Friday, June 21, 2013


Oddly enough it’s not only parents who will frequently ask this question but lawyers and judges as well seem to be preoccupied with the notion that somewhere out there someone has concluded that there is a “best” access schedule for children of divorced parents.

I often answer, in a feeble attempt at humor, that I am opening a children’s clothing store in which I’m going to only sell one size of jeans and one size of shirts. Silly, of course, but not a whole lot sillier than asking what the best access schedule fits all children.

I would like to believe that every thoughtful parent knows that one size does not fit all and that when trying to devise the right kind of parenting schedule for children there are endless numbers of factors that need to be considered: the age of the child, the child’s individual temperament, the child’s level of maturity, the accessibility of each parent, the support system that each parent has in place, the past history of attachment between parent and child, and perhaps most importantly, the ability that the parents have to manage any reasonable access schedule in a civil and collaborative fashion.

In this posting I’m certainly not going to address every one of these factors – and, in fact, those I’ve mentioned above only scratch the surface of the many variables that go into a thoughtful and appropriate parenting schedule. But recently I’ve encountered a few cases which have led me to decide to write a little bit here about the notion of “attachment”. First a brief description of a family I am working with (names and other identifying characteristics are significantly changed):

   Joe and Laura were married for a brief period; Laura (who had a history of drug addiction) gave birth to Sam, their son, and soon after, abruptly left the home. Joe was left to raise Sam for the first 2 ½ years of his life. He petitioned and received full custody of his son from the Court. (The couple also were formally divorced). During this time Laura stayed intermittently in touch with Joe and visited with Sam every few months. However, not long after Sam’s second birthday she announced that she had been clean for well over a year and asked Joe whether he might agree to a change in the custody arrangement. Joe refused. Laura went to court, was awarded periodic supervised visitation, then overnights, and finally more substantial parental access. By this time Sam was three years old and as part of their custody agreement they were required to work with a parent coordinator – and decided to work with me.  Laura has complained bitterly that Joe undermines her parenting and reinforces for Sam that Mommy cannot be trusted and that she had left him. She describes a “barrier” between herself and her son that she feels is being fostered by his father [and stepmother] – so much so that apparently Sam will often spontaneously announce that he loves Daddy more and that Diana (Joe’s wife) is his real mother. Joe denies having ever spoken negatively to Sam about his mother. Further, he has strongly suggested that he believes that it is extremely important that Sam have a good relationship with his mother because he knows how hard it was for him [Joe] that his mother died when he was a young child.
Where do we first locate that "home base" from which we can go out into the world and take the risks that are going to make a secure future possible for us?  I remember first being exposed to the work of John Bowlby when I was in graduate school. Bowlby, often considered the “father of attachment theory” made the remarkable observation of children during World War II who had been removed from English cities in order to protect them from bombing. They were cared for in very well appointed and highly professional institutional settings and yet they seemed to be profoundly unhappy despite the fact that their physical needs were being more than adequately taken care of. What he concluded, and what has become the backbone of our understanding of the early infant experience, was that providing for a child’s physical needs does not go far enough in assuring that a child will be emotionally and psychologically secure. In fact, he saw little connection between the provision of food and shelter and a child’s psychological well-being. (By the way, this flew in the face of the prevalent Freudian view of the time that a child’s attachment grew from physical dependency).   

What was particularly striking about Bowlby’s work was his observation that these children were also having difficulty in forming new attachments, despite the fact that the adults who were caring for them did everything in their power to give them what they needed.  Not surprisingly, Bowlby and many later theorists made the assumption – not unreasonable, of course – that it was the mother-infant relationship that was the primary and foundational one. What we understand now, of course, as fathers have become more involved in primary parenting – even of infants – is that this primary attachment can take place between either parent and infant, or for that matter the infant and any consistent care giver.

So what Bowlby taught us is that the emotional security formed by that initial close relationship with a loving parent provides us with solid beginnings of trust and security that are the building blocks of a healthy personality.

So back to Joe, Laura, and Sam. There are many challenges for both these parents and their child because if we apply what we know about attachment theory we can begin to understand the difficulties that they are having. Joe, of course, is convinced that there is some fatal flaw in Laura’s ability to adequately and appropriately be a mother to her son, based on her own history, her history with him, and a good deal of residual bitterness that he bears toward her for abandonment. Laura has no doubt that the major obstacle she faces in trying to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her son is being prevented and poisoned by Joe’s refusal to allow it to occur naturally. And three-year-old Sam? Sam’s a little young to understand all the complexities of John Bowlby’s attachment theory. But what he does know – and doesn’t even know he knows – is that the initial, foundational connection in his life is with his father; that’s the connection, that’s the person, upon whom he can unwaveringly depend and upon whom he has absolute trust.

My work with Joe and Laura (I’ve never met Sam) centers around helping both of them to understand what the implications of attachment theory are for their parenting Sam. One is that there is no victim or villain here. The past, as they say, is history – and it can’t to be rewritten and it is unfair of both parents to ask Sam to bear the burden of it. Understanding the importance of that foundational attachment which Sam has with Joe can make it possible for both parents to focus on what their son needs rather than upon recriminating with each other about who is at fault. It’s not easy. Sam was born into a bitter and unfortunate unraveling of his parents’ marriage – as many kids are. The challenge for his parents is finding a way to focus on Sam’s need to have both of them, to have two parents with whom he feels safe and trusting. I’ve told Joe and Laura that Sam may need some help with this, perhaps as he gets a little older, and can best benefit from some psychotherapeutic intervention. Meanwhile, they’ve got the hard work to do and that is to reinforce for Sam that each of them wants him to have a strong relationship with the other.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


A high conflict divorce is where marriage ends and war begins. Children are frequently unwittingly used as pawns in this high stakes, emotionally bloody demolition. Kids find different ways to cope in a system that includes children and two parents who absolutely despise each other. This is a hatred that doesn’t ease up over the passing of time; no these bitter feelings tend to increase and escalate as the years go by.
Children are faced with a barrage of words, events and thoughts that they are not prepared to deal with in any healthy way. They want to please each parent, but find it impossible to do so for any extended period of time, so they settle for short-term expediency. In other words, they learn to tell the adults what they think the parents want to hear. Those statements may differ entirely from what the child believes, but in order to avoid extended conflict, the child goes out of her way to avoid it.
Children are trained erroneously through this process that all conflict is a must to avoid.

They don’t learn that some conflict is a normal facet of life that we must all learn to deal with. The danger in this mindset is that the kids come to believe that the only good relationship is one that is conflict free-which is impossible unless you learn to ignore or avoid the conflicts when they arise.
The children in telling parents what they think the adults want to hear develop the ability to lie quickly and convincingly. They have learned that fabricating what is going on in the other parents house or purposely not telling dad he saw an R rated movie with mom because he knows it will get mom into trouble are a couple examples of this tactic.
They learn to strategize as a way to get their needs met. For instance a child is aware that his mother does not want him to take any martial arts classes because she fears they will cause him to be violent. The child knows that the mom is worried that dad will try to enroll him in violent activities. The child then convinces dad to enroll him in a class that teaches how to be safe without using violence. The child then goes back to mom telling her of this development and then saying “dad is not so bad after all, is he mom?” Around this same time he will ask his dad to enroll him in a martial arts class because the child feels the coast is clear because mom will be less vigilant of dad because of his signing him up for the non violent class.
Parents who are in the middle of a high conflict divorce are poor communicators at best. When they do talk, their discussion tends to be nasty and filled with disdain. Often times they don’t communicate at all. This lack of connection between the parents teaches the children that adults cannot successfully talk to each other and make plans for the kids. Therefore the children feel that they have to take this planning for their activities into their own hands. For example, the girl who wants to be in the community play will inform both his parents that they need to attend a special meeting in order for her to try out for the play.
In normal situations, the parents make all these preparations for the kids, but in high conflict situations, some kids somehow find a way to get their extra-curricular needs met.
These children also tend to have impaired relationships with peers. The poor role modeling demonstrated by their parents leads these kids to have no idea what it means to have real friendships. Their expectations of friends can become quite distorted. These children tend to have no sense that true relationships are based on kindness, cooperation, sharing and compromising. While longing for the safety and love of a close connection, they don’t really believe they are loveable and lack the skills of how to obtain and maintain friendships.
You will see some of these children at recess time playing all alone or staring endlessly at a computer screen because they lack the outreach skills and confidence that their peers will like them. Others are so desperate to feel accepted that they will say or do anything to be part of the popular group. Other children may become possessive of their friends and feel jealous and threatened if their friend pays attention to other kids.
Some children from high conflict divorces want to bring attention to how horrible they feel, but like most kids lack the skills and the ability to truly stand up for themselves. So they may bring attention to their situation by getting poor grades, using drugs, becoming defiant, withdrawing from the world, acting out in class and stop doing activities that normally bring them pleasure.
Then there are the kids that strive for perfection in an effort to be loved and approved by their parents. These children also believe if they are perfect, they can somehow be above the fray of the warring adults. They tend to be very hard on themselves and are rarely compassionate towards themselves or others.
The skills of organizing, strategizing and overall planning are superb attributes for kids to have, but in this situation these skills are being used to manipulate adults like chess pieces on a board. They then learn to use these skills in other inappropriate ways with other adults and peers.
These kids often present as being mature, but in truth they are emotionally and often socially immature. They are frequently more emotionally needy then they come across and they are behind their peers developmentally. They have spent a large portion of the lives learning how to please others without really learning how to master fulfilling themselves. This mask leads adults to misread the kid’s sense of self worth; thinking they are doing fine when in actuality, they are hurting inside.
Some children align themselves with one parent and this leads to being in opposition to the other parent. These children get subtle and overt rewards from the parent they are aligning with. The parents may directly feed them information about their evil perception of the other parent or their feelings about their ex may be experienced by their severe body language or facial expressions whenever the other parent’s name comes up. These kids feel that they must take a stand for the parent they are close with and let the out of the loop parent know that they don’t like her. This occurs because the child is fearful of losing the aligned parents support if he shows any connection with the other parent. It is difficult in these cases to really know how the child actually feels about anything.
What Parents can do to help Children from High Conflict Divorce Families
• Instead of doing the usual blaming the other parent for what is going wrong with the kids, ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE DIFFICULTIES YOUR CHILD IS EXPERIENCING.

• Are you giving your child the message that you are all good and the other parent is all bad? Are you giving your child the message that if she doesn’t favor you over your ex, that he is in trouble with you? Do you chastise your child when she is merely following the other parent’s instructions? Do you understand that children are naturally hard wired to try to get what they want and if they can manipulate two warring parents into getting their wishes fulfilled, they will do so? This is not a character flaw on their part. This is happening due to your lack of communication with the other parent. IF YOU ARE DOING ANY OF THESE, PLEASE STOP AT ONCE.
• When you meet with your ex, instead of trying to spend your energy trying to win all arguments with her; agree to meet in a spirit of cooperation and admit your shortcomings. Be honest what it will take to co-parent peacefully with your ex and try to keep your ego aside and think about what is best for your kids.
• Stop litigating! Adults who are in litigation cannot possibly co-parent. There is a complete lack of trust and trust is essential in successful co-parenting.
• Stop fighting about when children can communicate with the other parent. Let this be as open as possible because it will lower the anxiety level of your child.
• Does your child tell you that you don’t listen to him? Please take his words to heart because if you don’t, his feelings about this will become buried deep inside him only to eventually emerge in a tirade at you or himself. He will feel that you have ignored his feelings and are not concerned about his view point on important issues. If you don’t heed his words, your relationship with him may be impaired for a long period of time.
• Punishing your child because she doesn’t want to engage or shows other signs that she doesn’t like you will not cause her to embrace this parent/child relationship. Instead, try to talk with her calmly, stating that you feel that your relationship with her is not good and you want to repair it. Ask her to describe her feelings for you and tell her that you will not be angry at her honesty.
• If you can afford to do so, co-parenting counseling as well as individual therapy for your children may be helpful.
Children who live with the hostile divorce model have symptoms similar to children who are abused and neglected. Some professionals would say these kids are being abused and neglected. It is my feeling that this phenomena is not getting the attention it deserves. Furthermore it is tragic that only those who can afford an army of therapists can get the help they need and deserve. Let’s hope and work for change here.
I was very impressed by this short essay by Bob Livingstone, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in San Francisco and decided to share it here.
 It’s taken from his blog of April 9th, 2013:   (

Monday, May 13, 2013

Does Conflict Really Hurt Kids?

When I first meet with parents who are considering using parent coordination services I typically emphasize that parents who are in constant conflict with each other are very likely to do harm to their children. I tell them that, generally speaking, for young children, regardless of whether they understand the content of parents’ arguments they will experience the hostile environment that is created when their parents are cold and distant or outwardly tense and conflictual; and that for older children the content of parents’ arguments are likely to be very disturbing, as is the tone and atmosphere that accompanies parental conflict.

And this, I believe, is pretty much true. But nothing is universally true, and there are, indeed, children who are able to “tune out” or otherwise survive quite well despite a good deal of “background noise”.  While I am usually skeptical when parents tell me that their children “don’t know what’s going on,” or have tuned them out, it certainly does happen. But even for those children I believe there is actually a more subtle potential for damage, which has to do with ways in which parents’ failure to communicate – or only to communicate in the most hostile and angry manner – can have an enormous effect.

I recently came upon a report of a 2006 study in which the investigators interviewed and observed more than 200 families on two occasions one year apart. The families each had a child who was approximately six years old.  The results of the study was quite interesting in that it reinforced some things that even casual observers already understand.  For example, they observed that conflict usually results in both parents being more unavailable to each other.  Moreover, the more hostile and withdrawn the parents were the more they were likely to have strong disagreements about child rearing.  No surprise here. But what was quite telling was that when these parents disagreed on issues of child rearing mothers tended to be more unavailable to the fathers than the fathers were to the mothers, and fathers became more inconsistent in their disciplinary practices, whereas mothers remained relatively consistent. 

Though of course we can’t draw any firm conclusions as to why the fathers became more inconsistent but I do have a thought about this, as did the authors of the study. A common complaint that I hear in my work, most often from mothers, and most often from mothers who have the primary care of kids, is that the fathers make unwise parental decisions, don’t take care of basic needs, and don’t do the parenting work that should be done when they are with their children. Quite frankly, I think these moms are most often correct in their assessments. And certainly, there are times when it’s quite fair--and even an understatement--to say that fathers should be more diligent in the child rearing that they do, and less either self- absorbed or distracted when they are with their kids. 

But the authors of this study make an observation that I have also considered and it’s one that both mothers and fathers need to take seriously, and that is one of the elements in separation and divorce that calls out for the intervention of parent coordination. They write:  “Given that fathers’ roles may be less socially scripted, perhaps the effects of marital conflict on greater child rearing disagreements makes it more difficult for fathers to utilize and solicit mothers’ input on discipline practices and results in greater use of inconsistent discipline techniques by fathers experiencing marital distress”.  In simpler terms, what they’re saying is that if they can’t check in with Mom – or if the conflict is such that there’s no real access to getting Mom’s input – then Dad’s knowledge and ability in maintaining proper discipline, or just simply doing appropriate child-rearing is going to be impacted, particularly with young children for whom more hands-on care is called for.

So…a little sexist, perhaps?  Ought men be taken off the hook so easily?  Are women the only source of effective parenting?  I think the notion “that [gender] roles may be…socially scripted” is what is in play here.  For parenting may very well be “political.” The notion that “the personal is political” (a feminist credo popularized by Carol Hanisch in a 1969 essay) certainly is a factor in many a marital break-up and it gets played out even more dramatically in post-separation child-rearing when fathers are deemed “clueless” and mothers are labeled “controlling.”   So post-break-up conflict takes on a battle-of-the-sexes flavor, thus rendering it even more complicated and resistant to change.  What’s necessary, then, is a re-focus on the conflict and an understanding that as long as it continues good child-rearing will suffer.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Divorce and Young Children

I recently received a terrific kit from Sesame Workshop, which is the educational organization responsible for Sesame Street  and The Electric Company and which produces many valuable programs for families and children.

I am now able to provide this kit, "Little Children/BIG Challenges: Divorce" to parents I'm working with.  It's a multi-media packet which includes a parents' guide, a storybook for young children, and a video--and it is a beautiful piece of work. It can also be accessed at

It's a given, of course, that children see the world through a different lens from adults and that their understanding about divorce depends onn where they are developmentally.  Young children may not fully grasp the meaning or finality of separation and divorce, much like the way they are not yet developmentally prepared to accept the finality of death.  What they know, of course, is that their parents are angry, or upset, or not acting in ways they are familiar with and that they are not together under the same roof.

Young children's feeling of loss and sorrow can often be expressed through anger or by attacking the parent whom they may may blame for the separation--often the parent who leaves the home. Similar to adults who suffer loss or who are depressed, children often turn their anger inward and become depressed or withdrawn, demonstrating behavioral symptoms socially, at school, or at home.  It is not uncommon for young children to fear being abandoned by their noncustodial parent or to worry about the loss--or even death--of the custodial parent.  Wondering what will happen to them or "what will happen to us?"--is not uncommon, even for the youngest of children.



[the caption may be hard to read: "Daddy, can I stop worrying now?]


 In addition, kids may have heard parents arguing and frequently it is the children who are the subjects of these arguments.  Lacking the sophistication to understand the nuances of these disputes they may blame themselves for the separation or divorce.  Perhaps if they'd behaved better, or not made trouble for them, their parents would not have split up.  Young children are quite naturally self-centered and thus may feel responsible for many things that are obviously (to adults) out of their control.  A young child may express the "secret" that he wished, in the midst of some unpleasantness, that Daddy would go away and now that parent is gone!  And of course he is responsible because it is his wish that made his father leave.

In the face of these difficulties for young children there is much that parents can do.  By encouraging their children to share questions and concerns about the divorce they provide an opportunity for the child to directly confront feelings and fears rather than acting them out in unwholesome way.   The "Little Children/BIG challenges: divorce" program I described above offers many suggestions for activities that parents can use with their young children. 

Further, it is important that parents simply set the time aside regularly to offer reassurance to their kids that both parents understand and love them.  They are divorcing each other, but not their children.