Monthly Archives: October 2012

When Divorces Go Bad (or even Badder…)

Most marriages start off as a game of mixed doubles, but in too many cases the partners later find themselves playing against each other in a no-holds-barred match of singles.  In some cases they end up lobbing hand grenades instead of tennis balls and, in the most tragic of circumstances, the children themselves are enlisted as weapons.

Once upon a time this was not so much the case as mothers were almost always given legal control of their children after a divorce. However, beginning in the early 1970s, parents began litigating over custody as a result of changes in societal attitudes and laws, increasing the chances of fathers winning custody. It is essential and good that the rights of fathers are evenly considered. However, an unfortunate consequence has been that many divorces have become even more complex and more fraught with conflict.

What can be more personal than fighting your ex-partner for the right to raise ‘your’ children in your own home?

As I suggested earlier, the tennis metaphor is too facile. War is a more fitting comparison, with volleys of anger fired across the trenches. But when parents start enlisting their children against their ex, consciously or unconsciously, the results are particularly devastating.

In my practice I have seen how many children in divorce situations end up feeling torn between their parents, despite well-intentioned and thoughtful attempts by the parents to manage this. Children will commonly express guilt and anxiety about the parent they have less contact with.

At an extreme end of the divorce experience is the situation where a child refuses to have contact with one parent. In 1987 American psychiatrist Richard Gardner defined this as Parental Alienation Syndrome.  This refers to a significant breakdown in a parent-child attachment relationship, with the child unreasonably rejecting a non-custodial parent.

There are instances where one parent is especially difficult or even abusive and therefore the main cause of the post-divorce distress and pain.

But research indicates that in most high-conflict divorce situations both parents engage in some degree of alienating behaviour. The American researchers Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston, who have studied this phenomenon, go even further and suggest that all family members (even extended family members) play a role in alienation, and that a ‘systems-based’ view is needed fully to understand these families.

Here’s why a systems-based view might give us more insight into how such unCivil Wars get started.

Imagine a married couple with two children. Perhaps the daughter is sportier than the son and generally spends more time with her athletic father, even though she loves her mother. Perhaps the father is a little rigid and critical of his son, whom he also loves, but whose sensitivity doesn’t quite fit with the father’s expectation of how men should behave.

In such a scenario, it requires no stretch of the imagination to see how a bitter divorce might lead to an alignment of daughter with father, or son with mother. Maybe abusive, blaming and critical remarks are consciously tossed around in front of children. More likely, it’s at the level of the father allowing his daughter to criticise her mother without contradicting the daughter; or the mother always unconsciously being late for the ex’s arranged visit, or speaking in front of her son about how badly his father has behaved.

The end result is two camps and at least one alienated parent. As you can see, this is not necessarily caused by abusive, bullying fathers trying to further their ill-treatment of mothers, or bitter and manipulative mothers on single-minded quests to punish their ex-husbands, no matter the impact on their children.

Parental alienation is not gender-specific; both mothers and fathers engage in this behaviour. Research indicates that many men who are alienators are characterised by narcissism, a sense of entitlement, arrogance and low empathy. Female alienators often have personalities marked by insecurity, a strong fear of abandonment and chronic emptiness.

A parent who has been alienated from a child is in an indescribably painful situation. And that child has experienced a huge loss. As a psychologist I am struck by how challenging and frustrating these situations are.

The remedies are seldom straightforward and one strategy will not suit all families. Helpful recommendations are likely to include some of the following:

  • A court-ordered parenting plan that recognizes the value of on-going contact between the child and the alienated parent and establishes practical structure around that contact;
  • A mental health professional working with the child and/or family to therapeutically support the contact; and
  • The use of a case manager or guardian ad litem who would monitor cooperation with the parenting plan and have the authority to enforce compliance or report to the court quickly when one parent is non-compliant.

These mechanisms may sound like political treaties but are necessary as empathy, common-sense and adherence to the law are often casualties when the bullets are flying.

The situation will only improve if both parents are able to suspend guerrilla tactics, call a cease-fire and commit to the wellbeing of their children.

The art of monster taming

In the last 24 hours my 7-year old son has done the following: stand in the middle of the lounge, mimic Michael Jackson and moonwalk backwards out the door; use a four-letter word while arguing with his friend; hug me lovingly while whispering in my ear, “I just farted’; play a computer game called Zoo Tycoon with the finesse of a teenager; shoot hoops in the back garden and sulk for an hour because he missed three shots in a row; stroke his baby cousin’s cheek tenderly; lie on the sofa watching television, smearing pizza over the cushions, pretending not to hear us telling him to tidy up and go bath.

Welcome to the rollercoaster ride. One moment your child is sweet and loving and the next a monster awakes. Trying to pin down a reason for the change is the sort of challenge that Sherlock Holmes would not relish. But parents know something Holmes doesn’t. Their child is possessed. Only an exorcism will do. Until the priest arrives, however, a number of sensible measures may be employed as holding actions when your child is being impossible.

  1. Try distraction – and try it as soon as you see the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown looming. Point out something very interesting to your child, use cajoling, humour (sparingly though or your over-sensitive and overwrought child might feel humiliated and mocked) and judicious bribery. If the idea of parenting by bribery makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it as a reward or incentive programme, just as the management consultants did at your company recently.
  1. Offer choices. “Richard, you can either pick up all the dog mess in the garden for the next two years, or you can brush your teeth.” “I’ll brush my teeth,” he smirks victoriously. Children love the power to choose. Of all parenting strategies, this one is the simplest and most effective. Keep choices clear and limited, not “what vegetable do you want with your supper?” but “what would you prefer, peas or carrots with your chicken?”
  1. Time out. Tell her you love her but she’s going to her room anyway for a time out – a minute for every year of her life, or until she calms down. She may break things or shriek horrendously but she’s staying there until time is up. The main idea of Time Out is not to punish, but to de-escalate, defuse and calm a situation down. Many parents are concerned that sending a child to Time Out in their bedroom won’t work as there are things to do and play with in a child’s room, but that’s the point – distraction. As long as the behaviour that you don’t like has stopped. Time Outs shouldn’t happen in locked bathrooms, dark cellars etc.
  1. Walk away (emotionally). It is essential that parents stay calm in the face of the enraged child. Do not rise to the challenge of each battle, choose the ones worth fighting and then stand your ground. Stay calm. Shrieking at an already shrieking child is adding fuel to the fire. And never worry about what the neighbours will think about ignoring the prolonged wailing of your child because you’ve reminded him that no-one died from not owning a Ben 10 Omnitrix. Staying calm and walking away when necessary minimises the temptation to lash out at your child. Smacking as a way of disciplining is controversial and potentially problematic. My experience as a parent and psychologist is that smacking is not a particularly useful long-term strategy for managing children’s behaviour. It allows adults the illusion of control and temporary relief from difficult situations, but if used often becomes increasingly destructive. Children learn to hide their true feelings, obeying out of fear not respect. They learn that people who are bigger or stronger have control and that physical expressions of anger are acceptable.

How To Save Our Future

I hold onto my faith in South Africa and South Africans even when, every now and then, someone powerful waves a flag, identifies the “enemy” in our midst and urges us to march obediently forward to deal with this problem. Sometimes blood is drawn, and if it’s your blood it can be very nasty indeed. This is where my faith comes in. There is something in our collective memory, together with our institutions and laws, that repeatedly pulls us back at the last moment from throwing it all away.

Nevertheless, South Africa clearly hasn’t properly dealt with the past, instead building a superstructure of laws, policies and explanations on a

very shaky foundation. Recent events have shown once again what a damaged society we are. It seems a word here, a splash of paint there, can turn the national thermostat up to irrational rage. On the surface the anger seems to be out of all proportion to the events that trigger it. Below the surface, however, it all makes sense because that’s where the pain still lives.

Even so, I’m not too concerned about people occasionally getting heated and emotional if they are able to operate within the bounds of our Bill of Rights and our laws, go about their lives as normal, raise their children and work to meet their basic needs.

The people I’m worried about are the ones so damaged by their childhood that they are incapable of bonding with other human beings. They might look like you and me but under the skin they have a dangerous lack of empathy.

To switch on empathy in infancy, the single most i

mportant thing a parent or caregiver can do is form a meaningful attachment with their baby, and be a loving protector. Even in a crazy world of conflict and poverty, it just takes one present, compassionate adult to give a child a fighting chance of becoming a psychologically healthy adult who can connect with others.

A consistent, caring and thoughtful early attachment between caregiver and child is, I believe, a primary source of psychological resilience, a shield against adversity and a template for empathy.

Unfortunately, South Africa currently experiences a serious lack of empathic parenting. In a recent column I quoted two statistics from a report by the Institute Of Race Relations: one held that at least 50% of South African fathers have no regu

lar contact with their children; the other stated that this number is growing.

I see evidence of compromised attachment every day in my practice. I work with people who have suffered because of the belief that infants and children are not really affected by how they are brought up. Their caregivers did not understand or care that children suffer if they are ignored or raised by somebody (or more worryingly a series of somebodies) who is not emotionally invested in a child’s well-being. There are too many absent or unavailable parents, drunk parents, angry, immature and psychologically disturbed parents, for example, who fail to connect in a loving, protective way with their children.

We all know that something is wrong in our coun

try. The proximate causes might be guns, drugs or unemployment, but one of the ultimate causes is the disturbance of secure attachment, in infancy and childhood, to a good enough primary caregiver. The fractured relationships between parents (particularly fathers) and their children is one of South Africa’s greatest challenges.

This is a plea, then, to parents, caregivers and teachers. Each one of you is able to have a key influence on the future of South Africa by connecting empathically with a child and thus building that child’s capacity for connectedness with others. Here are the sorts of behaviours that work across various developmental stages:

  • Thinking about your baby and older child, holding them in mind, wondering how they are experiencing the world, what they need and how the world is impacting on them;
  • Holding and cuddling your babies, talking and singing to them, making lots of eye contact, touching and hugging;
  • Soothing babies (their brains are immature and they learn to self-soothe by your act of connection) and not treating their distressed cries as manipulative attention-seeking;
  • Responding to acts of distress in older children and adolescents by listening, talking and offering to be their advocate; 
  • Showing interest in a growing child’s activities, experiences and stories; and
  • Getting help for yourself if you feel damaged by your childhood, or bringing other caregivers such as helpers or relatives into your life 
    who can be there consistently for your child.

Being truly present in our children’s lives as much as possible, is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, our children and our country.


Coming out

This is the column that must be written – the topic just came out to me, you could even say. The Gay Pride March this weekend through the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg set the scene.

In seemingly unrelated acts I first bought Eusebius McKaiser’s book of thought-provoking essays, ‘A Bantu in my Bathroom’. Last night I reached the section on sexuality, and read with a great deal of interest the chapter titled ‘Don’t you just wanna try, my son? With a woman?’

And then this morning I found out that October 11 is International Coming Out Day.

So I got to thinking about coming out. And how important, difficult and often traumatic an issue it is for gay children (of all ages) and their (usually) straight families. Coming out is telling the world the world who you really are. As such it’s an important social and psychological process, a rite of passage.

McKaiser writes about his experience of coming out to his father, via a handwritten letter posted the old fashioned way through the mail. This was as a 19-year old when he was in second year at Rhodes University. He relates, with great poignancy and empathy, his father’s tearful response to this “new fact about his son- a big fact- and doing so with raw emotion, the stuff of humanity”.

But he makes it clear that while he understands that the roots of his father’s conservative attitudes are in the bigotry and ignorance that are vigorously transmitted through our culture, he refuses to be silenced or closeted by them.  “I will not condone homophobia by giving someone the space to get used to me being me … I would not tolerate my friend’s, family and colleagues’ racism, so why the hell would I tolerate and negotiate their homophobia?”

Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), sometimes leading to acts of violence and expressions of hostility. It does seem to me that these words are hardly adequate to describe the hate crimes, a lesbian being ‘correctively raped’; a man being beaten; a child being humiliated and scorned; a student tortured, tied to fence and left to die.

An American report on FBI national hate crime statistics from 1995–2008 found that LGBT people were ‘far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime’.

There are places in the world today where homosexuality is a capital offence. In most of Africa LGBT people are persecuted, vulnerable to state harassment and afforded few protections.

Even though the post-apartheid constitution in South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, we experience the paradox of laws that ensure equality and dignity for LGBT people, while in practice people who are gay, or perceived to act or dress in gender non-conforming ways, still struggle to find physical safety, never mind social acceptance.

Meanwhile, in middle class urban areas people who are open about their sexual orientation are more likely to fear rejection and ridicule than actual physical harm.  But feeling rejected or believing that you are tearing your family apart is hugely damaging, both psychologically and socially.

So coming out has its risks. Why do it then?

This is a question Eusebius McKaiser also poses. Why not simply evade the awkward questions asked by curious (and concerned) family members, talk about your partner in gender-neutral ways and try pass as straight?

As a psychologist the answer is clear to me. To be forced to live an inauthentic half-life, to spend all your time hiding, concealing and fearing exposure is to live a life of constant stress and distress. In the face of the historical stigma associated with being gay or bisexual or transgendered, and without strong support systems, many LGBT youngsters internalize societal homophobia and are vulnerable to extreme feelings of self-hate and shame.

Gay teenagers have higher rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse than their straight counterparts. This is not because gay people are hard-wired for more psychological problems, but because of the stress of concealing their true selves, feeling different and being rejected.

And this is where parents and families can make all the difference. When a child’s family rejects him, the odds of attempted suicide are nine times higher than the general population. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults from very rejecting families are nearly six times more likely to have major depression and three to five times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.

I’m not saying you, as a parent, have to be thrilled that your child is gay. It may be really uncomfortable facing your own assumptions and prejudices; it is difficult accepting that your child’s path in life might be different from the journey you imagined; it is really scary to have your child face a world of bigotry and discrimination.

But you are their parent.

They need you in their corner. They need you to face the world with them. They need you to accept and love them. Because that’s what parents should do.

Don’t be scared, be prepared

Some stress is good for you, like eating brussel sprouts. And some level of stress is necessary and important, like having a root canal. It won’t seem so at the time, but the right amount of stress can extend your life. It focuses your mind, builds your immune system and gives you a sense of purpose. Even exam stress.
Here are some useful strategies to cope with the pressure of tests and exams:
1. Plan ahead – before you start studying make an I-survived-last-time list of occasions on which you survived or overcame pressure. This settles your fears and promises you will cope again.
2. Look at the big picture first: make a mind map or summary of work sections or chapter headings or aspects of a novel. Seeing a whole structure on one page reduces the scale of something huge to something manageable.
3. Avoid short-term energy enhancers such as energy drinks or endless cups of coffee – you get a short burst of energy followed by a long trough of lethargy.
4. Train like a soldier by developing strategies and routines in advance – learn specific essay structures, begin answers with key words from questions, circle instruction words. These are the little routines that equip soldiers to operate under duress.
5. Reward yourself – if you have a full day to study, schedule a break to watch your favourite TV programme that evening. This creates urgency and sets up the anticipation of something pleasant later.
6. Take care of your physical well-being. Eat healthily and keep up a regular exercise schedule. Exam-time is not a good enough excuse for junk-food and sweet binges.
7. Sleep is essential. Research shows that an adequate night’s sleep consolidates memory and enhances performance the following day. In relation to exams you are probably going to benefit far more from going to bed and sleeping than from desperately cramming through the night.
8. Have appropriate expectations of yourself. Don’t compare yourself to other people and try to resist external pressure on you to meet up to unrealistic standards. Base your own expectations on the best you think you can do, and in relation to your own previous performance and preparation.
9. Finally, keep things in perspective. While some stress is important, excessive levels of anxiety over exams will certainly be counterproductive

And the award goes to….

THE only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing.

And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in matric for “Social Awareness and Compassion for Others”. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation?

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed. I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to … “Thanks Mom,” he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year-old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prizegiving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning. Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. Those tools are called human beings.

Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards and makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three best parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prizegiving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never “got you”?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those, that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Be an adult for your child’s sake

It had been a bad day at work, having to listen to a divorced couple fighting about who had damaged the children the most. I was left thinking that the only upside of toxic, distressing divorces is that there will always be work for psychotherapists, who have to treat the child casualties of these warring parents. 

The writer Margaret Atwood said that divorce was like an amputation: “You survive it, but there’s less of you.”

Divorce is painful, prolonged and complicated, and divorcing parents have to summon all their courage to be one main thing – the adult.

Sadly, a “happy divorce” is not the norm and there are few palatable truths when children are involved. Research shows that it is not possible to predict how most children will deal with divorce, only how an individual child might respond. It is thought that the younger a child is when their parents divorce, the more difficulties they have as a result. Research also indicates that boys tend to struggle more than girls do. Other factors are:

  • The child’s adjustment to life before the divorce proceedings begin;
  • The mood and attitude of the parents over the divorce period – a highly depressed parent has a greater effect on a child than one who is better able to manage his or her own feelings; and
  • The level of conflict between parents and to what degree the child has contact with both parents over the divorce period.

To add to the somber picture, let us dispel a few myths. Firstly, children often adjust to a bad marriage and prefer to have the family together instead of it splitting up. When you justify your actions by saying your child will be happier when you become happier after the divorce, you underestimate to what degree children struggle to overcome their powerful emotions and reason through the whole experience.

Research shows that children of divorce are generally more sexually active, more depressed, more confrontational with peers, more aggressive with teachers and more likely to get divorced in future. On the other hand, children who have two parents and an intact home benefit from routine and stability. It seems that children’s happiness is more influenced by stability than their parents’ level of happiness.

Secondly, it is certainly true that a “civilised” divorce is better than a highly destructive and traumatic one. But underestimating and minimising the effect of any kind of divorce is a mistake. In almost any divorce there is hurt, anger and frustration. These feelings have a way of filtering down to your children.

According to Judith Wallerstein, a US psychologist who has researched the long-term consequences of divorce, “the parents’ anger at the time of the break-up is not what matters most. Unless there was violence or abuse or high conflict, a child has dim memories of what transpired during this supposedly critical period”.

What is more significant is the longer-term relationship between the divorced parents after the initial separation and divorce has happened. What must be dealt with in an ongoing way are the bruised feelings, sadness and anger that are difficult to process, and even the changed financial situation and complex visitation arrangements.

Do not buy into the whole myth that if you just deal with the divorce process in an orderly manner things will be okay. Rather plan to put lots of energy into the aftermath of divorce.

So what if, despite knowing all of the above, you still need to get divorced?

1. Look after yourself so you can help your child;

2. Do not blame or insult the other parent or argue with your ex-spouse in front of the children. When you criticise the other parent, you criticise half of the two people with whom your child identifies;

3. Know what to talk about and what to keep quiet. Tell your child the truth about the divorce and acknowledge their – and your – feelings, but keep legal or financial details of the divorce to yourself. Children feel confused when parents share too much detail with them;

4. Do not keep a spy in the other home. This damages your child’s sense of how to manage conflict;

5. Allow visitation rights – do not sabotage your children’s relationship with your ex;

6. Avoid buying your children’s love with gifts and indulgences. Invest thought, consideration, attention, affection, pride and time in your children; and

7. Be the adult. This is the hardest one to do. A colleague commented that there is probably no clearer evidence of maturity than to be able to allow, and even encourage, your children to have a relationship with a person you may despise or hate.

 By looking at the big picture and acting as calmly and maturely as possible, you give your child the best chance of growing up into a healthy adult who has healthy relationships.