Looking For The Threads of Connection

Over the past ten years, many families have reached out to our program looking for ways to reconnect with their alienated children. Many of these calls are heartbreaking in that there really is no answer. The hardest to fathom are the ones in which it seems professionals have aligned with the most seen parent pushing the less seen parent further away. One custody evaluator stated succinctly there was no reason for the child to reject the mother “besides the obvious hurt the father experienced from the mothers affair”. It was further stated as fact that the daughter’s rejection of her mother could be addressed in therapy. Evidently, the therapist told the evaluator that she was working diligently with the daughter to help her overcome her hatred of her mother. The confounding variable to making the outcome successful was the fact the mother had not been allowed near her daughter in 5 years. The child was now 17.

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Those types of calls are the most heart wrenching and are the ones we consider “legalized abductions” with multi-headed perpetrators. So what is the solution for these families? Rather than parsing the legal complexities, we should reduce it down to the most obvious solution. If your child is in therapy, demand and insist that the therapist identify for you the reason the child is in treatment. If the answer has anything to do with the child’s resistance to seeing you, the less seen parent, challenge and question the treatment protocol. Feel free to inquire what other phobias allow for a complete avoidance of the feared stimulus. Continued avoidance of an irrational fear leads to even more of a phobic response. As a parent, you have the right to question the treatment protocol and to question the effectiveness of continuing to practice avoidance. 

What Are The Options?

If alienated or estranged parents do not have the opportunity to connect with their children, what paths can they pursue? Options can range from participation in time-limited (3 1⁄2 day, 5 day, and extended day) intensive treatment programs such as our workshop-based interventions to activity-based interactions. Our workshops create opportunities for the building or re-building of connections in a safe and supported environment. Whenever possible we include both parents in the intervention with the hope of providing children age-appropriate skills to manage their complex relationships.

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Sadly, a number of our families come with only one parent, usually the less seen parent. In these situations, if there have been no legal interventions such as a flip in custody or sanctions for a most seen parent’s undermining behavior after the intervention, the child or children, after positively re-engaging and reconnecting with their less seen parent, may be returning to the care of the most seen parent whose behavior remains unchanged.

The workshops focus on connections and forward movement. We model to the families how to stay focused on solutions and how to address conflict without digressing into chaos. Not all families can problem-solve conflict. Some merely need to be directed to move forward and not regress. Universally, children have taught our team and their parents to avoid blaming the most seen parent. Children simply want permission to love both parents without having to choose. 

What If You Can’t Afford These Programs?

What are options for families who can’t afford or access a program such as Transitioning Families, Family Bridges or Forging Families? Optimally, it’s crucial that the message these parents give to their children is that they’re spending time with them for the sake of being with them. It’s their only motivation. Children smell rats easily. Any attempts a less seen parent makes to prove herself to the other parent through the child will cause the child to withdraw and continue to block contact with the less seen parent. One of the toughest issues without patient reunification is what happens when the most seen parent hears of a successful session between the less seen parent and the child. The result is what Richard Warshak calls “blow back”. The most seen parent retaliates, whether intentionally or not, and applies pressure to the child resulting in the child pulling even further away. 

In one of our workshops, a 17 year old was reassured by her father that he wouldn’t let on about the “fun” they had while participating in the program. The child relaxed and what resulted was a positive time for father and child. Not too long ago, we learned the father and daughter continued to develop a positive relationship, which has extended into college for the young lady. To this day, the mother is unaware of any positive connection between the father and their daughter. 

Not The Typical Case

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So what are we advocating for alienation, estrangement or hybrid cases? Obviously, we see a great need for programs where family members spend an extended period of time with each other in order to positively reconnect. Given this isn’t always possible, we need other solutions. We look for solutions that serve to alleviate pressure and build connections. In our program, cooking together and playing together are great bridges between distanced family members. Away from our program, less seen parents need to look for creative ways to entice connection. A less seen parent who bakes a highly aromatic cookie can bring a child out of isolation. In some cases, leaving it on the kitchen counter with a note or a subtle verbal connection can begin the process of reconnection.

Less seen parents need to look for what we at TF call bids for connections. It can be as subtle as a child repeatedly playing a video game in the living room. The less seen parent should consider playing the video game when the child comes over as a silent bid for connection. Look for any way to connect slowly, subtly and with an abundance of caution. Caution is for slow reconnection. Sudden movements can rock the tentative connection propelling the relationship backwards. Success in a workshop can be strengthened when observant staff detect and highlight small victories that a less seen parent often misses. 

During a recent workshop, the chef observed a young boy serving dessert to his mother. Not a word was spoken but clearly something had shifted. The young man had avoided any prior contact with his mother. Often parents avoid bringing a third party with them during visits. Admittedly, a new girlfriend or boyfriend on a visit can be a loaded subject and in many cases should be avoided but an individual who can serve as an icebreaker can be immensely useful. This individual should not be someone too emotionally invested with making one parent right and the other wrong. This person’s role can be defined as a bridge between the rejecting child and the less seen parent. Recreational activities like basketball, cooking, and board games are great distracters. The emphasis here is on “doing” as some things can’t be resolved by talking. Doing is really what changes the game.

Often, fear is identified as the reason the child is resistant to being with an estranged or alienated parent. In some cases the other parent, extended family members, and even a well-meaning therapist have induced the fear. Because we know fear cuts off the cognitively rational part of our brain, one can imagine a child whose fear is supported, can’t see past the fear to reconnect with the less seen parent, the object of his fear. The simplest solution is to attempt to engage in non-threatening ways, create a new reality by allowing the child to see who you are rather than whom the other parent has irrationally portrayed you to be. It takes action, movement, and patience. Be creative. Think outside of the box. Connect thoughtfully, slowly and diligently. 

How does a Hummingbird help us to slow down?

Yesterday a teaching moment popped up just as I was preparing to relax, detach and do my favorite activity.

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I had just gone up to the barn to visit and ride my horse. As I got out of the car I saw a friend looking intently at something cupped in her hand. It was a beautiful hummingbird that had been stunned. It lay motionless in my friends hand. At first it looked like a hopeless situation. There was absolutely no movement. Now a hummingbird is the closest animal to me in its constant movement.  From afar it looks like a frenetic bundle of energy, but anyone who has watched these beautiful birds know they are intent on a purpose and full of resolve. Their purpose is not random nor is their energy disorganized. I do not mean to suggest I possess a beauty close to that of a hummingbird but I do indeed have the appearance of an intense output of energy.  Seeing the bird motionless was quite disconcerting to me. I mean how could this hummingbird survive with no movement?

My friend encouraged me to keep a sense of optimism. Perhaps the bird just needed time to recover. Ten minutes turned into twenty with no movement, challenging not only the bird but also me. I sat next to my friend as she softly stroked the bird. Standing in the sun to warm the bird she directed me to create a bit of sugar water to attempt  to revive her. She pointed out to me that the bird was a girl due to her seemingly dull feathers. However, we both noticed a vibrant red below her beak, which shone through when the sun hit it just right. This was no dull bird. Hidden beauty shone through demonstrating a palette of beautiful feathers.  Had this hummingbird been on the move these colors would have been difficult to see.

After whatseemed forever the bird sputtered a peep-peep. She also flapped a wing and then returned to motionless. My friend and I looked at each other in deep resignation. Too much time we believed had gone by, leaving us with the distinct impression the bird was not long for the world. I spread my voice of pessimism to her suggesting it was time to move on and let this little bird go. Evidentially she half agreed relinquishing the bird to me as she went to get a box to place the bird in out of the way of harm. She came back with a box lined by a soft piece of tissue paper. She smiled and said “just in case”. I looked at her with the wise eyes of someone who has lived 20 more years than she has and responded with a look that said “well not much chance but do it if it makes you feel better”.

We placed the box in the back of her truck and went on with our afternoon. To be honest I forgot all about the bird as I rode my horse insanely around and around the arena. But not this friend of mine. The second she got off her horse she went directly to the truck and triumphantly held the empty box up with a knowing smile of someone who never gives up. Yes the bird was gone. She had flown away home.

Grandparent Awareness day: North Carolina Legislator meeting 4/27/16

I am honored to be here today and to be asked to speak to you. Today I ask you to listen to me more as a fellow human being than a psychologist. It is true that there is not much separation between the two at this stage in my life, but today I speak as someone who still optimistically believes in the importance of supporting connections and relationships within families.

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I am not alone in saying that a crucial factor in the mental health of our children is a supportive family structure. This structure does not always look like the families of days gone by. All types of homes harbor families, but nothing replaces the ties of early attachment figures. So simply, the family members however defined, who have been important influences in our children’s lives have an important role in the ongoing development of the children. Grandparents hold the history of the past and a vision of the future.

Children who are raised to dismiss one side of their familial legacy, whether due to alienation, familial abduction or parental conflict learn to see the world in clear lines of black ad white? People who look at life as all good or all bad tend to have a restricted view of the world. Being in a family system teaches how to accept different viewpoints and to hopefully embrace the differences that make up each of us. We must teach our children to agree to disagree. Today's political climate is sure not helping teach the lesson of acceptance. How do we teach conflict resolution to children of divorced families? Please don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-divorce, but trusting some of our social issues in the hands of the wrong person or people can be very dangerous if not lethal for the children.

I have seen first hand the destruction from pure alienation and the conflicts that surround it. I have heard children behind the closed door admit to the dilemma of feeling they have to choose between parents and that this choice could destroy one parent. I have watched what occurs when a family member abducts a child because they think they know what is best alone for the child. I have seen the systems that support the dynamics around parental alienation and have even more tragically heard the children admit to saying things they did not mean or that had never happened.

I have also seen the grandparent of the abducted or alienated child accept the returning children with no questions asked. Those are the moments I embrace the moments of unconditional acceptance. Society has a responsibility to support and honor the role of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. This is not to say Grandparents have the right to dictate their children’s parenting styles. If this is you, you know who you are...

To dictate to your children how to raise their kids opens the door to full rejection. No one wants to be told that someone else’s way is the only way.

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Grandparents come in all shapes and sizes. In my life one grandparent, an ex governor of Massachusetts, symbolized to me stability, courage and patience in his struggle with Parkinson’s. His wife, my mother’s mother, was all that Boston Brahmins are thought to be, tough, judgmental, convicted and strong. My grandmother on my father’s side was patience and tranquility, my cookie person. The person I turned to for love and support. When I turned 11 she was an oasis from my parents' conflicted divorce and their demand I choose one or the other. . It was my relationship with all of them that taught me much about my parent’s life as children. To this day I see each of them in myself... (Not saying which parts...)

I say this to the Grandparents that are cut off from your grandchildren: "stay strong". You do count. Look for ways to be present in whatever way you can. I have seen unconscionable obstacles placed in the way of your important relationship. I know in many cases there appears to be no recourse. But even in the most extreme situations there is a way. Keep a diary, a videotape to pass on in the hopes that someday you will have the capacity to connect if not leave the diary tape etc. with someone to pass on when the child is much older. Perhaps this organization could find a way to archive messages, videos etc. to be shared when and if a seemingly lost grandchild is ready. You can be and are an important person in these children’s lives just like your ancestors maybe be to you.

But if you do have the opportunity to be in your grandchildren’s lives be the oasis, the sanctuary, and the conflict free zone. The place where they do not have to choose between parents. Be the voice of patience, calmness and unconditional support.

Now today is about the grandparents who have been pushed aside and the importance of acknowledging the social impact of allowing one parent to systematically cut out a grandparent from a child’s life. I have also seen the impact of a grandparent on contributing to alienation. It is often difficult for a grandparent who has been alienated from their grandchild to hold their objectivity when communicating with other family members and community members about what led to the child’s disconnection. This is where I implore you to be aware of your piece when, and if, or until you reconnect with that child. Hold the space of protection. Demand from others the same. Your grandchildren do not wish to be exposed to family conflict, stress, and constant discord. At the reunification program my team and I built in California we focus on the needs for a protected space for children and families experiencing all types of conflict.

The best gift we can give our children is a place out of the conflict. Help your children parent their own children by encouraging forgiveness, understanding and acceptance. Many of the parents who alienate their children struggle with their own issues of attachment and intimacy. Often these issues have always been there. To be surprised is just a waste of energy.

Children who are alienated need a way out of the corner that exists as a result of their loyalty bind. They need us to show them a path to loving both sides of their family. Now don’t confuse what I am saying with an acceptance for rejection. I, of all people, believe we need to support, encourage and demand that children don’t get placed in a position to hate or reject either side of their family. We need to support and demand that grandparents and grandchildren’s relationships do not get entangled in the web of parental conflict.

How I got to be where I am today

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My school experience was challenging to say the least.   If you look at my resume there is nothing funny, eye catching or even awe aspiring, but getting to where I am today has been an interesting journey.  Because I am dyslexic, I had always seen the world from a unique perspective, a perspective that was not shared by many people.  Not only do I scramble words and letters but I tend to see the world almost upside down, or even backwards. Hard to explain, but true!  Getting through Graduate School was a huge challenge. In fact after the first year, I was sure I wouldn’t make it. I think the challenge taught me empathy, humility and a heck of a lot of patience. I also learned not to listen to people who advised me to quit, who didn’t believe I could do it, or who thought I’d never make it. And I learned to use humor. When you sit in a statistic classes for hours and walk out understanding nothing, you either give-up, begin to cry, or find humor.  I chose humor and, in fact, I think the struggle for comprehension led me to be comfortable with true ambiguity. Statistics, like human behavior, is predictable but often unclear until you tease it out and complete the picture.  Wise I guess, but also a survival technique. Needless to say, the final completion of my Ph.D. ended a rocky relationship with school.

I coped with the frustration and challenges of school by riding horses. I was lucky enough to land a job with a horse trainer who marveled at my lack of dexterity and my lack of ability to set up the easiest of ring preparations. She once watched me take 10 minutes to set up a fence for a horse to jump. Apparently, I did it all backwards. Good thing I was a better rider than a jump crew.  She is now the horse professional on my clinical team!

Building a private practice in my field of psychology was much easier than getting through school. However, I did spend my second week as a private therapist believing I had failed miserably.  The 6 clients I had scheduled and seen the week before didn’t show-up again. It was only later (when I left the office) that I found out I had given them the wrong gate code as I had reversed the numbers in my usual dyslexic way. They had all shown up but had left thinking it was their fault. It was then that I discovered that being the imperfect therapist has its charm and can even fill the seats. In fact humor and taking responsibility for mistakes can shock and surprise, even help people feel better, and mistakes are something I learned to do well...  I found that irreverence can be an effective tool for working with people. Once I scheduled three families all at once creating a logjam in the waiting room. But I owned up to the scheduling error and it turned out to be a useful discussion with each family.

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Within a few years I had a thriving private practice but had never really accepted or learned how to be a blank screen and stay silent. This is not to say I was not empathic, reflective, supportive or encouraging - I was, and knew it by the responses of the numerous clients who came to see me. However, I did insert humor when appropriate often taking great risks with the timing. Somehow I got away with it and still do. I learned to use my life experiences judiciously, not to mirror other people’s - but to share lessons I had learned. My life had its own turmoil and I found people often responded well, learning how to make sense out of the things that happened to them.

My work eventually led me to working with law enforcement, initially with a drunk drivers program. Nothing funny about drunk drivers, but my assertive personality was a good match for a challenging population. Periodically law enforcement would contact me regarding a particularly difficult situation. Most of the calls were about out of control teenagers. Occasionally a call would come in from a sheriff friend who needed help with a case. I remember one case in which a runaway child had been recovered after some painstaking work by the sheriffs department. I was called to help reunify the child with her parents. The meeting was set to take place in the sheriff’s office. The child warned us to not be to excited. Her warning proved to be correct when the mother walked in, took one look at the daughter and said “Why the heck did you bring that one back? I thought you were bringing back her sister?” The young lady shrugged and responded with“ I told you so.”

I began to work more regularly with various law enforcement agencies including my own small town police department. I mostly worked on low level drug and alcohol infractions but occasionally I would get called in to assess a problem or solve a difficult situation for a family. That is where I hatched my plan for a comprehensive program to help families reconnect.  It became clear that connection was a big part of stabilizing a family.  Humor helped with connection. Families need to learn ways to connect and need the tools to do it. Laughter and activities together help too. 

I gained a reputation for working with impossible situations and difficult people. One particular judge used to refer cases to me - these were the cases that had already been through many therapists within 100 miles of my office. I was originally flattered and then wondered why I was the last resort and not one of the first. The judge never answered that question, but I made it work and expanded my reputation to include international and national work. My bread and butter is the really awful, gut wrenching divorces. The kind where a judge is at a loss as to what to do, the kind where it is almost impossible to believe parents can act the way they do, the kind that break your heart. These cases provide excitement, irony, sadness and ultimately -  hope. They pushed me to think outside the box and utilize a range of theories and therapies to bring families together.  Courage, compassion, and creativity became my three C's.  I also realized that these complex cases could be better helped by a team of like-minded clinicians.  I put together a team of seasoned therapists and auxiliary staff with varying personalities and skill sets.  We work together with mindfulness, authenticity, and purpose.  Together we are a balanced and smooth running group that is literally able "to change horses midstream".

Taking on Jaycee Dugard as a client was something of a respite from the really hard cases - because of the person Jaycee is. So how did her case get to me? Not unlike every other case that comes to me. No one knew what to do with her or with her family. How do you rehabilitate someone who has been held in a backyard and abused for 18 years? How can you help her family whose entire world has been turned upside down not once, but twice? How can you possibly help someone who has been in that situation? It took horses, dogs, a talented team including two vibrant, irreverent therapists, an amazing and gifted chef, and a wise and talented horse professional.  We used humor, joy, and many activities such as cooking, hiking, hanging out, exercising and lots of talk to get the pieces back together again .

I am now connected to the advisory board for the JAYC Foundation which periodically brings us fascinating but unbelievable cases. The law enforcement referrals are often familial abductions and the self referred span the gamut from murder cases to international abduction and parental alienation. Together with a long time Clinical Social Worker (I call her my Betty White look alike) we review the cases and decide who is appropriate, and who we think we can help. These cases are heartbreaking but heart-warming, and usually ridiculous and extreme. One family came to us believing they were coming to meet Jerry Springer… yes, Jerry Springer. 

In my experience with this work, I have learned to roll with the punches, to think way outside the box and especially to continue with irreverence, humor, and authenticity. I have a great team, the work is very hard, but together we continue to create new ways to help people connect and often find that we are able to help with some very difficult cases….

3 Ways to Promote Safety and Harmony in your Family

For some of us the presence of a pet promotes a sense of safety and security. Sitting on my back porch writing, I am accompanied by no less than five animals including a cat and two dogs. About twenty feet away two miniature horses lie in the sun. There seems to be a shared message of comfort circulating between all of us. From a neurobiological perspective I am sure mirror neurons and unseen messages on a hormonal level are supporting this environment of safety. For instance, in front of me is a strong smelling bush covered in honey bees. The bees are deeply involved in their job on the plant, ignoring the presence of the rest of us.

Families come to Transitioning Families in California and Stable Paths in Florida struggling to figure out how to create harmony in their worlds. This is especially true for families in the midst of and/or post divorce. Sometimes the quest for harmony is complicated by the addition of a stepparent or step siblings.  Everyone’s role and sense of belonging  has been disrupted and has shifted in the face of the fracture and reformulation in the family.

How do you regain a sense of Saftey?

  1. Respect the Boundaries of Individual Space: Family members need to establish and be aware of individual and collective space.
  2. Know your Job/Role: Individual family members need to be aware of their own role and individual place within the system.
  3. Neutral Zone: An environment of safety needs to be a priority. Find a “conflict free” space where individual needs and conflicts are put aside. Such as: the dinner table, during bedtime rituals, etc.

So how does watching animals help us understand how to do this as humans?  It might be simpler than it sounds. The first step would be to acknowledge and commit to the notion that regardless of individual differences and needs we can survive and thrive together. We have had people visit the facility who are surprised cats and dogs can live so closely together. No special training is needed, just promote a slow integration and promote the sense under that conflicts will arise but steps are taken to minimize their escalation.  An example would be feeding the dog and cat in separate protected spaces. This avoids the inevitable fight between these animals during feeding time. It doesn’t mean they cant live together. It just means common sense and mindfulness needs to be applied during that time.

Animals tend to look to us humans as the providers of safety. Today they gravitated to where I sat in response to their sense of my comfort level. The bees did not distract any of us . I was confident in their focus on the job they had in front of them and clearly they trusted me to stay out of their orbit. Again simple: respect individual space, know your job, have a “neutral zone” and never lose sight of th fact that we are all part of the same planet. Families form different constellations. Conflict can be supported or avoided, but first a feeling of safety must be achieved. Active litigation is not a promotion of safety.

Friends without Facebook

Having just watched my youngest of five children launched out the door, I began to think about the moments and opportunities I might have missed before she left.

Don’t get me wrong, 19 years with my firecracker of a daughter had provided plenty of opportunities for positive and negative connections. She and I had spent countless hours taking walks together and sharing cheesy movies that no one else could tolerate on a Sunday night. Together we discussed exploitation of younger girls and the possibility of date rape as presented by Alec Baldwin and Beyoncé. The conversations were not deeply intellectual but through these conversations we talked about things that might not otherwise be addressed.

Looking back, it was the times we spent together without gadgets and electronics that counted the most. The walks together or the two weeks we spent in the summer without Internet access was when we really learned the most about each other.  It was during those times my relationship with her grew and blossomed.  It’s what I miss the most.  A distance between us began the summer after 8th grade.  It is the age that many young people should begin to individuate, yet I must admit it caught me off guard. Suddenly, the friends counted more and Internet and cell phones were a huge priority.  It really was a challenge for her to separate, and to be honest it was hard for me too.

I think to a pre-teen and a young teen the Internet has taken the role of the wise old friend or relative.  What I mean by that is the Internet becomes the place to go for information and access to the world outside of the teen’s world.  What’s the downside?  The downside is that as parents our influence is watered down sooner than it might be without the constant input from outside of our immediate sphere.  We lose a connection because we are not as interesting or as informed as what the world of the Internet provides.  Losing connection too soon leaves kids dealing with information they are not ready to handle. It also leaves us with very little understanding of what they are learning.

How do we combat the impact of technology and the wall it creates between parents and children?

  1. Don’t expect to eliminate technology completely from your children’s life. If you do have a technology free house be aware they may be going on the Internet elsewhere. (One client of mine at a technology free Waldorf school had a face book page at a friend’s house).
  2. Look for opportunities where you and your child can unplug together. Outdoor activities like walking, etc. bring us together. Nature has a great way of showing us another side to things.
  3. Junior high or middle school years are important times to strengthen the bond that will inevitably be stressed during the high school years. Kids are beginning to push away but hold on for just a bit longer.
  4. Let them teach you about the latest trends on the Internet. By the time I learned about Snap chat it had been all but replaced by Integra. There is no way we can stay on top of all the latest trends without help from them.
  5. Take the time to really listen to what they have to say. Sometimes we are too quick to lecture them about our world view, forgetting they may have their own unique viewpoint.
  6. Unplugging does not just mean stepping away from electronics, it also means means reframing our own agendas and needs when connecting with our children. Create agenda based times to connect and really get to know your children.