Archive for September, 2013

7 Arguments in Support of Co-Parenting

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , , |

Published on April 16, 2012 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. in Co-Parenting After Divorce

I have long maintained that a more child-focused approach to resolving parenting disputes after separation and divorce is needed to reduce harm to children and ensure their well-being. Usually, when parents cannot agree on parenting matters, they take their case to a judge for a resolution. The court then applies a “best interests of the child” standard in its decision-making in regard to kids’ future living arrangements. The problem is, however, that this standard is extremely vague and indeterminate, based on projective speculation about which parent might in future be the “better” parent, and thus subject to judicial bias and error. Judges not trained in child development and family dynamics are given unfettered discretion, and this results in unpredictable outcomes based on idiosyncratic biases and subjective value judgments.

Our current system of resolving child custody disputes rarely considers either children’s needs from children’s own perspective, or current research on child custody outcomes. What is needed is a new standard, a “best interests of the child from the perspective of the child” standard, and an approach to child custody determination that is built on a strong foundation of empirical research.

My recent article in the American Journal of Family Therapy, “Arguments for an Equal Parental Responsibility Presumption in Contested Child Custody,” outlines sixteen distinct arguments in support of a shared parental responsibility presumption in contested child custody, which are presented from a child-focused perspective, with clinical and empirical evidence in support of each argument contrasted to the conflicting evidence. The shared parental responsibility alternative addresses the problems associated with judicial bias and error. The seven arguments are as follows:

1. Shared parenting preserves children’s relationships with both parents

2. Shared parenting preserves parents’ relationships with their children

3. Shared parenting decreases parental conflict and prevents family violence

4. Shared parenting enhances the quality of parent-child relationships

5. Shared parenting decreases parental focus on “mathematizing time” and reduces litigation

6. Shared parenting provides a clear and consistent guideline for judicial decision-making

7. Shared parenting reduces the risk and incidence of parental alienation

Many of these findings run counter to now-outdated research and prevailing practice wisdom in the field of divorce. However, there is an emergent consensus within the divorce research community that in the great majority of contested cases of child custody, where family violence is not a factor, children’s needs and interests are best served by preserving meaningful relationships with both of their parents. Children need and want both parents in their lives, beyond the constraints of “visitation” relationships and “primary caregiver” arrangements. Shared parenting is a viable and desirable alternative in this regard, and “in the best interests of the child from the perspective of the child.”

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Parent-Child Reunification After Alienation

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , |

May 8th, 2013  Kruk, Ph.D

Children and parents who have undergone forced separation from each other in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity. Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents (Baker, 2010). Yet the influence of the alienating parent is too strong to withstand, and children’s fear that the alienating parent may fall apart or withdraw his or her love holds them back. Research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent (Fidler and Bala, 2010). Thus while children’s stated wishes regarding parental residence and contact in contested custody after divorceshould be considered, they should not be determinative in cases of parental alienation.

Reunification efforts subsequent to prolonged absence should be undertaken with service providers with specialized expertise in parental alienation reunification. A number of models of intervention have been developed, the best-known being Warshak’s (2010) Family Bridges Program, an educative and experiential program focused on multiplegoals: allowing the child to have a healthy relationship with both parents, removing the child from the parental conflict, and encouraging child autonomy, multiple perspective-taking, and critical thinking. Sullivan’s Overcoming Barriers Family Camp (Sullivan et al, 2010), which combines psycho-educational and clinical intervention within an environment of milieu therapy, is aimed toward the development of an agreement regarding the sharing of parenting time, and a written aftercare plan. Friedlander and Walters’ (2010) Multimodal Family Intervention provides differential interventions for situations of parental alignment, alienation, enmeshment and estrangement. All of these programs emphasize the clinical significance of children coming to regard their parents as equally valued and important in their lives, while at the same time helping enmeshed children relinquish their protective role toward their alienating parents.

In reunification programs, alienated parents will benefit from guidelines with respect to their efforts to provide a safe, comfortable, open and inviting atmosphere for their children. Ellis (2005) outlines five strategies for alienated parents: (1) erode children’s negative image by providing incongruent information; (2) refrain from actions that put the child in the middle of conflict; (3) consider ways to mollify the anger and hurt of the alienating parent; (4) look for ways to dismantle the coalition between the child and alienating parent and convert enemies to allies; and (5) never give up on reunification efforts. As much as possible, Warshak (2010) recommends, alienated parents should try to expose their children to people who regard them, as parents, with honor and respect, to let children see that their negative opinion, and the opinion of the alienating parent, is not shared by the rest of the world. This type of experience will leave a stronger impression than anything the alienated parent can say on his or her own behalf, according to Warshak.

As Baker (2010) writes, alienated parents acutely feel the hostility and rejection of their children. These children seem cruel, heartless, and devaluing of their parents. Yet it is important to realize that from the child’s perspective, it is the targeted parent who has rejected them; they have been led to believe that the parent whom they are rejecting does not love them, is unsafe, and has abandoned them. Thus, the primary response of the alienated parent must always be one of loving compassion, emotional availability, and absolute safety. Patience and hope, unconditional love, being there for the child, is the best response that alienated parents can provide their children, even in the face of the sad truth that this may not be enough to bring back the child.

With alienating parents, it is important to emphasize that as responsible parenting involves respecting the other parent’s role in the child’s life, any form of denigration of a former partner and co-parent is harmful to children. Children’s connections to each parent must be fully respected, to ensure their well being, as children instinctively know, at the core of their being, that they are half their mother and half their father. This is easier said than done, as alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, with a prodigious sense of entitlement and need to control (Richardson, 2006), and thus pose significant clinical challenges. Yet poisoned minds and instilled hatred toward a parent is a very serious form of abuse of children. When children grow up in an atmosphere of parental alienation, their primary role model is a maladaptive, dysfunctional parent. It is for this reason that many divorce specialists (e.g., Fidler and Bala, 2010) recommend custody reversal in such cases, or at least a period of separation between a child and an alienating parent during the reunification process with an alienated parent. I have come to believe, however, that the means of combating alienation should not themselves be alienating, and that a non-punitive approach is most effective, with co-parenting being the primary goal. Thus engaging and involving the alienating parent in reunification programs, whenever possible, is critical (Sullivan et al, 2010).

Finally, it is often quite difficult to discern who is the alienating and who is the targeted parent in alienation cases. Thus equal or shared parenting is clearly preferable to primary residence or sole custody orders in potential alienation cases, as courts are ill-equipped to assess the dynamics attendant to parental alienation, and co-parenting is preventive of alienation.

Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.

Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.

Friedlander, S. & Walters, M.G. (2010). “When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 98-111.

Warshak, R. (2010). “Family Bridges: Using insights from social science to reconnect parents and alienated children.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 48-80.

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The impact of parental alienation on parents

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , |

Published on May 2, 2013 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D.

In this second installment of our three-part series on parental alienation, we turn our attention to alienated (targeted) and alienating parents. Parental alienation is the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other (targeted) parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and most often occurs within the context of a child custody conflict. This includes the “legal abuse” of parents who have been disenfranchised from their children’s lives subsequent to sole custody and primary residence judgments. Within an adversarial legal process, non-custodial parents are often subjected to shame and stigma, lack of access to their children, and devaluation of their role as parents. And those who speak about the pain and woundedness in their lives are subjected to a mean-spirited cultural response, where their talk of woundedness is mocked.

Most alienated parents are non-custodial fathers, and engaging these fathers is a significant challenge, as clinical and research literature has described the lack of “fit” between fathers and therapeutic agents as emanating from two sources: the characteristics of men and fathers themselves (their resistance to counseling and therapy), and aspects of the therapeutic process (which have failed to successfully engage fathers). Patterns of traditional gender-role socialization directing men toward self-sufficiency and control, independent problem-solving and emotional restraint have largely worked against fathers being able to acknowledge personal difficulties and request help. A fear of self-disclosure and a feeling of disloyalty to one’s family in exposing family problems are not uncommon; a fear of losing control over one’s life and the need to present an image of control or a “facade of coping” in the form of exterior calm, strength, and rationality, despite considerable inner turmoil, characterize many fathers. Professional service providers do not always consider such psychological obstacles to therapy and thus do not address fathers’ unique needs. The research on divorced fathers is clear about their most pressing need: their continued meaningful involvement with their children, as active parents. The lack of recognition of this primary need is the main reason for therapists’ lack of success in engaging alienated fathers.

Above all, the key to engaging alienated parents is to validate their parental identity, and combine advocacy efforts with counseling focused on enhancing their role as active and responsible parents. Human service professionals have been notably absent in the politics of reform with respect to the issue of legal child custody, yet they are desperately needed as allies in policy reform efforts. An important role of human service professionals in supporting alienated parents is through such advocacy and activism, challenging the custodial/non-custodial and residential/non-residential parent dichotomy and advancing the cause of co-parenting.

An active program of outreach is essential as alienated parents report a lack of effective support services, and they remain a highly vulnerable population. Service providers need to be persistent and proactive, as it takes time to build and sustain engagement in the context of these parents’ feelings of isolation, helplessness, and their tendency to wait until there is a crisis before accessing support. Parents who were highly involved with and attached to their children and suddenly find themselves forcefully removed from their children’s lives experience profound woundedness. The experience of being removed as a loving parent from the life of one’s child via a sole custody order strikes at the heart of one’s being. Suicide rates are reported to be of “epidemic” proportions among alienated parents struggling to maintain a parenting relationship with their children (Kposowa, 2000); and legal abuse has been noted as a key factor in these cases. Being vigilant regarding symptoms of post-traumaticstress and suicidal ideation among non-custodial and alienated fathers and mothers is an essential role for service providers. A strengths-based approach, recognizing alienated parents’ aspirations to their children’s well being and the experience, knowledge and skills that they can contribute to this well being, while maintaining the high road in addressing the alienation, is vital.

And finally, what about the alienating parent, who uses a combination of fear, lies, flattery and gratification of material desires to win over their child, and whose sense of entitlement and desire to control the child is greater than the desire to nurture and care for the child? As Amy Baker writes, parents who try to alienate their child from the other parent subtlely or overtly convey a three-part message to the child: I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself; the other parent is dangerous and unavailable; and pursuing a relationship with the other parent jeopardizes your relationship with me. Alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, often enmeshed with the child, with a “sense of entitlement, needing control, knowing only how to take” (Richardson, 2006). Yet although it is easy to pathologize and blame such parents, it must be remembered that alienating behavior is encouraged in the context of a legal adversarial forum where the goal is to “win” the custody or residence of one’s child. And although some would recommend a solution of removing child custody from alienating parents and placing children in the care of non-alienating parents, it is often very difficult to adjudicate who actually is the alienating and who is the targeted parent. Family law judges are not trained in the finer points of child development and family dynamics, and can be easily swayed by legal arguments made on behalf of disputing parents, including alienating parents.

On the matter of parental alienation, I have come to see that the problem is systemic in nature; that is, the problem lies primarily in the adversarial nature of legal determination of parenting after divorce. Parents are set up to fight in an effort to win “primary residence” or “custody” of their children, and the system tends to reward those skilled in adversarial combat. Parents often win their case by disparaging the other parent as a parent, in effect engaging in alienating behaviors, and the system thereby encourages and produces alienating behavior. A legal presumption of co-parenting, rebuttable in established cases of child abuse and family violence, may in fact be the most effective means of combating parental alienation and curtailing its damaging consequences, while at the same time protecting the safety and well-being of children at risk of abuse.

The final installment of our three-part series on parental alienation will examine programs, services and interventions that combat alienation, and seek to reunite estranged parents and their children while addressing the significant clinical challenges in working with alienating parents.

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The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , |

Published on April 25, 2013 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. in Co-Parenting After Divorce

I offer the first installment of a three-part series examining (1) the impact of parental alienation on children, (2) the effects of parental alienation on parents, and (3) programs, services and interventions that combat alienation and seek to reunite estranged parents and their children.

What children of divorce most want and need is to maintain healthy and strong relationships with both of their parents, and to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. Some parents, however, in an effort to bolster their parental identity, create an expectation that children choose sides. In more extreme situations, they foster the child’s rejection of the other parent. In the most extreme cases, children are manipulated by one parent to hate the other, despite children’s innate desire to love and be loved by both their parents.

Parental alienation involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other “targeted” parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and is often a sign of a parent’s inability to separate from the couple conflict and focus on the needs of the child. Such denigration results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the life of the child. Psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the concept of “parental alienation syndrome” 20 years ago, defining it as, “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.” Children’s views of the targeted parent are almost exclusively negative, to the point that the parent is demonized and seen as evil.

As Amy Baker writes, parental alienation involves a set of strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent. In my own research on non-custodial parents who have become disengaged from their children’s lives (Kruk, 2011), I found that most lost contact involuntarily, many as a result of parental alienation. Constructive alternatives to adversarial methods of reconnecting with their children were rarely available to these alienated parents.

Parental alienation is more common than is often assumed: Fidler and Bala (2010) report both an increasing incidence and increased judicial findings of parental alienation; they report estimates of parental alienation in 11-15% of divorces involving children; Bernet et al (2010) estimate that about 1% of children and adolescents in North America experience parental alienation.

There is now scholarly consensus that severe alienation is abusive to children (Fidler and Bala, 2010), and it is a largely overlooked form ofchild abuse (Bernet et al, 2010), as child welfare and divorce practitioners are often unaware of or minimize its extent. As reported by adult children of divorce, the tactics of alienating parents are tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment of children, including spurning, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and denying emotional responsiveness (Baker, 2010). For the child, parental alienation is a serious mental condition, based on a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent. The severe effects of parental alienation on children are well-documented; low self esteem and self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, and substance abuse and other forms of addiction are widespread, as children lose the capacity to give and accept love from a parent. Self-hatred is particularly disturbing among affected children, as children internalize the hatred targeted toward the alienated parent, are led to believe that the alienated parent did not love or want them, and experience severe guilt related to betraying the alienated parent. Their depression is rooted is feelings of being unloved by one of their parents, and from separation from that parent, while being denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of the parent, or to even talk about the parent. Alienated children typically have conflicted or distant relationships with the alienating parent also, and are at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children; Baker reports that fully half of the respondents in her study of adult children who had experienced alienation as children were alienated from their own children.

Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents, and to be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child abuse. Since it is the child who is being violated by a parent’s alienating behaviors, it is the child who is being alienated from the other parent. Children who have undergone forced separation from one of their parents in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity (research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent; alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate). While children’s stated wishes regarding parental contact in contested custody should be considered, they should not be determinative, especially in suspected cases of alienation.

Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child; it has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate or fear the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child. Alienated children are no less damaged than other child victims of extreme conflict, such as child soldiers and other abducted children, who identify with their tormentors to avoid pain and maintain a relationship with them, however abusive that relationship may be.

In the second installment on parental alienation, I will examine the effects of parental alienation on targeted parents, and suggest a range of strategies for preventing and intervening in these cases in the third.

Related Articles

Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.

Bernet, W. et al (2010). “Parental alienation and the DSM V.” American Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 76-187.

Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.

Kruk, E. (2011). Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

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Leading Women For Shared Parenting

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , , |

Leading Women for Shared Parenting was founded to dispel the widespread myth that it is only – or even mainly – disgruntled fathers with limited access to their children who promote equal shared parenting as the default model for separating parents.

That is simply not the truth.

Polls in the United States, Canada and other western countries consistently demonstrate overwhelming support in the general population for equally shared parenting. Both fair-minded men and women across all social and cultural lines understand that mothers and fathers are equally important in the lives of their children.

For some years a number of prominent women in media and politics have been championing this issue in the public forum of ideas and in policy-making circles. Eventually they sought a common platform from which they could bring their support for equal shared parenting to effective attention and positive legislative action.

Thus LW4SP came into being, with more than 150 influential women lending their names in support of the equal shared parenting principle.

LW4SP is made of up Leading Woman from all walks of life including prominent authors, activists, researchers, academics, advocates, domestic violence experts, columnists, therapists, legislators, attorneys, PTA Presidents and more. Most importantly however, LW4SP has a highly engaged membership, comprised of over two-thirds Women, who are determined to change Family Law in the most crucial way; to benefit the well-being of Children. Our organization is assisted by a group of passionate volunteers whose tireless efforts make all the difference.

Click on the link below to listen to Jill Egizii (of Family Matters) talk with 4 women who are involved with Leading Women for Shared Parenting (LW4SP). These 4 women share their stories about why they got involved with LW4SP.

leading-women-for-shared-parenting

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Healing Divorced Families One Story At A Time

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , , |

Jontie Hays and Sarah Ulmer have written 12 books (Monkey in the Middle) to help children understand the emotions and feelings that parents experience during divorce.  Jontie talks with Jill Egizii of Family Matters about her book and her work as a social worker.  Click the link below to listen to the show:

monkey-in-the-middle-talks-with-family-matters

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Parental Alienation: When Parents Are Kept From Their Kids

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , |

After divorce or separation, some ex-spouse smack talk is sort of expected. But what if your ex drove a wedge between you and your children and they stopped talking to you?

MEGAN KRUEGER

It’s a Monday morning. The door buzzes and a woman walks in, struggling as she carries a bulky, clear Rubbermaid bin. One of the clips keeping the box shut is barely clasped while the other is broken, leaving the left corner popping open.

It is brimming with documents from her divorce and her ordeal: records of court motions she and her ex-husband endured, emails back and forth from lawyers and a worn book called Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind. It is a paper trail that still elicits tears.

“I have four kids,” says Cindy, 50. She digs through her purse and pulls out a small photo album. She shows me a photo of four children, sitting together. “That’s what they looked like. And now they’re 23, 21, 19 and 15,” she says in a shaky voice, sniffling.

One mom’s story

Cindy, whose real name has been changed to protect her family, struggles every day with something called parental alienation. A byproduct of some divorces, it’s when one parent is literally alienated from his or her child due to badmouthing, disparaging and, as it’s referred to by some professionals, “poisoning” by the other parent.

It’s beyond your garden-variety ex-spouse snarkiness and, according to those who work in the divorce field, it happens more often than you’d think. These professionals familiar with parental alienation believe the adversarial nature of the court system contributes to the problem, pitting co-parents against one another and sending them through programs that often don’t work.

Somewhere in meeting with lawyers and dealing with the anger and sadness, maybe kids find themselves dragged to one side or another – either intentionally or unintentionally. And, unfortunately, it’s not easy to prove, prevent or see coming.

When Cindy’s then-husband filed for divorce in 2000, she was a stay-at-home mom parenting her three daughters and son, who at the time were 10, 8, 6 and 2 years old.

After the divorce, her ex would bribe the kids with no curfews or give them cell phones and, later, cars that they were not allowed to use to see or talk to her, she says. Eventually, they stopped driving with her to family holiday parties. And then they’d “play the mom is invisible game” when she’d come pick them up for her parenting time, often ignoring her knocking on the door. Once, she went to her daughter’s soccer game and her daughter freaked out and stopped playing because she was there.

One by one, Cindy’s children left her side. For more than a decade, she’s been battling with her ex-husband in court. Through all the he-said-she-said stories, motions in court and attempts to get more time with her children, Cindy was still left alone.

“All the things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see any of my girls get dressed for a dance, you know. I didn’t see my oldest daughter’s graduation from college,” she says. “I wasn’t part of her life because he made it so.”

Inside alienation

Around 1985, Dr. Richard Gardner came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome” to describe what Amy Baker, Ph.D. summarizes as “a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent in response to the attitudes and actions of the other parent” in a 2008 Social Work Today article.

Psychotherapist Robert Hack, a divorce mediator, parenting coordinator and president ofAssociates in Divorce in Bloomfield Hills, says “hostile aggressive parenting” is another term for it. He calls it “emotional child abuse after divorce.” But as John Langlois, president of Dads and Moms of Michigan, a nonprofit that advocates for children in what they call “bi-nuclear” families, adds, “it gets complex because even the word divorce isn’t right.” He points out, “You don’t have to have a marriage license to conceive a child.

Signs of alienation

The website Moving Forward Through Divorce provides signs of parental alienation on its page titled “Five Key Signs of Parental Alienation.” They include:
-Child viewing the parent causing the alienation as “good” and “honest” and the other as “all bad.”
-Denial of being “coached” by their parent
-Refusing contact with relatives of the “target parent”
-Anger toward the parent is “based on frivolous and unwarranted reasons.”
-Refusing contact with one parent

“The topic is so new that the industry as a whole is still arguing about what the nomenclature for it is going to be. It’s that infant.”

Regardless of the name, the actions are still the same. Hack says parents may do it consciously or subconsciously, and it usually happens in what’s called a “high-conflict” divorce. Some believe they’re doing a good thing for the child, thinking, “I have to let my child know how bad mommy is or daddy is.”

Some, though, see it as a way to hurt and punish their former spouse. Langlois, who conducts supervised parenting time and exchanges at Dads and Moms of Michigan, and Hack, as a parenting coordinator, deal with these issues firsthand. Langlois says he’s seen situations in which parents kept children from seeing the other parent – or felt their ex didn’t deserve to be around their children because of what occurred in the marriage.

“I’ve been in the court and I’ve watched a mother yell and scream at the Friend of the Court that the father lost all rights to the child when he filed for divorce. Believed it. And it’s just not true,” he says.

While this emotional abuse comes in levels ranging from mild to severe, it can have a huge impact on children either way. Kids often think their parents’ split is their fault. Furthermore, when pitted against mom or dad, it can affect their self esteem.

“What (parents) lose track of is the very key fundamental truth in that all children, throughout all time, were a product of both of their parents,” Langlois says. “So all children throughout all time have identified at some level with both of their biological parents.”

 

Educating parents

In ADEPT, or After Divorce: Effective Parenting Together, an eight-week educational program for co-parents in Oakland County, Hack, who is one of the facilitators, cautions parents against saying harmful things to children about their other parent “because you’re destroying half your kids,” he explains.

Over time, Hack says, kids may respond with extremes like dropping out of high school or getting into drugs. They’re also likely to face difficulty in future relationships due to their lack of knowledge on handling conflict.

“The whole thing is about education,” Langlois says. “The one thing all parents will agree on when they walk in is they want the best for their children.”

In Oakland County, when parents of children younger than 18 file for divorce, they meet with a Friend of the Court referee for an “early intervention conference” to discuss things such as custody and child support.

Immediately following, they’re sent to SMILE, or Start Making It Livable for Everyone – a required program through Friend of the Court designed to help the divorcees co-parent successfully. In Wayne County, divorcing parents are required to go to the Kids First program, and in Macomb both parents are required to attend SMILE before their judgment is entered. Macomb and Wayne don’t conduct early intervention conferences.

The SMILE program

Suzanne Hollyer, administrator of Friend of the Court in Oakland County, says that while the term parental alienation “is loaded in the field,” she says “we all agree that parents should not disparage one another, particularly in the presence of their children.” In the SMILE program, they “talk to parents about how much that hurts their children.”

The SMILE program, which is one hour-long session, is about “refocusing on children,” Hollyer says. Its mission is to show parents that rather than discouraging children from seeing their other parent, the “best gift” they can give their children during this time is “permission to love the other parent.”

So why is it that some of the parents who went through programs like SMILE end up in supervised parenting time with Langlois or in ADEPT with Hack?

Sometimes, the material from SMILE doesn’t stick. Langlois says it’s right to send all parents to SMILE, but because the program – at least in Oakland County -– is about 60 days after filing for divorce and is short, “it needs to continue.”

“(Parents) aren’t ready to hear it, and it’s the Reader’s Digest version,” he says. “I know people that I talk to five years later swear to me in Oakland County they never went to that, and I know for sure they did.”

Randall B. Pitler, attorney and mediator at Pitler Family Law and Mediation in Royal Oak, specializes in what’s called amicable or collaborative divorce. He says SMILE “is a good introduction” and a “good first step,” but he, too, suggests maybe it needs to be more frequent – or be taken sooner.

At his divorce practice, he involves mediators and mental health professionals early on before people get “dug in” and are “less likely to compromise.”

“I have this belief that most people, when they decide to get a divorce, their first thought (is) ‘I want to get through this, I want to kind of come to an agreement, I want to do what’s best for my family,'” he says, but, “then the next thought is, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go hire some pit-bull attorney’ – and that’s when things start. So to me, the earlier we can get them into some sort of mediation or a SMILE program or anything before they go down that road,” he says, the better.

The Friend of the Court has the ability to conduct investigations, rearrange parenting time and enforce custody orders. But Hollyer says that if problems persist in a family, she can send people back to SMILE for a “refresher.”

She also refers them to the ADEPT program. This private program costs around $275 per parent. Hollyer says the public probably wouldn’t support requiring parents to go through even more sessions or programs.

“I don’t think people would want us to be able to call up a parent and say, ‘I hear you’ve been talking bad about the other parent,'” she says, because the Friend of the Court is already involved in “very private family matters.”

Hollyer says the information is out there for parents who are ready to make the “difficult transition” into divorced life with children. But with mediation, she notes, “you have to have two willing parents.”

Court system woes

Some divorce professionals argue that certain aspects of the court system contribute to hostility, and in turn fuel parental alienation.

“Because they’re divorced now … the only way to punish the other parent is through the only vehicle they have, (which) is the court system,” Langlois says. He says often people will file motions to do this, “which in essence leads to emotional child abuse, because the children are caught in the middle of these conflicts.”

Pitler agrees. “Once they get in there, they just want to fight.

“The court system, from my point of view, is designed to basically get people into the process, to move them through, and to get them out,” Pitler adds. “It benefits the judges, because it gets cases off their docket; to a large extent it benefits the attorneys, because they gain financially. I don’t think it benefits the parties, the families, the children.”

Pitler says in an amicable divorce, he has all clients and lawyers meet to work out the divorce for as long as it takes. They “work at the pace of the parties” and get therapists – sometimes even for the child – involved.

“(The court system is) not set up to deal with family issues. It’s not set up to deal with children,” he says. “When parties have a conflict, they go to court, they get 10 minutes with a referee who’s going to make a recommendation, then they may get 10 minutes with the judge who’s going to make a decision.”

Pitler says the State Bar of Michigan doesn’t require any special certification to be a family lawyer – they just need to pass the bar.

“So what folks do when they decide to get divorced is they run to an attorney. Sometimes, they’ll pick an attorney that actually knows something about family law. Sometimes they will not,” Langlois explains. “But even if they pick a family law attorney, the likelihood that the person has anywhere close to the understanding of the emotional factors” is “very low.”

Pitler says that the court system almost encourages parental alienation.

“Our system is plaintiff versus defendant, and there’s the perception when somebody files for divorce or files for custody, it’s ‘me versus my spouse’ or ‘me versus the other parent,’ so people are gearing up for a fight,” he says. “It almost encourages behaviors that would have the child align themselves with that particular parent, so they can feel like they’re winning.”

However, Hollyer says the Michigan Supreme Court tested using “non-adversarial” language – i.e., in the matter of “the Smith family” instead of “plaintiff versus defendant” – and they didn’t find a significant decrease in conflict. Hollyer notes that a lot of people do end up in family court – and, she admits, “it is harsh and cold.”

“We have 54,000 cases,” she says. “But they’re real families … going through something devastating.”

That’s why Friend of the Court exists, and programs like SMILE and ADEPT are available, she says, to find the best way to help families in the system.

“I do this for a reason; I believe in it,” she says. “(Friend of the Court is) here, and we may make people angry, but I’d rather them have the ability to be angry at us, an agency, than to be angry at each other, which will spill over into parenting.”

Pitler believes “the people in the system want to do a better job.”

“Most of the people, in my experience – the judges, the referees, the family counselors – they want to do the best job possible, but they’re limited in time, they have a case load, (and) they have deadlines.”

How to stop

Stemming parental alienation means not involving your child in the argument at all – despite how challenging it may be.

“It’s keeping the focus on the kids, and that’s very difficult,” Pitler says. “It’s not putting your interest first. It’s putting the kids’ interest first and doing what’s best – and recognizing that the children need two parents.”

Successfully raising a child in two homes – and with your ex – can be tricky. Learn how to make it work with these seven tips.

Pitler also says getting mental health professionals involved early on can “cut through” emotional issues.

“I emphasize that mom and dad have to be intimately involved with the kids,” Hack says. “If you have a problem with mom, you talk to mom, not through the kids. If you have a problem with dad, talk to dad, not through the kids. No notes go in their backpack.”

And try to recognize the good in your children being with their other parent.

“When the child is with the other parent, you want to encourage that. You want to speak positively about the other parent – you don’t want to undermine what the other parent is doing,” Pitler says.

If problems persist, Hack recommends going to ADEPT “before things fester and the kids really get destroyed.”

Although Hollyer says kids are “resilient” and “different age groups fair differently” in divorce, she encourages parents to love their child and put hatred for their exes aside.

“Just be the best parent you can throughout the process,” she says, “regardless of what the other parent is doing.”

Ultimately, it’s important to remember how much divorce has an impact on children – even when you feel overwhelmed with anger caused by your former spouse.

“Even in the most amicable divorce where the parents are fully supportive and the parents are doing all the right things, the kids suffer,” Pitler says. “So if you take parents who aren’t doing all the right things, the kids have less of a chance.”

Continuing battle

Toward the end of our Monday meeting, Cindy pulls out the small photo album from her purse again to show me a few more pictures.

“It just started like this – innocent, sweet,” she says through tears.

“I would never in a million years have dreamed that my family would have been torn apart like this.”

But she hasn’t given up on patching it back together in some way.

Her oldest daughter, now 23 and graduated from college, has intermittent contact with her. “She called me and said, ‘I feel like I woke up from a bad dream,'” Cindy says.

She still has not spoken with her third daughter in about five years, or her son in more than three years. But she recently had lunch with her second oldest child, now 21.

“Step by step,” she says, “I remain patient and confident that my children will find their ways back to me.”

 

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Paternal influence crucial to the success of children: report

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , |

September 1, 2013

Cosima Marriner

Sun-Herald senior writer

Cameron McKay with his twin children (aged 3) Thomas and Madison (and William) at Centennial Park where he often takes them to get out of the house.Building social skills: Cameron McKay enjoys a romp with his three-year-old twins Thomas and Madison.Photo: James Alcock

Children with involved fathers have better social skills, more successful relationships, stronger self esteem, more self-control and higher grades than those who do not.

They are also less likely to be overweight, suspended from school or bully, take drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviour or crime.

As fathers take a more active role in parenting there is growing evidence of the benefits to children, a report from the University of Western Australia’s fathering project shows.

The report, How fathers and father figures can shape child health and wellbeing, has reviewed all the research published in the past decade on the influence of fathers.

”We shouldn’t underestimate the vast importance of fathers in children’s lives because of the significant impact fathers have on the social, cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing of children from infancy … into their adult life,” it states.

Fathering project leader Bruce Gibson said fathers were highly influential because children were very sensitive to what their father thought of them.

”Kids have a notion that somehow dad is optional, that he could walk away at any time, whereas mum is stuck with the kids,” Dr Gibson said. ”They have a radar out for what dad has to say, how he treats them.”

Dr Gibson said if both parents said the same thing to their child it had four times the impact than if just the mother said it.

The fathering project report found physical activity was a key way fathers influenced their children, helping to teach them limits, self-control and how to face challenging situations. Father/child play also encouraged healthy diet and exercise habits. Mothers tended to provide comfort in times of distress.

Children who spent more time with their fathers during their transition to adolescence had better social skills and higher self-worth than those who spent less one-on-one time with their fathers. ”The same effect was not observed for mothers,” the authors said.

Children with distant, unsupportive and cold fathers were at greater risk of developing a mental illness like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder as an adult. They were twice as likely to have a substance abuse problem and 10 times as likely to be involved in crime.

”Research specific to fathers indicates that their influence on alcohol and illicit drug use in children may be distinct and stronger than that of mothers,” the report states.

Dr Gibson said an involved father made his children feel worthwhile, and therefore less vulnerable to peer pressure. ”Kids think ‘my dad is really busy but he’s willing to spend time with me’. It makes kids feel very special and worthwhile.” He cautioned that a disciplinarian, authoritarian father had just as much negative effect on a child as an absent father.

Fatherhood expert Steve Biddulph said fathers influenced their sons and daughters in different ways. ”Girls regard dads as their first role model for the opposite gender [while] boys look to dads for how to behave.”

Mr Biddulph, the author of Raising Boys and Raising Girls, said there had been a trebling in the amount of time fathers spent teaching, helping and playing with their children.

”The younger generation of dads that I speak to simply love being dads, they find it gives a sense of worth and purpose beyond the often impersonal satisfactions and frustrations of the corporate world,” he said.

”Parenthood is a muddle-through kind of activity, you are always learning and stumbling, and once [you] get used to that, it makes you more real, relaxed, and humble.”

Rebecca Giallo from the Parenting Research Centre said men need to look after their mental health if they are to be good fathers.

”When a father is experiencing good mental health he’s more available to children to be responsive to their needs, to engage in play and learning activities and experience what is important to children,” Dr Giallo said. ”He’s also an important support in the family if the mother is having difficulties.”

Rough play builds spirit

Cameron McKay has been rumbling with his two sons since they were little, whether it’s wrestling, doing the ”typewriter” on their chests or kicking the footy at the park.

“I don’t want them to grow up being precious,” Mr McKay, who runs recruitment business ConnectTalent, said. “This is my little part of fatherhood. Life is difficult sometimes. I want to give them a broad spectrum of skills.”

The Fathers and Families Research program at the University of Newcastle has found that children who engage in rough and tumble play with their dads learn how to read social signals, regulate their emotions, stay within limits and take ”manageable” risks.

“Rough and tumble play influences how well a child controls their emotions and activity,” researcher Jennifer StGeorge said. New research by Dr StGeorge suggests children whose fathers spend more time playing with them have lower risk-taking behaviours.

All three of Mr McKay’s children love rough and tumble play, although his daughter Madison “likes to do it in a girly sort of way”.

“When I bend down to pick something up off the floor they think it’s game on, they jump on daddy,” Mr McKay said. “Parents are so protective of children these days. My kids aren’t afraid of anything. They are confident little children.”

Mr McKay said he consciously tries to be an involved father. “It’s about being a role model for your children,” he said. “The best thing for me about being a dad is growing the lives of three little children who you hope in their own way will make a difference in the world.”

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/paternal-influence-crucial-to-the-success-of-children-report-20130831-2sxf8.html#ixzz2dikagAwt

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