Child Alienation: "1000 Little Bricks"
© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
[An excerpt from the book Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce]
In this chapter, I explain a theory of child alienation that I have developed called “1000 Little Bricks.” It’s based on three Cultures of Blame and the little behaviors (bricks) that children absorb from them. When these three cultures reinforce each other, it is a “perfect storm” which can build alienation.
This is in contrast to what cultures are supposed to do by protecting children and building their resilience for the future. If any one of these stopped being a Culture of Blame, I believe there would be much less child alienation:
1. A family Culture of Blame, when a high-conflict parent is involved.
2. Today’s family court Culture of Blame, which pits parent against parent in an unnecessary contest over who is the “all-good” parent and who is the “all-bad” parent in a divorce, and which involves many family members and professionals who become emotionally “hooked” and feed the escalating conflict.
3. Our society’s increasing Culture of Blame, which turns complex problems into the simple blaming of individuals, with lots of all-or-nothing commentaries, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors repeated endlessly through the news media, entertainment and politics, which feed alienation on a larger scale and influence children’s personality development.
I will also introduce the brain science which explains more about how children learn and absorb these Cultures of Blame, without anyone intending it or even realizing it. It is similar to the way that children learn prejudice.
Cultures define desirable behavior, what is undesirable but tolerated, and what is unacceptable. Cultures define values, status, and punishments for their people. This is all learned, but without anyone specifically teaching it. Everyone absorbs their culture every day through thousands of comments, jokes, images, whispers, styles, gossip, accusations, praise for heroes, disparaging remarks for villains, and social punishments for those who violate the values or the power structure of the culture.
A Family Culture of Blame A Culture of Blame from Day One: High-conflict parents (especially borderlines and narcissists, as described in Chapter One) naturally split people into “all-good” and “all-bad.” From birth, children of HCPs learn about this. For example, Aunt Mary has been the HCP’s favorite sister for many years. But then she goes on a trip and doesn’t invite the HCP. The HCP is offended and sees Aunt Mary now as “all-bad.” The children learn to take the HCP’s side against Aunt Mary, and this calms down the HCP parent.
Then, the HCP gets in a dispute with the neighbor. The children know what to do. It’s automatic. And the other parent, who may not be an HCP, has also learned that you don’t argue with an angry HCP when he or she is splitting people into all-good or all-bad. If you do argue with splitting, then YOU become a target and treated as all-bad too. So the children have learned the family Culture of Blame: The HCP parent is unpredictable and frightening. This parent’s intense anger and blame can flare up at any moment. The family solution with an HCP parent is usually to tolerate and adapt to this inappropriate behavior - until it becomes intolerable.
Most families don’t have this Culture of Blame within the family. But for HCPs, it’s all about family – the hated people are usually those they used to love, because of splitting. The people they are preoccupied with the most are usually close family members, such as the other parent, one of the children (often HCPs treat one child as “all-good” and another as “all-bad”), one of the grandparents, or other relatives. The children are used to disliking and criticizing one or more of their family members.
So it’s a natural progression to absorb the HCP’s emotions about the other parent in a divorce. The child doesn’t have to be given any instructions. The whole family culture has been doing this for years – including the HCP’s relatives. And the non-HCP parent has learned to tolerate it, so the children learn to tolerate it too. It’s contagious and mostly non-verbal.
Right and Left Brains The human brain is divided into a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. Each of these “brains” process different information at the same time. The left hemisphere is active in processing language, words and details. When the left hemisphere is working on solving a problem, you may be conscious of thinking about it. The left brain is more active with problem-solving tasks and planning for the future.
The right hemisphere is more focused on the big picture, non-verbal behavior, and people’s moods. It is very attentive to other people’s tone of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. If someone in your environment is especially angry or fearful, your right brain will pick up this anger and fear, and your body may tense up before you consciously know why.
For the first three years of life, children’s right brains are dominant and developing rapidly, in comparison to their left brains. This means that they are learning every- thing based primarily on their parents’ tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and the emotional messages they are constantly sending out. They become highly familiar with their parent’s regulation of their own emotions and their general level of peacefulness or anxiety.
They learn what triggers anxiety in their parent and what calms them down. This is all learned before they really understand language. Their parent’s body language is really all they need to know. They learn the family’s Culture of Blame very quickly and thoroughly – and nonverbally and unconsciously.
With an HCP parent, blaming someone becomes natural. Children quickly learn who’s powerful and who’s not in their family culture. They learn whose moods dominate everyone else’s behavior. It’s natural to want to be on the winning side – for survival. Children are on the road to becoming alienated against several people in their lives well before their parents split up. They are also at high risk of becoming HCPs themselves.
The Family Court Culture of Blame Family courts are not designed to understand the hidden dynamics of parent-child relationships. This makes sense when you consider that family courts have the same basic structure of all courts, which are focused on individuals. There is a plaintiff (someone who has been injured) and a defendant (the one who is accused of causing the injury). Since 1970, all states have adopted “no fault” divorce laws, which say that it is improper to even consider who is to blame for the divorce. It has become a hybrid structure – it’s designed for two sides to blame each other proving or defending against the finding of fault. However, you are not allowed to find fault for the reason for the divorce. Therefore, other issues become the focus of fault-finding.
When the issues of child support and spousal support first were getting decided in the no-fault system, the parties would argue over how each other spent money. But then states adopted a system of guidelines, which eliminated most of the blaming arguments about how each parent spent money. The same sort of guidelines were developed for property and asset division.
Parenting, on the other hand, is a wide-open potential battle ground over who is “all- good” and who is “all-bad.” With the court’s modern concern to prevent or reduce child abuse and domestic violence, allegations of abuse get a lot of attention and influence almost every aspect of the case. The result of all of this is that family courts still model, tolerate and often encourage high-conflict behavior. Family courts have a Culture of Blame, unless the professionals involved work hard to overcome it. This can include lawyers, counselors, mediators and judges. Ways to overcome this Culture of Blame for each of these professionals will be addressed in Part 2 of this book.
What is important to note here is that the blaming behavior of family law professionals is contagious when it comes to HCPs. Parents know very little about the realities of family court. Movies, TV shows and the news give a distorted view of how family court judges make decisions and the procedures that are involved. Therefore, parents follow the professionals’ lead in managing their cases. Even when many parents do not have lawyers, they still observe the behavior of all the professionals at court and absorb their behavior. They are role models of high-conflict or low-conflict behavior.
When HCP parents become involved in the family court process, they are extremely vulnerable to the thinking, emotions and behaviors around them. As HCP parents, they generally have difficulty managing their own emotions, especially under stress, often because they never had secure attachments from which to learn this. Further, their unmanaged emotions are easily hooked by other people’s anger, criticism, blame, sadness and anxiety. Their emotional controls and boundaries are weak. This means that when someone blames them for misbehavior, or gets angry at them or shares intense fear with them – they pass it directly on to their children.
This emotional contagion can also go directly from the child to parent to professional, as reports are made of inappropriate behavior with the child, large or small. If the professional cannot contain his or her own upset emotions, then he or she gets emotionally hooked and passes anger, fear, frustration, hatred, and so forth right back at the parent, who passes these emotions directly back to the children. It is right brain emotions transferring to right brain emotions, without either person realizing it. This emotional feedback loop easily drives blaming behavior and splitting.
The longer a high-conflict case goes, the more people involved, the more frustration there is without resolution, the more likely it is that the professionals’ frustration and the HCP parent’s extreme stress, fear and anger will pass directly to the children. It’s as if the children were there in every room with their HCP parent during every conversation about the court case with every other professional. The child absorbs the judge’s angry statements, the lawyers’ angry statements, the other professionals’ angry statements, family and friends’ angry statements. The entire family court culture usually blames someone – and when it’s one of the child’s parents, it seems to become an irresistible force which almost no child has the ability to resist.
HCP parents often raise allegations of abuse or alienation at the beginning of a case. This parent often requests that the court restrict the other parent’s involvement with the children. This escalates as legal professionals attack one parent, then the other. Un- fortunately, the family court structure allows this “all-bad” parent and “all-good” parent contest, with lots of emotion and many extreme behaviors – all justified by what the other parent “has done.” This immediately escalates the case into high conflict, lots of anger and emphasis on determining which parent is to blame for the child’s abuse or alienation. Deciding which parent is to blame fits right in with the court Culture of Blame. But this adversarial process of deciding which parent to blame is not the solution - it’s the problem! It helps build a Wall of Alienation.
Our Society’s Culture of Blame This “1000 Little Bricks” theory goes even further to include the increasingly negative and blaming culture of today’s news and entertainment industries, which bombard children with images of fear and blame every day. They promote the idea that children live in an incredibly dangerous world surrounded by “all-bad” people everywhere they go.
Developing an absolute fear of a parent fits easily into this Culture of Blame. After all, when something goes wrong, the headlines scream “Who do you blame for this sorry situation?” The constant message is that it’s all one person’s fault and we just need to eliminate that person from the planet. These industries teach children to be in a constant state of fear and over-reaction, and to seek extreme solutions to problems.
This Culture of Blame has filtered down to our court system, with numerous TV shows now about using the courts for blame and vindication. Many HCPs now come to court expecting a stage for parents, family, friends, and professionals to blame others. There’s all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors: “It’s ALL her fault! She’s an unfit mother!” or “It’s ALL his fault! He’s an abusive father.”
Rather than trying to change real behavior problems, the focus has become “Who do you blame?” and then trying to eliminate that bad parent from the children’s lives. That’s what high-conflict divorce is often about. It’s not about problem-solving – it’s mostly about attempts to eliminate parents and cling to children.
In today’s modern world, we have 24-hour news cycles which focus on extreme behavior and “who do you blame” for it. Extreme behavior sells. TV, movies and news media know that the more extreme the programming, the better it is at getting viewers’ attention. Our brains are wired to pay attention to extreme behavior. And viewer attention is important in order to sell the advertiser’s products.
With more competition among TV stations, cable and the internet, companies that aren’t extreme in their programming will go out of business. Therefore, what sells is all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior – the key ingredients for developing personality disorders.
This is all role-modeling for children who already live in a shaky world. This isn’t all it takes to build anxiety and alienation, but it appears to be a contributing factor when combined with a family Culture of Blame and a family court Culture of Blame. Our society cannot survive with this type of unchecked conflict behavior by so many people. We must learn to restrain ourselves – to restrain our blaming instincts. Our brains appear to be wired for intense blaming and splitting to give us energy and group cohesion during wartime. But our families, family courts and larger daily lives shouldn’t be war zones. Today they are, in many cases.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.