This sophisticated, often maladaptive thought process of obsessiveness-rumination-worry is a psychological process of recurrent thinking about self, past upsetting events, unresolved concerns and depressed symptoms. The silent sufferers of this process automatically rely on this problem-solving approach for any given life problem. Problematically, obsessiveness, rumination and worry is a poor, deceivingly counter-productive problem-solving option, as the evaluative nature of the common thought(s) are too abstract, redundant and limited.
Why do some folks suffer, while others do not? It is the confluence of myriad factors. The most commonly discussed factor is - wait for it - a childhood of treatment, wherein an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful child begins to over-analyze the motives and warning signs so as to better predict and prepare for the problem of parental abuse. In adulthood, the tendency becomes overused, indiscriminately applied (to all situations) and misperceived as an effective problem-solving option. Negative childhood events are just one of many biological, environmental and psychological contributors to this cognitive-personality outcome.
Understanding this, and collaboratively identifying all the advantages and disadvantages to the meta-negative thought process is the necessary first step (to promote therapeutic rapport and buy-in to the treatment plan) prior to transitioning to healthy interventions and positive change strategies.
Most maladaptive thought categories - catastrophizing, perfectionism, black and white thinking, mind-reading, etc. - are effectively treated by targeting the specific, individual thoughts with reality-testing restructuring and modification (is the thought useful and productive or not). For instance, when a client panics with worry that his plane is going to crash, cognitive therapy consists of a friendly reminder that such a catastrophic outcome is incredibly low-probability. The specific thought “a plane crash is very likely” is debated into “a plane crash is very unlikely and a calculated risk to take for a meaningful life.”
Targeting obsessiveness, rumination and worry involves targeting the thought process, versus content, which is a deeper, broader level of exploration. Specific distorted thoughts are ignored, and the client is guided through strategies designed to help pause, step-back and review the big-picture sequences of thoughts crashing through the mind’s internal land scape. In this way, the thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with obsessiveness-rumination-worry are addressed and corrected through an analysis of the function and consequences of the thought process - discussing the development (when did it start?), context (when/where/why does it happen?), usefulness (what is its purpose?) and options (what can I do instead of it?).
Positive change develops as the client improves his or her ability to tune in to the negative internal commentary more quickly, and more skillfully redirect attention to more adaptive thoughts and concrete, specific, values-driven behaviors.
Reunification difficulties - when a child refuses contact with a parent - are a deceivingly common, complex and distressing problem within divorced families.
A black-and-white scenario develops in which the child becomes overly close to one parent and co-constructs a severed or damaged bond with the other parent. The clinical literature on this subject terms the overly close parent the in-parent because he/she is on the “inside” of the child’s psychological world. For obvious reasons, the other parent is classified as the out-parent.
A central tenant to successful reunification treatment (patching up the severed relationship and stabilizing the parenting plan) is that all three family members - the child, in-parent and out-parent - contribute to the unhealthy outcome of contact refusal.
There has been a strong tendency to oversimplify the process and blame or highlight one figure in this group effort. “Alienation,” a well-known term in the zeitgeist, points a finger at one of the parent’s, usually the in-parent (loyalty bind). “Estrangement” is a concept that zooms in on the out-parent as the primary perpetrator (abandonment). “Visitation refusal or noncompliance” is a more recent concept that tends to reflect child-based factors (immaturely inexplicable defiance).
This debate is smoke and mirrors. Reunification difficulties is always a team effort and, often times, there are trends. For instance, the child may be overly-parentified in the sense that he/she seeks a caretaking role by stepping into the co-parent conflict and rejecting the out-parent merely because it is sensed that this gesture would gain the in-parent’s favor. The in-parent may be overly-protective and quick to misperceive a sense of threat and danger with the other parent’s caregiving. The out-parent may struggle to perform well in the parenting role, such as understanding and satisfying the child’s more advanced social-emotional needs.
The prognosis on reunification difficulties, at least on an anecdotal level, is worse than it should be, in large part because families hit an impasse, fail to collaborate around third-party support, and move through an over-booked court process. As a custody evaluator appointed by a Judge to evaluate the underlying causes of a stalled or severed parent-child relationship (and make recommendations), I often do not receive a referral until at least six months if not years after the problem has surfaced within the family. The mere passage of time since a child’s last safe/successful exposure to the out-parent can create a phobic level of fear within the child that now adds to an already diverse and intertwined array of contributing factors.
All of this is a way of saying that the urge to sever the out-parent’s involvement with the child is strong; the in-parent, the child, and, often times, the child’s individual therapist, align in an effort to reject the increasingly-stressful presence of the out-parent. The out-parent’s resolve begins to weaken with hopelessness against the mounting pressure, and the court’s uncertainty about changing what has become the status quo further cements the inertia.
As a psychologist well-versed in matters of attachment theory, working models of interpersonal behavior, and general principles of psychological stability, I often find myself pushing back against this pressure due to the following notion:
While a meaningfully positive and stable re-attachment between the child and out-parent is best, the end goal can, at the bare minimum, should be a highly-structured attempt to superficially repair the rapport and construct a sensibly limited parenting plan. If, in the aftermath of reunification difficulties, a child can move down one of these two life paths, then long-term health outcomes for success remain preserved.
If a reunification or repair attempt is refused or partially/dysfunctionally attempted, the child moves experiences the third option and unhealthiest option - a damaged and unresolved primary attachment.
It is not about the out-parent’s rights as a parent or even the child’s short-term sense of anxiety at re-engaging with an estranged parental figure; it is about the family system doing its very best to steer the child toward repair and resolution, and away from unresolved damage, lingering failure, and irreparable loss. The consequences of this third option on a child’s health outcomes are only beginning to be grasped by research, and are likely severe, including chronic difficulties regulating emotions, stabilizing identity and forming meaningful romantic attachments.
Below is a birds-eye view of a standard reunification therapy framework.
Phase One: The therapist has in-depth discussions with the child, in-parent and out-parent (all together) about the theoretical benefits for reengagement and reunification.
Phase Two: The therapist constructs a safe, small-step approach to a heavily-orchestrated parenting plan between child and out-parent (starting with short, therapeutically monitored visits and expanding to a meaningful routine of unregulated contact).
Phase Three: As contact between the child and out-parent resumes, the therapist promotes psychologically skillful behavior in all three family members simultaneously and perpetually:
Both parents learn to better manage co-parent disputes and ensure the child is removed “from the middle.”
The child learns to better self-soothe and effectively navigate conflict.
The out-parent learns to parent more skillfully.
The in-parent learns to better manage worries/anxieties/fears in order to effectively support the reunification process.
Families faced with reunification difficulties should seek out psychologists with specialty training in reunification.
Further, the out-parent would be well advised to ask/beg for the in-parent’s willingness to engage in such an inherently anxiety-provoking (but ultimately rewarding) treatment process.
Review: A sophisticated playbook for an all too mysterious process.
As adults, we know that life inherently contains harsh realities and dangers. Violence, divorce, drug abuse, panic attacks, severe depression are merely a few of the many external and internal sources of threat and distress.
Of course, children do not innately know these things.
Managing a child’s initial exposure or introduction to such distressing realities is a significant, often unspoken, challenge for parents.
In the recently published “How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce,” Dr. Samantha Rodman teaches parents how to adapt to divorce and successfully protect the child’shealth and wellbeing from the psychological shrapnel.
Divorce is not an inherently unhealthy situation that is doomed to harm a child. However, the life transition does produce short-term stress, and, if mishandled by one or both parents, can linger to undermine the child’s longer term health outcomes.
In clear and direct language, Dr. Rodman integrates important foundational ideas about healthy coping (how to skillfully channel negative emotions) with divorce-specific psychological obstacles.
For instance, in discussing an adaptive approach to the announcement (how to tell children that a divorce is happening), Dr. Rodman suggests that parents declare some version of the following idea: “Mom and dad don’t get along, and our marriage is not working out. We think it will be better for us to get divorced and live apart…it is nobody’s fault…we are sorry.”
While this narrative does not completely explain the divorce, or alleviate the child’s unavoidable distress, it efficiently relays critical information, minimizes conflict, and sets the stage for healing and recovery.
Dr. Rodman provides sophisticated solutions and strategies to each of the psychological curve balls that can emerge during the divorce process, and discusses how to modify each message to best-fit a child’s given age, developmental phase and idiosyncraticpersonality.
Overall, the book provides a very concrete and pragmatic script that empowers the parents to guide their family out of the turmoil, through the adversity, and toward rich healing and growth.
The Senior Scare
If you are a college student readying to embark on your senior year, then whether you know it or not there is a serious life stressor heading your way. It is big, unavoidable, and can cause significant distress, marked by persistent and diffuse unease that, at times, borders on bouts of panic or depression.
The life stressor is known as a major life phase transition or, in this case, the changeover from student to young professional navigating through the wider world.
Major life phase transitions are sprinkled throughout the lifespan, and carry a stress load of abrupt change, demands for autonomy, and high stakes (success or failure).
To help facilitate a successful outcome on the “work life” piece of this transition, I will discuss some principles from the clinical literature on problem solving, proactive coping, and cognitive therapy that can help guide an adaptive approach and thought process around this particular life challenge.
First, reframe the vague problem into a concrete goal; shift the question from, “what the hell am I going to do after graduation?!” to “I need to identify, pursue and obtain a reasonably decent, if not high-quality, next step in my professional life.”
Note the phrasing. Using a range (“reasonably decent to high-quality”) and the term “next step” sets the stage for flexible thinking and fair expectations. Every goal contains a finite number of healthy options. In this case, there are at least three:
Graduate school, an entry-level job in a preferred field, or meaningful “see the world” programming.
Now, every student falls along a continuum of career commitment and certainty, which reflects the best-fit option. Thus, while there is no “correct” or “perfect” spot, you do need to introspect enough to know where you fall on this spectrum, or at least have a rank order of preferences.
Be aware of the madadaptive options available to you at the start of the academic year, namely avoidance and externalization (“this issue will figure itself in time” or “I’ll push it off till after I graduate and cram for a job as if it were an exam.”).
Once you select one/multiple healthy options, the next is to engage in committed action.
Whether it is graduate school applications, entry-level job hunting or travel, there is legwork and preparation that must be approached. A balanced mindset is useful – be focused and relaxed.
Behaviorally, this translates into a well-paced routine of bite-size effort. Imagine that this “successful preparation for post-graduate work life” is an extra course that you have to take throughout the year; consider it pass/fail in nature. Schedule in a concrete amount of time every week (e.g. 1 to 2 hours) and start concretizing the tasks (it starts with research and studying and ends with application writing and interview scheduling).
It is advisable to self-impose this extra workload, so that you can adaptively engage in the psychological coping technique that you will be utilizing most of the time – “letting it go.”
That’s right; most of the time, the healthy response to moments of work life worrying will be to “let it go” so that you can engage in more immediate life demands like coursework, and mindful enjoyment of daily collegiate routines.
To genuinely and effectively “let go” of the worriment when it enters your mind, requires that you genuinely be able to fall back on such notions as “I’m tolerating my anxiety and working hard on this issue.
The persistent effort is key to the reduced worry - see the double-edged sword?
The final step is more meta-attitudinal. While it is healthy to be emotionally invested in the outcome, know that your first professional feat is not life-or-death. Further, the anxiety that you will sporadically feel as this topic cycles in and out of your mind is inevitable – you don’t have to like it, but you do have to begrudgingly accept it. And while the angst is not a signal of legitimate danger, it can feel threatening and promote a sense of paralysis. Bear in mind that anxiety is merely a wave of temporary discomfort that, with some awareness and intention, can be channeled into motivation to execute on the aforementioned principles.
Finally, hold some optimistic compassion for yourself. What looms is the beginning, not the end, of an exciting journey. And as you move through the unavoidable discomfort and rejection be gentle and forgiving during your internal commentary. It will help you thick-skin criticism when you are doing the best you can, and tune into and modify your responses when you need to do better.
The best option for a co-parent's safety concerns.
I ended my first co-parent blog post with a discussion of co-parent solutions.
An important idea that I highlighted was radical acceptance – to work well and resolve disputes with your co-parent, you have to accept that your co-parent is going to remain an important part of your child’s life and, in turn, will have an ongoing presence in your life…which, in turn, means you’ll have to make compromises and expressions of good will and tolerate the anxiety inherent in future interactions.
Feel free to peruse the reader comments I immediately began to receive; the resistance to this idea of acceptance was palpable.
To review, radical acceptance is not about liking your co-parent, it is not even about resigning to your co-parent’s weaknesses – it is about accepting that your co-parent’s perspective and needs will need to be understood and reasonably considered, moving forward.
Having said this, an option that might help facilitate radical acceptance – especially if you perceive your co-parent as a force of instability with a high risk to abuse, neglect or otherwise cause distress in the parenting role – is to pursue a GAL evaluation. This option examines your co-parent safety concerns and is the most efficient way to trigger your Judge's consideration of reducing or removing your co-parent from the equation.
This GAL (Guardian ad Litem) evaluation or court-ordered custody evaluation consists of a neutral third party (often times, a psychologist or lawyer) that is appointed by your Judge to consider the “child’s best interests.” The GAL’s primary goal is to clarify your co-parent concerns (and your co-parent's concerns of you), review the history of parental and co-parental misbehavior, and render appropriate and healthy recommendations to the Judge about the parenting plan and other matters of legal/physical custody.
This option is, of course, a trade-off.
On the one hand, a GAL evaluation is the best option at your disposal if the goal is to seek a reduction in your co-parent’s involvement relative to the separation agreement and/or current court judgments
On the other hand, it is an expensive and time-consuming process that inherently provokes antagonism between co-parents and anxiety within all immediate family members (assuming the children are old enough to be included in the interview process).
Important Considerations about this GAL Evaluation Process:
The price of a GAL evaluation tends to range between $5000 and $10,000.
If you already received a GAL evaluation that you perceive as unfair and unreasonable AND you believe there has been a “significant change in circumstances,” then you can pursue another GAL evaluation (follow up evaluations are often shorter and cheaper).
“Change in circumstances” is a legal term that warrants consultation from your family and probate court attorney, and reflects the notion that sometimes, for a variety of reasons, your co-parent’s presence becomes more destructive than was previously the case (e.g. your co-parent is accused of problematic parenting, the child’s needs changes, the parent-child relationship changes, etc.).
Seek out GAL’s with a reputation for thoroughness and objectivity; these are the traits that Judges tend to prioritize when considering the post-evaluation report to the court.
Why co-parent problems are predictable and sympathetic.
Imagine two adults fall in love, get married, and have children; now imagine that same couple spirals into a bitter divorce.
This distressing shift from married romantic partner to ex-lover (but still) co-parent happens all too often.
As a psychologist that has worked on the front lines, clinically serving the top one percent of high conflict and court-involved families, I have seen how deceivingly complicated and emotionally painful the situation can be.
Let's start with the negative impact of this process on the children of divorce.
For a child to shift from a united family under a single roof to a scenario of separate homes, parallel routines (to say nothing of the now-unstable view of relationships the child harbors)...is inherently highly stressful. In the short-term, there is a legitimate risk of general psychological distress (e.g. moodiness, acting out at school, poor sleep, etc.).
However, if the situation is managed by the parents in a healthy manner then the child is likely to exhibit a resilient response (with no permanent damage).
To clarify, there is nothing in the clinical research and literature to suggest the mere act of divorce is inevitably damaging to children; what is highly damaging, however, is co-parent conflict.
This single factor dramatically influences a child's post-divorce adjustment, and general psychological wellbeing (to say nothing of the increased risk to each parent of personal distress and litigiousness).
In other words, theoretically, a child would be fine in the post-divorce climate if his or her co-parents simply cooperated on childcare decisions, aligned household rules and routines, and compartmentalized disputes.
And yet what so often happens is that each co-parent unwittingly, sometimes intentionally, engages in a series of choices that derails from this outcome.
The psychological train wreck happens when both co-parents get embroiled in a vicious cycle of open conflict, poor communication and intense distress. This escalation unleashes a tidal wave of emotionality that washes over the family unit, including all over the child's vulnerably fragile psyche, which can cause long-term damage and decline across every major domain of functioning - cognitive (academic/work life), emotional (mood and self-care) and social (relationships).
In other words, each parent's treatment of the other and their co-management of the post-divorce situation is a game-changer in a child's general life trajectory of health, happinessand success.
Given the high stakes, why is such derailment so prevelant?
As it turns out, there are understandable (though not justifiable) challenges and preciptants for such co-parent misbehavior, in fact, I have come to view the high-conflict and court-involved co-parent as sympathetically surrounded on all sides by stress.
In most romantic breakups, when the ugly end finally unfolds, the relational pain can be cushioned by the freedom of fully moving on (and never seeing your ex-partner again!). The divorce of a child-based romantic relationship, however, is not only more painful and prolonged then the average split, but it is utterly uncushioned.
Co-parents are tethered to each other by psychological, moral and legal rules (barring rare exceptions due to restraining orders, reports of abuse etc.).
As a co-parent you must continue to interact in a general and ongoing manner with this person that has severely annoyed, disappointed, enraged, frustrated and frightened you.
Further, your co-parent is not only still in the picture, but nightmarishly at the forefront as far as power and control. Childcare is a business, and your co-parent is a business partner. Daily childcare matters ranging from the scheduling/commuting of your child's educational and extracurricular activities to ongoing decisions about schools, summer camps and other major expenses demand weekly, if not daily, communicaiton and coordination. Plus, your co-partner/business partner has the capacity, whenever he or she feels impulsively distressed, to negatively influence your child.
Your co-parent can disnegage from a heated phone exchange with you, and then channel his or her frustration into snapping at your child or, worse yet, badmouthing you which can cause your child to perceive you in critical terms.
And even if this scenario didn't unfold, you could still be racked with worry that it could.
Heck, on rare occasions, you might even engage in this feared residual reaction.
On top of the anxiety-provoking exposure and frusrtation-inducing power dynamic of this co-parent dynamic, there are going to be unavoidable wrestling matches around naturally conflicting basic needs within the co-parent arena.
A classic example is parenting time. Most parents are desperate to spend most, if not all, of their available time in parenting mode. Both parent A and parent B want maximum time; and even if the situation were as theoreticall fair and balanced as possible (a 50/50 timeshare), that's half the time you want. This harsh reality is even harder to accept if you perceive your co-parent as someone who provides relatively poorer, or even inadequate, childcare.
There's also the problem of natural comparisons. As human beings we are automatically comparing ourselves all the time, and then judging those comparisons. Thus, all the stress that your co-parent causes to your now-single parent situation is made even worse by your awareness of the ways in which all the happily married co-parents in your life are actively supporting and de-stressing each other.
With all this going on, how could resentment, anger and regret possibly be avoided? How can the emotional baggage be skillfully handled?
Solutions to co-parent problems will be discussed in the next blog, but I'll leave you with one central principle - radical acceptance.
Most co-parents that I interact with tend to actively and unnecessarily perpetuate conflicts because they refuse to accept that their co-parent is attached to their children. I see parents laser focused on the pursuit of parallel parenting and avoiding interactions with their co-parent at all costs. Often times, these parents dedicate their time, money and energy to officially limiting or extinguishing their co-parent's role as a parent. In very rare situations this is a warranted and plausible option; most of the time, it is a pursuit destined for failure and assured to trigger conflict.
Acceptance is a much better approach to the situation. Your children love and benefit from their relationship with your co-parent; and your co-parent loves your children and deserves full opportunities for involvement in their lives. If you're lucky, then you and your co-parent are going to be grandparents together.
The sooner you accept this, the better.
Common co-parent problems can complicated quickly.
I teach a high conflict co-parent course designed to help co-parents cool emotions, manage disputes and find solutions within their dynamic as co-parents.
The solution (a more comprehensive blog post to follow) starts with a legally binding agreement:
You and your co-paret must craft an agreement wherein you promise to, at the very least, remain well-behaved toward each other when the child(ren) are present.
Committing to reasonably engaged efforts to cooperate and include the other parents in childcare decisions, fostering the other parent-child relationship, and finding common ground on co-parent disputes is of bare-minimum importance as well.
If these agreements are broken (or disputed) in a patterned way then a third party professional can be utilized to construct a concrete means of tracking progress (and implementing consequences for setbacks).
Inside Out: A Psychologist's Take
The personality behind the emotions behind the character.
"Inside Out" has taken America by storm.
It is a touching and fun adventure movie that largely takes place inside the mind of a cute and relatively happy/healthy pre-teen named Riley.
The cast of characters in this animated world are Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger - you know, the basic emotions. According to the literature on universal emotions, Joy is really Happiness and the emotion of Interest is nowhere to be found in this film, but these are merely technicalities.
It is an excellently fun film, and as is often the case with emotions, these characters unfold in ways that are…complex.
For instance, sometimes the emotion-characters are activated in response to what happens in Riley’s life. Riley engages with the world and temporarily experiences a stressful event like slipping on her skates during a hockey game, so she starts to feel sad. As she starts to feel sad the Sadness character in her mind (and on the big screen) howls its response. She, Sadness, is reflecting back what has already happened.
This is the most common and superficial way in which we tend to conceptualize emotional states – predictable and natural internal responses to the outside environment.
But these characters function as more than just mirrors.
Sometimes the emotion-characters show an intention, or initiative which then prompts Riley to act in a given way. For instance, at one point Joy gets the idea to play a positive memory (within Riley’s mind) of an actual previous experience because, well, she wants Riley to become more joyful to combat some temporary unhappiness.
Hence, the emotional states are operating as drivers as well as mirrors.
In fact, much of the plot involves a tug of war between Joy and Sadness (really,depression). As Riley contends with the significant stress of her family’s geographrical transition (new friends, new school & loss of old friends and old routines, etc.), Sadness becomes more active, more powerful and, well, more whiny. In turn, Joy (who appeared to enjoy a history in Riley’s psyche as the leader of the emotional group) must now contend with Sadness head-on. What ensues are lots of pep talks, debates, arm-twists, bonding, and growth.
These characters are not just emotional states, they are self-states. Joy is not merely the emotion of joyfulness, she (why couldn’t Joy have been a “he?”), is the joyful version of Riley in all of her personality-based quirks, intricacies and nuances.
Self-states are not exclusively emotions, but cognitions, behaviors, memories, tendencies and other patterned forms of psychological content as well. So, when Riley gets angry she enters into an angry version of herself that is different from the angry versions of everyone else, and certainly more complex than the simplistic emotion of anger. These self-states are layered with other facets like roles and scripts. Meaning, when Riley angrily interacts with her parents she enters into a child version of her angry self that is different than the angry version of Riley that shows up in a fight with her hometown friend.
It gets complicated.
Perhaps one reason “Inside Out’ has become so critically well-received and popular is because these characters are not simply emotional states but full-fledged personality based self-states.
This, and the fact that the movie is really cute too.
Dr. Jeremy Clyman earned a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from Yeshiva University. He completed three years of doctoral-level clinical externships in neurocognitive assessment, couples and family treatment, and cognitive behavioral for adolescents, adults and older adults.