Nonresidental parenting: New vistas in family living (pp. 109–135). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Johnston, J. R. (2003). Parental alignments and rejection: An empirical study of alienation in children of divorce. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 31, 158–170. Johnston, J. R., Walters, M. G., & Olesen, N. W. (2005a). Clinical ratings of parenting capacity and Rorschach protocols of custody-disputing parents: An exploratory study. Journal of Child Custody, 2(1/2), 159–178. Kelly, J. B. (2007). Children’s living arrangements following separation and divorce: Insights from empirical and clinical research. Family Process, 46, 35–52. Kelly, Joan B. & Johnston, Janet R. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39, 249–266 Kopetski, L. (1998a). Identifying cases of parent alienation syndrome: Part I. The Colorado Lawyer, 29(2), 65–68. Kopetski, L. (1998b). Identifying cases of parent alienation syndrome: Part II. The Colorado Lawyer, 29(3), 63–66 Laumann-Billings, L., & Emery, R. E. (2000). Distress among young adults in divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 671–687. Parke, R. D. (2004). Fathers, families and the future: A plethora of plausible predictions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50, 456–470. Racusin, R., & Copans, S. (1994). Characteristics of families of children who refuse post-divorce visits. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 792–801. Schwartz, S. J., & Finley, G. E. (2009). Mothering, fathering and divorce: The influence of divorce on reports of and desires for maternal and paternal involvement. Family Court Review, 47, 506–522. Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce.New York: Basic Books. Warshak, Richard A. (2010). Divorce Poison. New York: HarperCollins. Waters, E. and McIntosh, J. (2011). Are we asking the right questions about attachment? Family Court Review, 49, 474–482.

What to Expect When Divorcing

Child moving

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Divorce can be devastating, from the immediate aftermath effects on finances, parenting, and social status. Understanding the aftermath, realignment and stabilization phases can help, though it still takes time to recover. 

The emotional process before, during and after divorce is similar to the effects of trauma. Normal reactions include shock, denial, guilt, restlessness, agitation, anger, emptiness, and hopelessness. The fear of the unknown future cannot be overcome except in time. This roller coaster affects sleep, appetite, concentration, decision-making and memory. You may feel ill or numb. You may want to be alone or not be alone. Rumination is likely.

It is difficult in the first stage to not blow up at your spouse and blame him or her for making you a victim. It may be impossible at this time to look at the relationship objectively. Problems resolving conflict in the marriage will be magnified in the divorce. The family and extended family will be affected.

The legal bills in the first month could pay for a lifetime of marriage counseling. Parents may be left with little financial cushion. Bankruptcy is possible. Divorce creates a demand for additional financial support, along with expectations. Many decisions have to be made including the value and disposition of the marital residence, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stock options, bonuses and other investments. Each participant should gather information from an attorney or tax accountant specializing in divorce to understand the implications of one’s financial decisions, for example, on tax filing.

Parenting also changes. The urge may be to meet personal needs through the children. Children should not bear the responsibility of satisfying need for closeness and cooperation. Parents may feel hurt by the kids, or may feel guilty and indulge the children.

One of the primary decisions made in the best interest of the child involves sole or joint custody. A sole custodian means that the relationship between the parents is too conflicted to make decisions in the best interest of the children. A joint custody arrangement means that co-parents can generally work together. Parents need to work together to determine the needs of the children, like appropriate medical care, child care, parenting time, use of holidays, vacations and other special times, location of the parent’s homes, and educational and religious training.

Divorce mediation may be used at this time to focus on direct and effective communication in making parenting and financial decisions that benefit both children and parents, and which aims to reduce repeated visits to court.

Social status is affected by a sense of failure that isolates, and possible judgments from others. The goal is to retrieve positive self-identity and reinvest in relationships. Fears propel premature future relationships and marriages.

The second phase is the realignment phase, described by some as a three-year roller coaster ride. People fill time and emptiness with people and worry, possible avoiding the pain. Some continue the same kind of conflict with their ex-spouse that they had when they were married. In fact, one expert reported that one-third of those in “bad” divorces slept with their ex. Those in a “good” divorce did not. Recovering financially takes time, and may involve major changes like selling the home or working more than ever during this time of loss, change and demand. In the process of acceptance, a question needs answering: What did the divorce solve or not solve for me?

Protecting the children from the harmful side of divorce is often neglected, sometimes unintentionally. The goal under most circumstances should be consistent and calm involvement from each parent in each child’s life. Most children on some level wish for a relationship with both parents. Each parent can take part in not only providing financially but also providing influence on moral, social and educational development. Ideally, contact and affection would be unhampered and each parent would not get in the way of the child’s own developing sense of perception, and feelings about the other parent. Parents would not criticize each other within hearing range, or to put the kids in the middle by making them messengers (delivering positive or negative messages can feel like a burden to kids, when the responsibility to communicate belongs to the parents). Another rule to follow is to not tell the kids about future plans that will affect the other parent without talking to the other parent first.

Socially, both women and men tend to turn to women for support. Social status is possibly viewed through the subtle influence of sexism and ageism, discriminating against older women. Younger women are often more of a “package deal” with their children.

Stabilization can take five years after divorce, unless one is in a blended family which can take another five to seven years. Relationship patterns become solidified, along with possible distance between non-custodial parent and child. Children almost never give up their hope and connection to be with both parents.

The author Dan Blair is a Divorce Counselor, Divorce Mediator and Parenting Coordinator at Blair Counseling and Mediation.

 

Resource:

“The Postdivorce Family” by Fredda Herz Brown in The Changing Family Life Cycle ed. by Carter and McGoldrick.

 

Reunification Therapy with Estranged and Alienated Parents

Holding-Hands

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Aside from abuse, children generally benefit from a relationship with both mom and dad. Even if there are negative aspects of a parent, children benefit from interacting with one who “brought them into this world,” and can learn crucial coping skills and expand personal styles of problem-solving. Children usually benefit from all the resources of both homes. Also, as both parents and child age the opportunity for a more comfortable relationship develops. Research indicates that not only do children benefit from a relationship with both parents, but in retrospect, children wish they had more time with the non-custodial parent and that children can still feel rejected by estranged and alienated parents. In retrospect, adult children report that they wish someone helped them with their relationship with the “other” parent.

Parents especially in divorce can become estranged or alienated. Estranged parents generally involves the deterioration of the parent’s relationship with the child due to parental factors and child behavior. The child and parent both experience the disconnection. For children of alienated parents, the emphasis is more on what the child has been told about their experience with the other parent, which may include exaggerations and negative allegations. Even if the allegations are true about the other parent, it is difficult if not impossible to accurately measure the exact impact on the child. The child may be attracted to power, and the child may either be more aligned with the more powerful parent, or the child may find power in protecting the “victimized” parent. Some signs of alienation can be found in the post How One Parent Undermines the Other Parent and Visitation Refusal.

Reunification therapy is difficult because it requires not only the usual willingness to make personal changes but also the elusive ability to utilize (versus attack) someone else’s point of view. The earlier the intervention the better. The goal is to help kids past anxiety and avoidance to mastery and confidence. Therapeutic goals are based on each situation, but always involve the parent and child seeing the impact of their own behavior on the other, expressing remorse, the ability to refocus on a future relationship, and effective restriction on the other parent’s interference. Interventions include identifying thinking errors, improving communication, resolving attachment issues, and building self-esteem. Therapists should be active, directive and able to confront maladaptive interactions. Success is determined by the parents making agreements that stick.

Protecting Children in Divorce

Upset child from arguing parents

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

You can make a difference when it comes to insulating your children from the harmful effects of unavoidable divorce.  Children of divorce are most affected by ongoing conflict, absent parents, and financial shifts in lifestyle.  Moreover, how the child responds to the divorce is modeled by how each parent deals with it.  Generally, if the parents are coping well, the children are coping well.

Even though one is angry and needs to “declare the truth” by criticizing their ex, children pay the price due to ongoing conflict between parents.  Children and adolescents see themselves as extensions of their parents, and so negative comments directed at a parent impact the child, probably more than it does the other parent.  The result may be that the child has difficulty remaining close to either parent.  Particularly harmful is creating a situation which kids have to hide information or their feelings. Another way kids are impacted by divorce occurs when a parent “projects” their anxiety or depression onto the kids, assuming that the kids feel the way the parent feels.  Or, if a parent is transparent about their anxiety or depression, children and adolescents worry about it. Not giving your children more to worry about when it comes to adult problems is a gift that keeps on giving.

The loss of parental involvement leaves children and adolescents mired in self-blame.  Developing a new “normal” with consistent involvement from both parents reinforces that the child is worthwhile and lovable.  For the child who loses a parent in a divorce is a deep loss.

Though one parent may resist the cost of child or spousal support due to their own fears of financial ruin, parents should consider both sides.  On the one side, the nonresidential parent may have difficulty maintaining financial stability, or the residential parent may have difficulty.  Even though one may be blamed for the divorce, punishing your spouse financially punishes the children.  One way divorce mediation can be helpful is by increasing flexibility to create a balance for both parents financially for the benefit of the children.

One sign to watch for are changes in the children.  Are they suddenly “helpful” and over-responsible?  Are they withdrawn or is there a loss of interest in usual activities?  Any change in sleeping or eating patterns?  Are they more emotional than usual? See Depression Screening.

Here are some rules that protect children from some of the harmful effects of unavoidable divorce:

  1. Foster affection and respect between the children and the other parent.
  2. Refrain from discussing the conduct of the other parent in the presence of the children except in a laudatory or complimentary way. Do not call the other parent disparaging names or subject the children to others that are disparaging the other parent.
  3. Protect the children from parental conflict. Don’t discuss financial matters, or disputes with the other parent, either directly to or in the presence of the children.
  4. Avoid sending or soliciting information about the other parent through the children.
  5. Subject proposed activities or vacations with the children to mutual approval before discussing plans with the children.