Ready, Aim, Fire at Pain and Anguish

Following the grief over the loss of life in school shootings, I started researching and realized that others were doing the same thing, trying to find the root cause for the extreme rage and motivation to harm others. I knew from a couple of situations that what happens to children during escalated and prolonged family conflict had something to do with these rampages.

A few insights shared on Mic.com:

“A parent’s death or divorce also appears to be a commonality among some of the lone shooters — Adam Lanza (Newtown, 2012), Elliot Rodgers (Santa Barbara, 2014) and Nikolas Cruz (Parkland 2018). Research indicates boys appear to be more at risk than girls when their parents divorce, particularly when it comes to higher suicide rates.

“It’s one brick or thread that could set a child up to have more a vulnerability if someone doesn’t step in and raise a child, teaching them to respect the rights of others and that actions have consequences,” said Richard Warshak, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and author of Divorce Poison, which explores acrimonious divorce and the psychological effects on children of parental bad-mouthing.

“Divorce sets in motion a set of changes that put kids at risk for problems in behavior.”

Divorce is not “inherently bad” for every child, he says. But there are risks, especially if it changes the family’s financial situation or parents “bad-mouth” each other.

Several studies over three decades show that divorce — especially an acrimonious one — can increase a child’s risk for developing depression, anxiety and engaging in criminal acts.”

These issues aren’t things we discuss often enough, but we should.

I wish I didn’t have a personal experience to validate these findings, but I do. I witnessed it in my own step-sons, when I was too young and without the authority to help them overcome what had happened to them and their mother. And, I didn’t have the right information at the time. I just knew they were suffering, and it seemed like there had to be a way to help them through it. I wish I could have done more to help them avoid failures in those early years, and the loss of one’s life later on.

No, I can’t go back in time, but I can engage leadership, stakeholders and problem-solves across society to do more with what we know now.

Remaking of Minds using Psychological Abuse

It’s possible to wear someone down to the point of making them think and act in ways they otherwise would not. This is one form of psychological abuse explained by Psychology Today in this article that reveals what happens to children who are mistreated within the context of family conflict.

My goal since beginning research on this problem, and then reporting on the ways children are used and harmed through the mismanagement of family conflict, has always been about reducing childhood trauma and disrupting cycles of dysfunction.

The dysfunction I’m referring to manifests as addiction, mental illness caused by family violence, sexual abuse and neglect of children, abandonment, financial failure and home loss, suicide and divorce as primary examples. Children experiencing these forms of dysfunction are more vulnerable to exploitation, more inclined to rage and desperation. Boys seem to be more severely impacted by divorcing parents than girls, according to this article featured on Mic.com which explains the commonality between young men involved in shooting rampages. [See Ready, Aim, Fire at Pain and Anguish]

A prominent dysfunction is also seen in how bonds between loving, safe parents and their children are broken down and destroyed. Georgia law speaks to misconduct in the form of poisoning the mind of a child against a parent, showing that this is abuse and that it harms both the child and the targeted parent.

The term often used in courts and by psychologists is parental alienation. Alienation of affection is specifically prohibited in court orders governing custody and care of children of divorced parents. If one parent acts to cause distance and break the loving bond between the child and the other parent, he or she can be held in contempt. Why this form of misconduct is not being confronted and corrected in our courts is a separate matter.

The term as an allegation of wrongdoing, however, has been improperly applied often in Georgia court cases involving actual child abuse and/or domestic violence, to blame the victimized or protective parent trying to keep the child safe and the abused parent’s rights intact.

The right to nurture and care for one’s own child is a protected right in our courts, but that right is stripped away by wrongfully condemning the targeted or abused parent for “alienating” the child from the perpetrator of abuse. As a result of this misapplication of the term alienation, it has had a polarizing effect on parents who have suffered from its use and amongst professionals involved in family conflict.

Another useful article on this subject featured in Pyschology Today can be found here.

Notoriously and across the globe, parental alienation syndrome (“PAS”) has been used by questionable custody experts to fault protective parents by claiming the safe parent has engaged in a sickness, a disorder, to cause an abused child or child who has witnessed or experienced family violence to want distance from the abusive parent. The conduct of such professionals goes against the needs of the child and is in direct conflict with laws specific to child safety and protection.

What the expert is saying to the child is that he or she should accept the abuse as normal. It is common for experts appointed or hired in custody cases to normalize abusive conduct, including psychological abuse, neglect, violence and even sexual abuse. Actually, this tactic is most commonly used in cases involving true sexual abuse of children to discredit the abused child and the parent fighting to protect the child. Of course, the expert, whether a psychologist or attorney acting as a guardian ad litem, is being paid to manage or filter information going to and from the child, to the court and other authorities, but always in a way that serves to guard the abuser and restrict the safer or more nurturing and emotionally healthy parent.

The expert is saying to the safe, protective parent that you should avoid asking for protection or else face condemnation and separation from your child. This tactic is based in fraud and often involves acts of false reporting and perjury by the experts influencing courts and other authorities against the safe parent and in favor of the abuser. Claiming that a parent who seeks help for a child who is having medical or psychological treatment withheld by an abusive parent, for example, is alienating the child from the other (abusive) parent is a false allegation.

This is extremely common in such cases involving child custody where there is evidence of actual abuse and the perpetrator expects the custody experts to suppress evidence of abuse. The false allegation serves to put the safe parent on the defensive, forcing him or her to spend more money defending against the false allegation. The focus of the expert’s investigation, instead of being on the perpetrator of abuse and on protecting the child, becomes a series of substantial steps to condemn an innocent parent. This is why U.S. legislators included language in a Congressional concurrent resolution discourages the use of “parental alienation syndrome,” as it is misused or used for wrongful purposes.

For the purposes of this article and throughout the rest of my reports, the terms alienation, alienating behavior and parental alienation are referring to the abusive conduct by either a party to family conflict or a professional engaged in targeting the safe parent and exploiting, for profit, the children involved. Any form of alienating behavior is an intentional act to cause harm and should be identified and corrected as such; children should be protected from this form of abuse.

The proposed legislation is solid, but there are other tactics involving psychological abuse and professional misconduct yet to be addressed. There are a host of false allegations and abusive methods that come in to play in litigation, but what they all have in common is that they cause trauma and increase risk of other injuries to both children and loving parents.

There is an entire body of work on this form of psychological abuse shown above in the poisoning of a child’s mind and in the manipulation of their normal behavior to break the bond between parents and children. Psychology Today featured the work of Dr. Craig Childress to explain the harm done and to demonstrate what can be done to address and correct the damaging misconduct. Excerpts of this spotlight on the issues follow:

Trauma to Safe Parents and Children

  • Enduring the experience of parental alienation is also a profound form of psychological trauma experienced by targeted parents. It is both acute and chronic, and externally inflicted. It is thus a type of domestic violence directed at the target parent. The fact that children witness such abuse of a parent also makes alienation a form of child abuse. This is perhaps the principal source of anxiety for the alienated parents, who witness the abuse of their children, and are prevented from protecting them.
  • This psychological trauma of alienated parents differs from what groups like combat veterans face when they develop PTSD, yet the experience of targeted parents is a form of trauma as debilitating as any other. Although not all parents who are victims of parental alienation experience trauma, as the same event that plunges one parent into trauma may not do so with another, those who are closely attached to their children and were actively involved in their lives most certainly do.
  • Losing the bond with your child is also a form of complex trauma. It is no coincidence that the pathology of the parent who engages in alienation is often born in complex trauma from the childhood of that parent, and that the current processes of attachment-based parental alienation are transferring onto the targeted parent a form of complex trauma. The childhood trauma experience leads to the development of the aggression behind parental alienation. From a psychodynamic perspective, the processes of parental alienation represent a reenactment of the childhood attachment trauma of the alienating parent into the current family relationships. The trauma reenactment narrative represents a false drama created by the pathology of the alienating parent, in which the targeted parent is being assigned the trauma reenactment role as the “abusive parent;” the child is being induced into accepting the trauma reenactment role as the supposedly “victimized child;” and the alienating parent adopts the role of the “protective parent.” None of this false drama, however, is true.
  • The parenting of the targeted parent is entirely in normal range, and the child is in no danger and does not need any protection from that parent.

The Nature of the Problem

  • A major impediment for victimized parents is that the problem is largely systemic in nature, as support services for alienated parents are virtually non-existent, and support services for their children are also in short supply.
  • When parents of alienated children attempt to bring their concerns to child welfare authorities, as parental alienation is a form of child abuse and thus a child protection matter, these agencies often disregard the problem, and when they do become involved, rarely share their findings in family court child custody hearings, despite the fact that this information will serve the best interests of the child.
  • In parental alienation situations the targeted parent is put on the defensive, and must continually try to prove to therapists and others that he or she is not “abusive” of the child. The targeted parent is often blamed for the child’s rejection, even though he or she did nothing wrong: “You must have done something wrong if your child doesn’t want to be with you.”
  • It is often deemed irrelevant that the parenting practices of the targeted parent are entirely within normal range. The alienating parent, often skilled in the use of adversarial combat (and thus rewarded within the current adversarial system), thus has the upper hand. In this upside-down world, your child is being taken from you, and no one seems to care or understand.
  • The emotional trauma inflicted on the targeted parent is severe, and the grief of the targeted parent is deep.

Keep in mind that the intent of the parent using alienating tactics against the targeted parent is to do harm. The effect if the abusive behavior if successful is erasing the targeted parent from the lives of their children either completely or to a significant degree.

There is no current solution to prevent this abuse or to help targeted parents and children overcome it.

  • The trauma experience captivates the psychology of the targeted parent, as the world of the targeted parent revolves entirely around the trauma experience and the false drama.
  • Repeated court dates, lawyers, therapists, custody evaluations, that all occur in the context of continuing parent-child conflict, consume the targeted parent. Yet it is vital for targeted parents to find ways of coping with the attachment-based complex trauma of parental alienation. They must strive to achieve the triumph of light over the darkness of trauma, and find their way out of the trauma experience being inflicted upon them.
  • They must free themselves from the imposed trauma experience, restoring their psychological health within the immense emotional trauma of their grief and loss.
  • As much as targeted parents desperately want to save their children, they cannot rescue their children from the quicksand by jumping into the quicksand with them. If they do, they will both perish. Instead, they must have their feet firmly planted on the ground, steady in your own emotional and psychological health, and then extend your hand to retrieve your child. But even then, given the nature of parental alienation and its profoundly damaging effects on a child, a child may not grasp the parent’s hand.

Can a Parent Engaged in Alienating Behavior Become Self-Aware and Change Course?

  • According to the work of Dr. Craig Childress, parental alienation is first and foremost an attachment-based trauma.
  • Attachment-based parental alienation is essentially a role reversal of a normal, healthy parent-child relationship.
  • Instead of serving as a “regulatory other,” which involves providing stability and meeting the child’s emotional and psychological needs, alienating parents use their children to meet their own needs, violating boundaries and seriously compromising and damaging the child’s healthy development.

If a parent is indifferent to the harm he or she is causing a child, that parent isn’t going to seek treatment and work to change behavior, let alone help heal the injury caused to children and the targeted parent. The alienating parent will refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and, if confronted, will escalate the abusive behavior. Left to his or her own devices, the abusive parent will continue causing harm.

This pattern of continuing abuse despite laws and court orders is similar to that seen in the conduct of the perpetrator of domestic violence of a physical nature. The severity of the harm being done can be better understood by reading the statements made by Congress in House Resolution 72.

Intervention from authorities, responders, healthcare providers and other stakeholders in child protection is needed.

Learn more about tools provided to courts around the United States about coercion, bullying and deception of children, about how easy it is for the abusive parent to present as the better parent because of being skilled at lying and manipulating, and about approaches courts can take to remedy these forms of abuse.

Download and read the Judicial Guide to Child Safety in Custody Cases.

Access insights about bullying and suicide rates.

Let’s talk if you are interested in learning more about solutions.

I appreciate your time here and commitment to improving protections for our children.

Deb Beacham

Catch Them Doing Right in Three Steps

Do you want better service & greater value?

In our busy lives and with so many challenges confronting us we’re often too distracted to notice when someone is doing right by us or by our children. Do you find yourself only watching out for the next hurdle or bump in the road? It’s very easy to fall into this trap, especially if you’ve been hurt or taken advantage of along the way.

Managing our own responses to others can be exhausting, but it can also be what sets us free!

If your biggest job is parenting your children, you may be so caught up in redirecting behavior that is not what you desire that you forget to catch them doing right. It’s easy to be so focused to miss that window to give them that timely smile, pat on the back or other type of reward or encouragement. We all need that acknowledgment, but it may not come as often as we need or want. If it’s something you want or need, try giving it away more often than you seek it for yourself.

Can you say to yourself or to your children that you want to enjoy their company, that you want to appreciate them? Or, are you too caught up in monitoring performance and guiding them, being somewhere on time, managing appearances whether it’s your own or theirs?

Make more room for enjoying their company, the fact that you have each other, and take a chance that the other things will follow. Let your response be positive expectation of something that is natural and easy to give.

Keep trying. I’ll admit that this is a process, not something that’s mastered or overcome, but each success builds on another.

The same thing applies to professionals who serve others in our legal system, the ones we need or learn about only because we’re snagged by a legal problem.

It is natural for people who are anxiously and uncomfortably dealing with a legal matter to focus on everything that is wrong, everything that brings uncertainty and expense. It is less than natural to recognize when a lawyer, a paralegal, court clerk, staff attorney, judge, bailiff, court reporter, social worker or other court professional is not only doing right by you, but going out of their way to add value or simply make something unpleasant more bearable for you.

The people who serve in ways that show that you matter, these are the people I’m asking you to acknowledge and encourage. You may need to take a moment to learn more about their roles to understand what good service or value looks like or sounds like, so just ask if you want that insight. But you should be able to recognize patience, kindness and time well spent on your own, right? So, all you need to do is make a point to look for it and acknowledge it. Doing this and doing it more often will not only encourage more positive service, but it will make what you are facing less burdensome.

Over many years of spending time with families and professionals during high-conflict times, observing or filming in courtrooms, researching in clerk’s offices, presenting to a jurist or making a case before some other authority figure, I’ve gathered a lot of data to illustrate these three key points for you.

Write these down and carry them with you:

  1. You matter, and you can influence how people treat you and serve your family.
  2. There are people in every role and in each jurisdiction who do their jobs well, and who care.
  3. How you respond, whether or not you acknowledge good service, ethical conduct and professionalism makes a difference.

FOR EVERY PROBLEM THERE IS A SOLUTION:

The problem I’d like to see solved by acknowledging value and good service in our court system has to do with unhealthy trends and bad practices I’ve documented over several years, actually going on a decade now. The problem is so widespread, the negative trends and damaging practices so many and pervasive, that writing and speaking about this has taken up much more time and space than is desirable. Yes, a lot of work is ongoing to manifest solutions to these problems, but a key component of the solution is recognizing when things go right, when performance by professionals is excellent, and saying so.

Ask for and expect what you need from professionals and from those you must interact with during times of conflict. Even though you aren’t at your best and may be misstepping constantly, you can ask for help to do better, to be more articulate and prepared, maybe less emotional.

When someone provides the support you request and helps you complete even the most simple task, that’s a win; and, it not only helps you ease your own stress by showing appreciation, it helps build more success in the person you are acknowledging.

I’m glad to talk through this with you if you are caught in conflict and trying to find ways to better manage what you’re going through; but I assure you that this very simple method – the tool of gratitude, appreciation and acknowledgment – will help carry you through many rough days and can significantly impact your outcome.

If you’re a parent snagged in a legal matter, for sure you want to model this behavior for your children so they can learn about confidence and courage even in the midst of strife. Let your children see you making the choice to deal with problems appropriately, whether the problem is their own misconduct or a failure by a professional. When kids see their parents balance confrontation with appreciation or positive acknowledgment, it serves them well in that moment and throughout life. Yes, it’s a tough balancing act, but showing what’s possible – and recognizing the possible in others – is highly rewarding and worth the effort.

Deb Beacham