Parental Alienation Is Real: (or, Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex)

angry-b&wYes, parental alienation is real. The DSM-V (the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that thick book your therapist pulls out in order to define the answer to What’s your problem?)–that tome that is utilized by everyone in the mental health professions–specifies that certain behaviors are considered psychological abuse of a child. (Previous editions only acknowledged physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect of a child.) These behaviors include berating the “alleged offender” (usually the other parent) in the child’s presence, and telling the child that person will harm or abandon them. This is done skillfully and often at the hands of alienators (targeting parents).
Fortunately, most parents do not alienate their children from the other parent, at least not intentionally. It does occur sometimes by accident, as parents may be careless about the words they utter when the children are within earshot. And there are many instances of low-level alienation that tend to work themselves out with time.
Some children are amenable to becoming alienated; others are not. Thank goodness for the invulnerability of those others.
If you have a friend whose children inexplicably reject him or her, please do not reassure your friend that children always come around. Some do; some don’t.
If you or a friend sees the beginnings of inexplicable rejection, I highly recommend reading “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine. It is basically a workbook, an excellent step-by-step guide for parents who need to both recognize and counteract whatever is going on. Some suggestions sound counterintuitive; don’t give up before you read the explanations.
Some children are alienated by the same person who abused their mother (or father). There is a major element of control and sometimes revenge. The children are frequently so hateful to the targeted parent that it is tempting to just give up. Please don’t; your children need both parents (absent one or both parents being an actual physical danger to them).
Some of the signs of potential parental alienation that have resonated with me are:
When they complain about how awful the targeted parent is, the complaints are often over miniscule issues, such as “She/he wouldn’t buy me the $250 shirt I wanted.” Sometimes the children will blatantly lie about the targeted parent. They feel no compunction to treat this parent with even basic courtesy, such as thanking them for huge gifts. (And don’t think this won’t carry over to how they behave in the larger world.) The words they use in their tirades are often the exact phrases that have been previously used by the targeting parent.
A favorite scheme of targeting parents is “erase and replace,” meaning that children are often taught that Dad (or Mom) no longer deserves that title. Children are made to call the new stepparent Dad or Mom, and to call the actual parent by their first name whenever the targeting parent is around. Vacations are often planned by the targeting parent in direct conflict with the target’s court ordered parenting time. Or the less-favored parent is invited to come to school events and then made to sit far away from the child and to not be acknowledged in any way. Sometimes the targeting parent manages to “one-up” every gift from the targeted parent: Dad saved his money to take the child to the play she always wanted to see, so Mom then takes her to New York to see the Broadway version.
As you can see, this teaches children to be manipulative. It is clearly not good parenting. But there is hope.
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine have done excellent research. I highly recommend “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” as a guidebook to minimize and counteract the negative messages your child may receive.

Finding a Counselor/Domestic and Intimate Partner Abuse and Violence

Walking Away

Walking Away

Domestic and Intimate Partner Abuse and Violence continue to be a major societal problem, sometimes even resulting in the victim’s death. Despite massive increases in awareness and education, people continue to be victimized on a daily basis.
As a mental health counselor, I see people with numerous complaints who fail to recognize the pattern of abuse until they see the Power and Control Wheel (featured in the DV section of my web page). I also see that rare individual who has committed isolated acts of abuse and sincerely wants to stop (and quickly succeeds).
I am talking, rather, about the probably 99 percent of cases that fit the profile of someone who insists on power and control, and many will stop at nothing.
Many victims receive needed assistance through local domestic violence shelters, 24-hour hotlines, support groups, and victim advocates. Some will elect to engage the services of a professional mental health counselor.
Not every counselor or psychologist is an expert on domestic abuse, any more than all can be expected to specialize in bulimia or post-partum depression. It is essential to find someone who understands the dynamics and has the ability to work with the trauma that often results. Some helpful hints in choosing such a counselor include:
Ask them about their specific background in this field.
Inquire about how they will respect your specific belief system.
Run like the dickens if you are told that you need to stay and work it through, for religious or other reasons.
Avoid joint counseling if you have the tiniest inkling that what you say in session may be used against you later, or if you have even the smallest apprehension. Misguided attempts at couples counseling can further endanger the victim.
Ask yourself if you feel you are being taken seriously. This is essential.
Do you feel you are being treated with respect?
Will you feel comfortable sharing your secrets? (If the answer is No, that does not impugn the professional. But you will do your best work if the two of you are a good “fit.”)

I would love nothing more than to work my way out of a job, as regards working with abuse victims. Every time someone gets the help they need, we move a bit closer toward that goal.

Not-So-Dear Abby and Trauma

Soothing touch

This past October 22, “Dear Abby” published a letter, to which I responded on uexpress.com/dearabby on October 29.  She has not published my response or any response with a similar sentiment, which is sad, because it is some good free advice.  Because it is well worth sharing with anyone who reads my web page, here goes:

 

Dear Abby,

 

I am writing in response to “Concerned in the Midwest” whose wife is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from abuse by her previous husband.  You suggested counseling, and I agree.  I am a mental health counselor in Ohio, so it’s pretty clear I would be in favor of counseling.
“Concerned” states that his wife flinches or panics if he brushes her hair from her face or makes a sudden movement; this is a typical PTSD reaction.

 

The bad news is, many (maybe most) people will not seek counseling no matter how badly they need it.  The good news is, there are things a person can do without the aid of a counselor, that can help to de-sensitize them to whatever makes them flinch.

 

“Concerned” might, with his wife’s express permission, let her know he is about to brush her hair back from her face, then couple that with a hug, or a kind word…After doing this several times, always with his wife’s knowledge and full agreement, his wife is likely to not feel so threatened.  This is based on the plasticity of the brain, the fact that the brain is continuously re-wiring itself, so that this woman’s beloved husband brushing the hair back from her face now is likely to be experienced as pleasant, and does not (or at least not as much) trigger the traumatic memories of her abusive ex.  (If this instead makes matters worse, it is important to quit immediately, to do no harm.)

 

It’s worth a try.  If this couple was in my office, I would surely be suggesting this.

 

Thank you.

 

One Additional Letter

smiling lemon

What a smile

I have one more letter behind my name now. Just one, not a set. I am now an LPCC, or Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, when I was formerly an LPC, or Licensed Professional Counselor. That extra “C” does make my life easier. As of this past October 7, I no longer need to have a supervisor sign off on diagnoses and correspondence. And I clients write their checks directly to me. Yup, counseling law required that as an LPCC I not collect my own money. The extra “C” did mean I jumped through enough hoops to satisfy the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. (I know, it’s a mouthful.) I got a criminal records check–which was a real accomplishment because it is hard to get my fingerprints. I completed and documented 3,000 hours. And of course additional hours were missed due to my sometimes forgetting to post them, so I’m sure I did way more than was necessary there. This included a huge amount of supervision–though I got lucky on that score. Running a private practice, I chose and paid my own supervisor. Where else do you get to choose your own boss? And my supervisor, plus a former supervisor who covered a very few hours back in the very beginning, filled out their own double-secret documentation for the Board. (Double-secret as in, I was not permitted to read it.) And I filled out a form. And I sent them a cashier’s check! That was the magic action, I’m thinking. I am happy, my clients are happy, and I’m guessing even the Board is happy. You’ve all experienced this at some point, though: You go through a major life change: getting married, getting that degree, getting the promotion you had your eye on…and then you wake up the next morning and the change matters, but you are still the same person you were before. Luckily, I liked the person I was before. And now the difference is I am a few days older and I have one more letter behind my name.

Accepting Help

My crutches

A couple months ago it was my turn to learn to accept help. I hate it. I want to be totally self-sufficient at all times, or at least to maintain the illusion that I am. I had foot surgery (from which I have recovered).
Darned if my husband wasn’t called away right after the surgery. And darned if he didn’t make sure I had someone in the house to bring me food, etc. You know…to wait on me hand and foot. The agency sent a very kind and capable woman. And I resisted. No, I wasn’t mean to her; I just didn’t utilize anywhere near all the services she was willing to offer.
I have to be macho, after all. Never mind that I was hobbling around on crutches.
Making better use of these services would have been a great opportunity to heal with more ease and comfort.
This is a reminder to me of why people hesitate to reach out for help when they are dealing trauma, grief, or other issues. Many of us revert to our 2-year-old self–you know, the one who grabs the coat out of mom’s or dad’s hand and puts both arms in the same sleeve rather than feel the least bit dependent.
Years ago, I heard the expression “First you adjust, then you re-adjust, and then you maladjust.” I did that with my bunioned feet till it didn’t make sense to maladjust any more. With surgery, there is a short time when the pain is greater than it was before, followed by the joy of healing.
Similarly, a counseling experience will likely help you feel better by degrees, but there is always a risk of emotional pain when dealing with unpleasant issues. Ask anyone who has had successful therapy, however, and they will almost invariably tell you it was well worth it.

Are Trauma Memories Ever False?

Traumatized

I’m terrified!

One issue I come across, a lot, is abuse. And abusers frequently work hard at convincing their victims that their memories are false. Kind of like a person who intentionally trips you as you run past, then makes a big show of helping you up while commenting the entire time how they really tried to prevent the fall. A gymnast could begin to question his or her sense of balance.

This is frequently referred to as “crazy making,” the serious effort to convince you that you didn’t see what you know you saw, hear what you know you heard, or experience what you are absolutely certain you experienced.
When it comes to traumatic memories from further back in time, there is controversy about their accuracy. This controversy works like crazy-making: the victim cannot recover from a trauma that they are being told did not occur. A refusal to believe someone who is reporting severe trauma and/or pain leaves that victim without an ally.
There is even a False Memories Syndrome Foundation. According to wikipedia.com, numerous members of this group have actually been convicted of abuse. The Book The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis states that “If you feel something has happened, it probably has; details may vary but the essence is there.”
Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D., author of Betrayal Trauma, talks about how the body remembers traumatic events. She mentions research in which children who had suffered early traumas they did not recall, were put in a room full of toys, and acted out exactly what had happened! (Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. also has significant research in this area of body memory.)
This Foundation has led many to believe there is actually such a thing as False Memories Syndrome. According to the recently released DSM-V, which has been criticized for excessive diagnoses, there is no such diagnosis.
This creation of a phony syndrome has made it more difficult for professionals and their clients to collaboratively resolve traumatic events.

NFL Jovan Belcher murder-suicide

Kansas City Chiefs Linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide has struck a nerve that I cannot ignore. It was called a tragedy, but it was far more. I’m amazed it wasn’t called out as the crime it was. The Washington Times carried

an article citing this type of violence as an NFL problem.
Most sports figures are not violent. With the huge amounts of money in the world of professional sports, however, there is way too much temptation for management to gloss over issues involving players’ behavior off the field.
Way back in 1994, I was horrified to learn that O.J. Simpson was suspected in his ex-wife’s murder. Though I don’t follow football, I had thoroughly enjoyed O.J.’s antics in the Naked Gun movies, as well as his appearances in the Hertz commercials with an old woman yelling “Go, O.J., Go!” I saw the public face he and his handlers wanted me to see. Imagine my shock to learn about the real O.J.!There are 9-1-1 tapes of Nicole Brown Simpson’s pleas for help when O.J. threatened her, including once when he broke down her door. The police failed her, probably because of O.J.’s fame.
Fast-forward to 2012. How many times did Jovan Belcher threaten his girlfriend prior to killing her? Had she just told him she was through with him? Had the police been called on other occasions? Did his coaching staff have knowledge of any of this? Did the coaching staff WANT to have knowledge of any of this?
No person should be protected from the penalty for abusing another, ever. Sports figures should be held to the highest standard, as part of the job involves their superior strength. This will never change until team owners and managers stop putting their bottom line above the protection of victims.

Childhood Memories

Childhood Memories
When I think of my own childhood, many things come to mind: the tree branches I used to see outside my window on summer mornings, making baskets from cockleburs, bedtime stories from my father, the fireplace that was in my parents’ bedroom. There was a staircase that curved at the bottom, a huge kitchen, and cats. Always cats.

We had a tree house that was only a platform, and one day it collapsed under my sister and her best friend. The house was heated with a coal furnace, meaning the winter nights got awfully cold. I got sick on a couple of vacations, and on one our car was broken into. Police came to our house one night after my next older brother was harassed and run off the road by a motorcyclist.

As you can see, some of these memories are good, some not so much…and of course many fall Childhood memories and traumasomewhere in between. But there are plenty of memories.

Most of us have the good fortune to be in relatively good possession of our own history. If attempts at recalling your own childhood come up empty, it is possible you were traumatized in such a way that your own mind blanked it out. Repressed it. Because it was too much to handle at the time it occurred. Your body, however, does not forget.

I am not suggesting that every time you forget a detail from your childhood, there is a problem. The red flag would be if, for example, you can’t recall a single thing from your second and third grade years. Nada. Not where you lived, who your best friend was, nothing. Unless someone fills you in. But not from your own memory. That’s a clue that something scary may have occurred during that time.

If you start having strange dreams, or unusual reactions to otherwise innocuous occurrences, like for example you jump every time you hear a horn honk anywhere, or you flinch every time someone runs in your direction, or any of a host of other unexplainable reactions…do not discount it. Work toward accepting that whatever happened to you, happened. And realize that if this gets in the way of your day-to-day life it could be time to seek help.

None of this is your fault; it’s just reality.

Here is the good news: Once you begin to recall and deal with the uglier parts of your past, energy will be freed up and you can be in better control of your present life.