Success with Supervised Visitation

Father-Son

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Supervised visitation is centered on maintaining or building a relationship between child and parent. If both parents provide a clear show of support for the importance of a relationship with both parents, the positive effects on the kids over time is powerful. It says that the kids are more important than the parent’s differences. In the case of domestic violence, abuse or neglect, kids and both parents would need to be prepared by a counselor who has been trained in domestic violence, abuse and neglect. Supervised visitation is about parents working together with a neutral third party to create a sense of safety. It gives the kids a sense of peace that parents will be okay and that a relationship with each parent will be okay. It is a chance at positive, consistent and calm interaction.

During the time together, activities and conversation about a variety of topics is facilitated. While it is not counseling or therapy, visitation supervised by a counselor has the advantage of available interventions designed to redirect communication in such a way that it is productive and resolves conflict. All participants agree how to express themselves, to not talk negatively about others, and avoid asking children to convey information about the other parent. It is in the child’s best interest that neither parent does not intentionally do anything to impair the natural development of the children’s love and respect for the other parent.

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. Adult children reported that they wish someone had helped them with their relationship with the “other” parent.

It is essential that both parents are at ease with this process. The emotions of the parents affect the experience of the children. “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). Addressing each parent’s concerns to reduce anxiety helps increase success with supervised visitation.

Visitation Refusal

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).

Working with Counselors and Court

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Working with the Court in managing chaotic situations involving children and counseling is challenging and requires an additional set of skills. This article should help to evaluate court-involved counseling. It is important to know how counseling will affect the legal process and how the legal process will affect counseling.

Families are often referred to counseling or mediation because (1.) a child is distressed, or (2.) a parent is hoping for support in a court case, or (3.) counseling or mediation is court-ordered. Each of these scenarios differs in the nature of the information that is presented to the counselor or mediator, and in the expectations of the counselor or mediator. Each participant has an agenda that is influenced by the legal process. The clinician should be focused on the psychological health of the client, the mediator should be focused on communication and negotiation, and clinicians and mediators should respect the role of attorneys, forensic evaluators, parenting coordinators, and the Court. Clinicians and mediators should not mix roles without a waiver. If there is a court order, the role should be clearly defined.

Clinicians and mediators should be knowledgeable in child development, and obtain each parent’s perspective and maintain objectivity. The clinician should be careful with attitudes and beliefs of the children that reflect one of the parents. These attitudes and beliefs may be hiding true feelings and may be causing distress. Clinicians and mediators should also know characteristics of divorcing parents and children, family systems, best practice for high conflict, and understand relevant research and standards of practice. Clinicians and mediators should also have ongoing training, especially in domestic violence, parental alienation and estrangement, and special needs of the family and children. Clinicians and mediators should be understanding of expectations and processes of the legal system and work well with collateral contacts.

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.

What Is Parenting Coordination?

Parenting coordination is a future trend and a viable option to custody battles. When parents are not able come to an agreement regarding their children a parent coordinator will mediate the issue. If parents are still not able to come to an agreement a parent coordinator gathers information to make a decision in the child’s best interest.

The couple agrees to abide by that decision per a court order or parent consent agreement. Some decisions may go one parent’s way and other decisions may go the other’s. This dispute resolution process focuses on the children’s needs and is an alternative to repeated returns to court and/or ongoing conflict that may otherwise continue indefinitely.

Parent coordination can be used to develop adherence to a parenting plan and as a quicker analysis and resolution of child-related parental disputes. The aim of parenting coordination is to stem the drain on family financial and emotional resources by resolving any disputes arising between parents. Note that a parenting coordinator does not resolve the matter of custody, but may be used as an interim basis to the address the implementation of a temporary parenting plan.

The author is Dan Blair, LMFT, LCPC, NCPC is a Nationally Certified Parenting Coordinator and is trained to draft arbitration decisions with precision.

How One Parent Undermines the Other Parent

Upset child from arguing parents

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Much of the time one parent does not realize what they are doing. The effect on the kids is unnoticed. It is usually experienced by the child as stress, tension, anxiety, guilt and depression. Kids may act out or hide it. Parents usually justify it.

What is “it?” On the moderate side it is undermining the other parent and it can lead to alienation. While some parents undermine themselves, one parent undermines the other when intentionally or non-intentionally one parent sends a message that a positive relationship with the other parent is not that important.

How does this happen? It may happen not so much by what a parent says but how he or she feels when he or she says it. If a parent is concerned about his or her child’s welfare when questioning the child about the other parent, the child may perceive your concern as if the child is in a bad situation. Subsequent comments may suggest to the child that something is bad about the other parent. Perhaps the comments are an exaggeration of the other parent’s flaws. A parent’s natural wish to protect a child may lead to proposing ways the child can deal with this “awful” situation, and maybe even question the appropriateness of time spent with the parent.

The next step in undermining the parental relationship would be to give power to the child in deciding whether or not a parental relationship is appropriate. While most parents would not hesitate to insist their child do something that they must do, building a workable relationship with the other parent may be seen as optional. For a child, though, to choose between having a relationship with a parent and not having a relationship is distressing. Even though kids may complain about their parents and protest against seeing a parent, they generally deep down want a good relationship with both parents. When one parent sides with the protest, however, the child may see this is a way to connect with the “better” parent, and the other parent may lose out.

The more the child avoids the “problematic” parent the easier it gets to avoid the “problematic” parent. Plus, the child gets approval and attention from the “better” parent. A powerful reinforced cycle develops.

The child may react by idealizing one parent and devaluing the other. Or the child’s complaints are listed and some of them are trivial or untrue. The complaints sound like they don’t reflect the child’s true feelings, or there is little ambivalence. Children may deny hope for reconciliation.

Children who are burdened by an undermining parent learn that it is not possible to have a good relationship with both parents. The other parent may give the child space to come around, but this may inadvertently reinforce negative perceptions. Or, the other parent may “push” the relationship, again reinforcing negative perceptions. Also, the parent may respond to undermining by undermining the other parent, and then underrate the effect on the kids. Both parents end up with little insight into one’s own contribution to the problem.

The effect on the kids can include changes in how the child views the world, lowered self-esteem, loss of self-confidence, future conflict, issues with attention, depression, and/or anxiety, future addiction and other effects revealed by research. Unfortunately, kids identify with negative aspects of both parents. Often though, the better the relationship with one parent the better the relationship with the other parent. In retrospect, adult children report that they wish someone helped them with their relationship with the “other” parent.

Visitation Refusal

How to Tell Kids About Divorce

Child moving

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Telling the kids is often described as the toughest part of a divorce. The kid’s dream of a “normal” life with mom and dad loving each other dies hard. There is much lost even in a “good divorce” so make sure divorce is unavoidable. Research says that ongoing conflict or an unloving home can be worse than a divorce, so it is important to understand the kids’ point of view.  For example, consider these lyrics by Tom Delonge:

Their anger hurts my ears
Been running strong for seven years
Rather than fix the problems
They never solve them
It makes no sense at all
I see them everyday
We get along, so why can’t they?
If this is what he wants
And this is what she wants
Then why is there so much pain?

Continue reading How to Tell Kids About Divorce

Ex Communication

Angry wife showing bills

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

To resolve issues with an “ex” in an unavoidable divorce, present and future co-parents may have to be at the point where they are tired of having issues and spending money for going to court.  To resolve issues co-parents have to let go of total control, which can be scary.  One also has to set aside the anger, hurt, and betrayal that fuels ongoing conflict.  The emotion is understandable, but may not resolve the conflict.

Given the emotional intensity of interacting with one’s “ex,” here’s a way to remember keys to success, if success is within your control.  Remember the goal is not to determine who is “right,” which is debatable, but to stop the issue from going back and forth indefinitely.  There are circumstances where this is necessary, and expensive.  On the other hand, even court orders do not stop the cycle.

Feeling.
Focus on the other’s feeling about the topic, one topic at a time.  Dealing on the feeling level may not be as satisfying as proving the “facts,” but surprisingly, “facts” can also be debatable.  Allowing the feeling of the other takes away the frustration of having to prove a point and creating more defensiveness.  Feelings are the basis of one’s position and often stay they same whether or not one is right or wrong.

Future.
The future is negotiable; the past is not.  The past may be important to understand, but that will not change the past.

Flexibility
The chance of resolving an issue is dependent on flexibility.  This is not to say that one should be flexible, but that to resolve an issue some area of flexibility must be discovered.

Fouls.
How do you derail progress?  Three examples include name-calling, criticism, and topic-jumping that creates defensiveness that add “fuel to the fire.”

These approaches to problem-solving are inadequate if one side believes that non-agreement or “winning” is a more desired scenario.  But even in “winning” there is much to be lost.

 

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.