Category Archives: parenting problems

Parenting Tips

 

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Parenting after divorce presents new challenges. Each parent will have their own rules and approach. The kids have to learn that mom and dad’s house is different. The rule remains though that both parents will have better outcomes if they back each other up.

Often when one thinks of discipline, you think of angry exchanges ending with both you and your child feeling frustrated and misunderstood. When people, especially kids, are upset, they lose ability to reason. Kids, and parents, also like the feeling when angry. It gives them a sense of power due to the release of endorphins, which can be addictive.Understanding why your child gets angry is a first step. Then you can catch their anger sooner. Triggers are external (like during transitions) and internal (fatigue, dietary, and sensory issues).

You usually won’t get a positive response unless you and your child are calm, so make that the priority. Your child will not be able to internalize learning unless your child is out of the fight or flight response. When your child is responsive, which means ready to listen, he or she can practice a skill you are trying to teach, instead of just giving them a consequence. You can remember this approach as “CPR: Calm, Practice, and Reinforce.”

Calm first. Don’t argue. Discipline should not exhaust the parent. Perhaps start by giving choices and perhaps compromising. Stress and anger are contagious, so how you feel when you are with the kids has more impact than what you say. Take the time to ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” If needed, take a break and separate, as long as the child is safe. When you return, give them reassurance that you can work this out to slowly turn off their brain’s alarm system. At some point you can show them you understand (you do not have to agree), or ask them to find your eyes, and if appropriate use touch. Maybe, let them talk without you countering to lower their emotional intensity. Learning emotional regulation skills is often more important than anything else at this point.

Physical and verbal aggression, however, is designed to shock, upset, and control you. Don’t let it work. If your child is too disruptive, and the attempts to calm are making it worse, lead the child to a safe place in the house. Give them space as long as the child is safe. If the child is dwelling in anger, the adrenaline is still triggered and unless the child is unsafe you may need to wait until the adrenaline is metabolized.

After a time, come back and model breathing, calming, distraction techniques. Do not correct behavior yet. You can also try releasing endorphins appropriately through stretching, walking backward, exercises, jumping, or swinging or other outlets. When the child is calm and ready to listen, the time-out can be over.

In general,

  • Increase the amount of calm time spent together in the home.
  • Create routine and warn about transitions ahead of time.
  • Expectations should not be too high. Take it step by step.

Practice improves behavior better than reasoning with your child. The ability to calm needs practice during times the child is not upset. To only attempt calming techniques when someone is upset is like playing for a professional sports team without any practice. Practice the wrong way first to reinforce the difference. Introduce the option of a redo.

Another way to practice regulation is to come back to your senses. One way is to imagine a place where you or the child feels happy and safe through all five senses. For the sense of hearing, perhaps music, nature or relaxing sounds can help. For sight, pictures, mesmerizing objects or toys can be used. For touch, objects or toys of different textures can be options, or a bath or shower. Tastes include favorite flavors and textures (crunchy, spicy or sour). Even focusing on pleasurable scents can be relaxing. All focus on the senses should be accompanied by awareness of breathing with an emphasis on the out breath. You can also slowly use balloons, bubbles, or “hot cocoa breathing” (pretending to smell hot chocolate and gently blowing it so that it cools). The goal is muscle relaxation. Movement can also be used. Stretching, walking (or counting) backward, exercises, jumping, or swinging are possibilities. Just being around calm people, helping others and laughter are positive endorphin-releasing activities.

When you and your child are at ease, you can practice problem-solving and other skills. For problem-solving, you can use the “Triangle Approach”. The bottom corners of the triangle represent both sides of an issue. Both sides can share their perception of what happened. Each side shows understanding of the other side. Surprisingly, there is no need to agree or disagree to teach effectively. Then, instead of focusing on who is right or who is wrong, focus on the top of the triangle, which represents multiple brainstormed solutions. Agree on a solution to try, hopefully built on the kid’s ideas.

In general,

  • Practice positive interactions to outweigh negative interactions.
  • Spend time, talk, and show affection.
  • Describe their accomplishments throughout the day.

Reinforce with routine privileges, plus special privileges at unexpected times, after calming and practicing. Identify which privileges are motivating so that they can be used to help the child focus. Privileges can be traded for responsibilities. Or perhaps a designated light can be used to indicate the use of privileges, and when it is turned off, privileges are on hold until responsibilities are completed. Or, use an old clock where you can move the hands to track the number of minutes earned to spend on their favorite privileges. Stickers, checklists, or other tokens can be used.

Use consequences that are logically related to the behavior if the problem reoccurs. Positive consequences include praise, celebrations, kids doing their own research on a topic, volunteering, or providing restitution. Consequences can vary but be consistent by using consequences. Empathize before giving a consequence. For older kids, have them suggest the consequence ahead of time.

In general,

  • Negative reactions are powerful reinforcers of negative behavior.
  • Long-term disadvantages exist for using fear, threats, and isolation
  • Make the right behavior get better results for the child.

Using calm approaches, practicing skills, and positive reinforcers work in the long term, though punishment may be effective in the short term. The law of conflict means kids automatically oppose your position when they are upset, so adrenaline needs to be managed before teaching. The law of practice means that behavior is skill-based and requires repetition. Practice makes perfect, but practice can also make imperfect. Kids learn behavior more by watching than following instructions. The law of self-determination means that the more freedom is limited, the likelihood of a poor choice increases over time. Kids need to be able to make their own choices, and will learn best with consistent consequences.

Working with ADHD

 

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.

Disrupted Attachment

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Consider how these trauma and attachment experts describe the effects of disrupted attachment between parents and infants or young children:

In order to co-create a secure attachment, the infant seeks proximity to the primary caregiver, who must be subjectively perceived as predictable, consistent, and emotionally available. A caregiving arrangement in this essential time period that deprives the infant of this proximity, consistency and emotional availability will inhibit the development of the attachment system. Prolonged and repeated removal from the regulating primary caregiver not only deprives the child of an external coping mechanism, it also negatively impacts the ongoing maturation of the right brain. Let me say that in another way. If you expose a 9-year-old child, or a 29-year-old to an attachment stressor (say loss of an important emotional relationship), you will see an established system disorganize and regress, with a temporary loss of function. On the other hand, if you stress the system at, for example, 9 months, while it is still in a critical period of growth, you will alter the trajectory of its development. Consequently these internal regulatory structures will not have the maturity and will not have the efficiency to regulate the individual’s emotional state when she is challenged by future interpersonal stressors.

On the matter of a primary caregiver, neuroscience indicates that pre- and postnatally, the mother’s right brain is the key to this role. This is time sensitive, as it is occurring in early critical periods.

When it comes to normal and abnormal development, a key factor is how the child responds under stress. After all, what is developing are the infant’s coping capacities. According to classical attachment theory, babies will cry and protest when they are distressed, bidding for the attachment figure. Very recent research from neuroscience and child psychiatry now shows that under severe interpersonal stress or “relational trauma,” an infant will disengage and shut down. If it becomes chronic, this “relational withdrawal” is the most pathological of all infant responses to stress. In this involuntary disengagement from the social environment the infant is immobile and silent. So, if you’re looking at the external behavior of that infant, you’re not going to see too much. This passive infant state could even be mistaken as being regulated, when internally the baby’s brain and body are biologically extremely out of balance.

A self-preoccupied, nonempathic caregiver might routinely misperceive this noncrying silent state, when the child is not making any eye contact, as if the child is feeling safe. But the fact is the chronically withdrawn infant has moved from a safe state into a danger state of overwhelming emotional stress, and then into a survival state where the function of the developing brain is shut down. The disengaged parent is not available to repair this state, and so it endures. We now know that the key to understanding an infant is not only his emotional states, but the way he regulates these stressful states. And we know more about the early defense mechanisms the infant uses under stress. In an immobile silent state, when the attachment need is shut down, the stress hormone, cortisol, may be even higher than when the infant is crying.

Allan Schore

 

With disorganized attachments, the child has been confronted with situations of being fearful or terrified of an attachment figure, the person on whom they are dependent. In this situation, the brain has two simultaneously activated circuits that are incompatible. One is the circuit of “I am in a terrified state, I’d better go to my caregiver who will protect me and soothe me.” That is fine. The problem is, the other circuit says, “I am in a terrified state, and I need to get away from the source of the terror, which is the caregiver!” As Erik Hesse says, it is fear without a solution. So, it is understandable that over time, this creates a pattern in which that child has no clear attachment strategies to call upon, and as Hesse says, their attachment strategies collapse. This is a collapse in attentional organization and hence, disorganized attachment. So my brain is in torment without relief. And the best thing I can do is not look inward. The inner world is a Pandora’s box for me; if I go there, I cannot even articulate how confusing it is. And so, I just live outside of my own skin. I have to just do, do, do, do, do. So instead of being a human being, I’ve become a “human doing.” The child’s adaptation to that loss would have to be to shut themselves off from their own feelings, which Allan Schore talks about so beautifully, about the etiology of psychopathology. The state of being separated, for a baby, is equivalent to the feeling of impending death.

Clinically, I use the words “making sense.” Literally, the child has to feel the sensation of the conflict and articulate it, using drawing, play, or the words of storytelling with a neutral person. The child needs to have a place where they make sense of what’s going on. Making sense is a profoundly integrative process in the brain and in our relationships. Making sense mends the mind.

Daniel Siegel

 

If a trauma is not quickly (integrated) and the changes in anatomy, biology, and neurology become chronic, it makes people more vulnerable to such events in the future. The body loses its natural rhythms for regulating arousal and relaxation, entering a seesaw between hyperarousal and (hypoarousal), moving the person from explosive emotions to numbness, fatigue, detachment and isolation. The adrenal system gets exhausted, and the opioid system throws traumatized people off, altering their sense of time and place. Their attention becomes riveted on the trauma.

G. Ross

 

Many traumatized children and adults, confronted with chronically overwhelming emotions, lose their capacity to use emotions as guides for effective action. They often do not recognize what they are feeling and fail to amount an appropriate response. This phenomenon is called “alexithymia,” an inability to identify the meaning of physical sensations and muscle activation. Failure to recognize what is going on causes them to be out of touch with their needs, and, as a consequence, they are unable to take care of them. This inability to correctly identify sensations, emotions, and physical states often extends itself to having difficulty appreciating the emotional states and needs of those around them. Unable to gauge and modulate their own internal states the habitually collapse in the face of threat, or lash out in response to minor irritations. Futility becomes the hallmark of daily life.

Bessel A. Van Der Kolk

 

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?

EverettWaters

 

Healthy Attachment

Parents, Attachment, and Kids

Father and Son having fun

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

To say that a parent’s attachment to his or her kids is strong may be a negative statement. Attachment is described as secure and insecure, so it is possible to have a strong attachment that is insecure.

Insecure attachment descriptors reflect parental styles mentioned in the post What is Attachment? These parental styles are associated with the types of attachment: secure attachment with parental flexibility and stability, avoidant attachment with dismissive parenting, ambivalent attachment with preoccupied parents, and disorganized attachment with overwhelmed parents. Parental capacity is important to consider. Children build their nervous system and learn how to balance emotions, thoughts, and behavior through attachment. Parental capacity to attach to children can also change over time.

Avoidant attachment is reinforced from parental messages that emotions are not important in a child’s self-identity and in making decisions. Thus, the child (and as an adult) may feel like he or she does not really matter. An avoidant person may even believe that emotions steer one into danger or disaster and are not to be trusted. So emotions are left out of daily interactions. It may be hard to comfort or connect with an avoidant person. A second type of avoidant attachment seeks to please a significant other and downgrade one’s own needs because one can only accept emotions if they are not opposed by the significant other. This is a co-dependent relationship.

Ambivalent attachment patterns are derived from close connections that are not stable. The parent could be hot or cold. When cold, the parent may be preoccupied; it does not mean that the parent’s love wavers. So fear may develop associated with closeness and connection, because closeness and connection could be lost. The child or adult in this case may crave intimacy but not want to ask for it. If intimacy does happen, this person may eventually find it stifling. The child or adult may then experience anger and would distance from the significant other, but then fear would overtake from being feeling alone. The pattern then becomes hot pursuit, but then cold distancing.

Disorganized or dysregulated attachment patterns stem from parents who are ruled by the “fight or flight” autonomic nervous system. Parents tend to be aggressive or controlling, stemming from fear. On the other hand, parents could be overwhelmed or a victim, again stemming from fear.

Secure attachments are stable patterns but do not have to be perfect. They stem from a parent’s capacity at a particular place and time to recognize and value the emotions of a child, or to connect with what the child is doing. When the child comes to the parent, the parent in effect says to the child that the child is okay even when the child or parent is having negative emotions. The child is allowed to be separate from the parent, with the child’s own set of valid emotions and self-confidence.

What is Attachment?

Happy Family

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Attachment is a kind of bond that endures over time. It is primarily developed the first to third year of life, but that is not the only chance to develop attachment. Attachment figures are those who meet needs of the child especially in times of distress. Attachment shapes a child’s nervous system.

Sensitivity and responsiveness in interactions is key, not merely time together.

Separation from an attachment figure may cause distress, but secure attachment encourages temporary separation and development. Insecure attachment is still attachment, and the child will still seek or monitor the attached figure. Attachment exists even in maltreatment. A child who avoids a parent has not lost interest, but may be angry, anxious, sad, and even feel guilty. If the needs represented by these emotions are met, the child will gradually decrease avoidance. Three subtypes of insecure attachment include avoidant, ambivalent, and a disorganized or controlling descriptor. Parental behavior associated with the types of attachment follow: secure attachment with parental flexibility and stability, avoidant attachment with dismissive parenting, ambivalent attachment with preoccupied parents, and disorganized attachment with overwhelmed parents. Parental capacity is important to consider.

Appearances can be misleading. The parent that looks like the better parent in counseling, mediation, and court is not necessarily the better parent. Where there is high conflict, usually both parents are contributing to the conflict. Another way appearances can be misleading is the way a child acts out distress upon return to a parent. The child is often expressing how upset he or she was to be apart, and not that he or she had a negative experience while apart.

Since primary attachment is crucial to self-regulation, experts recommend primary custody with one parent for the first three years with frequent visits by the non-custodial parent, though not overnight. Between eighteen months and three years, whole day visits and overnights can be gradually introduced, carefully monitoring reactions. The child’s ability to comprehend that they will return to the custodial parent is important. This lays a foundation for future secure attachments with both parents. Items brought from the primary home may help. Longer parenting time can be gradually arranged and completed by the time the child is between six and eight.

What disrupts attachment? Parental conflict. It is recommended that protracted court cases involving high conflict and children be buffered by an ongoing support system, counselor, or advocate. Minimizing exposure to parental conflict is paramount, and providing a transitional space and place can be helpful to the child. Perhaps dropping the child off with a “neutral” third party from whom the other parent can then meet for pick-up, or at least a public place. For more information, see How One Parent Undermines Another Parent and Reunification Therapy with Estranged and Alienated Parents.

Emery (2011) has recently reviewed his longitudinal finding that, twelve years after random assignment to mediation or litigation, non-residential parents who had mediated their parenting dispute saw their children far more often than parents who settled via an adversarial process, and additionally had improved their parenting. Co-parents who mediated reported significantly less conflict (Main, Mary; Hesse, Erik; Hesse, Seigfried. “Attachment Theory and Research: Overview with Suggested Applications to Child Custody.” Family Court Review (2011): Volume 49, Issue 3, pages 426–463).

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.