Thursday, November 29, 2018

Children Will Choose: 2 Ideas As To Why

Children will choose.  Sometimes I sit with couples attempting to strengthen their marriages.  Other times I sit with high conflict couples who are attempting to salvage them.  And still other times I sit with couples who have decided to divorce and are seeking a path forward for their family, which involves a co-parenting plan.  In any of these scenarios, our children are usually aware on some level that things in their home are not entirely harmonious.  Children crave harmony and safety, emotional and physical.  Somewhere along an invisible emotional continuum, it happens that a child will make a choice between aligning himself or herself with one parent or the other.

Cloe Madanes, a pioneering Strategic Family Therapist, has spoken about human relationships in the context of threes.  2 parents and a child, a couple and an affair, 3 siblings.  She encouraged family and couples therapists to assess the “triads” within a family from a perspective of who is in and who is out.  The in pair (i.e. a parent and a child) would be described as “in an alliance” and the out person, the other parent, on the periphery.  It is fairly common for sons to align themselves with their fathers, and vice versa, or daughters with their mothers.  Gender can be a powerful parent-child magnet.  If not careful, struggling partners will consciously or unconsciously recruit their children to aid and abet in their fight against each other.  Other times children will consciously or unconsciously choose a side. 

Yet, how do children end up choosing?  Perhaps an evolutionary instinct to survive is baked into all of us and as such a child will pick the parent who will best assure him/her of this.  It would be most interesting to ask a professor of geography like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) or else a historian of world history like Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) to weigh in on this idea.  Intellectuals like Diamond and Harari describe how humans developed through time and how some lived on and thrived while others did not.  When children are faced with parents and a home environment that does not feel emotionally safe, they will perhaps on some primitive level-honed by our species for over 2 million years- choose the parent they think will best “save them.”

Alternatively, we as a society are living in what some have described as an age of political tribalism.  Regardless of one’s political views, our culture in this regard has pushed us to choose sides.  And to choose from an “us or them” mentality.  In family systems terms, the president, congress, along with the judiciary, a triad,  metaphorically can be seen as our country’s parental/executive subsystem.  They are often in disagreement over policy and as such set the tone for how they will interact with each other.  Like children in a family the rest of us look to our government family system to model appropriate behavior, especially during their moments of conflict.  We are living in an age where we are choosing sides politically while castigating the other, and I wonder if our children are being socialized to do the same.  To choose a side, a parent, and by association to hold contempt for the other.

I am in the business of assisting couples.  Some who are making a go at staying together and others who are making a go at divorcing while remaining a family.  Along this continuum, if couples are not intentional about how they manage their often-strong negative feelings for the other, their children will become emotionally frightened and pick a side.  They will do this either out of a primitive instinct or out of what they are learning from our broader culture.  Either way, if not careful children will choose.      

Monday, November 5, 2018

Co-Parenting? Maybe

High conflict couples.  Some seek my services attempting to salvage their marriage.  Others have decided to divorce and request my services as a “co-parenting communication expert.”  In this latter scenario, I am called upon to help high conflict couples co-parent their children.  Usually these couple’s assumption about co-parenting is something akin to working together as parents. This is a tall order if the couple hardly agrees on much, gets into arguments over big and small issues, and carries too much anger and not enough indifference toward the other.  While co-parenting in principle is the ideal, sometimes it is beyond a high conflict couple’s reach.  In these cases, parallel parenting, while in my view less preferred, is probably a better, more tenable option.

Co-parenting is a framework that suggests 2 cooperative parents working together to make decisions on behalf of their children.  If the children live in a 2-home configuration (i.e. part of the week with one parent and the other part of the week with the other), co-parenting would reflect a similar “culture” in both homes.  This might include similar rules and expectations related to bedtimes, curfews, screen time limits, and general behavior.  In essence, there would be a seamless 2-home experience for the children, with 2 parents who have dissolved their marital relationship yet still value their ability to work together as parents.  These parents would be able to communicate with each other through direct dialogue, telephone, email or text messaging.  They would be able to agree and more importantly be able to disagree without tensions rising or conflicts between them intensifying.  Within a 2-home co-parenting arrangement, children generally do well related to depression, anxiety and other psychological issues.

If there is too much emotional conflict between parents however, co-parenting is not realistic.  Alternatively, parallel parenting (
is probably the better option.  Given the similar circumstances of a 2-home environment, parallel parenting suggests more of an “invisible wall” between the 2 homes.  Each parent sets his or her own culture, rules and expectations, with limited to no contact between each other.  The children live their lives with mom on pre-arranged days and holidays and with dad on certain others.  The advantage of this arrangement is that high conflict parents don’t have the opportunity to communicate and thus get into conflicts with each other.  This inevitably allows both parents to “cool off” and potentially down the road move toward a co-parenting relationship.  The disadvantage of parallel parenting is that children are often stressed (i.e. anxious or depressed) as they must accept that their parents carry negative feelings towards one other and are not able or willing to resolve them. 

Commonly, I am asked to assist divorcing couples with co-parenting needs.  The beginning assumption made by many couples is that they can feud and yet parent together at the same time.  Usually I can help high conflict couples recognize that this dynamic will not work if they want to constructively parent together.  Some couples are able to rise above their strong feelings for the other.  Others however are too entrenched in thoughts and feelings and in these cases need to fall back to parallel parenting.  My experience is that parallel parenting over a short period of time does not create deep psychological damage for children.  Over longer periods of time however, it can.  Sounds like an interesting dissertation project for anyone reading this who might be looking into a PhD/PsyD topic.