From the Therapist's Desk


The research tells us that exposure to even chronic traumatic events, like an entrenched Family Court battle, does not have to predict a negative outcome! What predicts a negative outcome is how we think about and talk about the event(s). For a child, what predicts a negative outcome is how parents teach them to think about and talk about traumatic events.

In other words, resilience can be taught. We can learn how to be less negative, less emotionally reactive and extreme. The key is in what we tell ourselves -- and our children -- about experiences, emotions, and thoughts in response to a potentially traumatic event.

When we are children, we process emotions in this order: feel, act, talk, think. As adults, hopefully, we have learned to process emotions in this order: feel, think, talk, act. Emotional development including emotional intelligence is a complex and long-term project! The two most important jobs for parents beyond basic safety and security are guiding our children in the development of self-soothing and self-control skills.

Parents teach children how to respond to stress and to the unexpected. For example, parents who rush to the aid of a child every time they fuss or cry, who make every fall, bump and bruise catastrophic will probably raise children who are not very confident and not very resilient. The child learns that discomfort means emergency. Discomfort means threat, danger, loss. Emergency = anxiety and fear. Action = flight or fight.

Parents who hear the fuss or cry, or see the fall - - and wait to see what happens next - - are more likely to raise a competent, confident, and resilient child. Why?

The first parent rushes to the child, stress on their face and in their voice and exclaim: ARE YOU OKAY? ARE YOU OKAY? ARE YOU HURT?

The second parent probably stays where they are, face calm, voice tone calm, waits a little bit, and says: You're okay. You're okay. You're fine.

The first parent has intervened in the child's own processing of the experience so quickly and with such intensity that the child probably didn't even have a chance to notice his or her own reaction to the event. Instead the child is likely to take on the parent's perception: I'm hurt, this is awful, I can't take care of myself, I'm not in control.

The second parent allows the child to have his or her own experience of the event. Hmmmm. What happened? How does that feel? Am I okay? Mom/Dad seems to think I'm fine. Am I fine? Huh! I guess I am okay. I can do this. This isn't so bad. I can figure this out.

In a difficult family break up and challenging family restructuring, parents have multiple opportunities to teach their children how to process chronic stress. Some high conflict coparenting struggles are so prolonged and intense that the child grows up in the equivalent of a war zone with armed conflict (intense verbal and sometimes physical battles between Mom and Dad) and the equivalent of Improvised Explosive Devices (litigation maneuvers, CPS reports, disparaging declarations, false or exaggerated allegations) as the back drop to life.

If parents are immature and undeveloped, without mature self-soothing and self-control skills, it is impossible to help children develop those skills.We cannot teach what we have not learned.

Parents must learn to frame adversity as a challenge, not as a disaster. Parents can then become more flexible, more likely to face the challenge, deal with it, learn from it, grow and move on with more skills and more depth and more understanding. Parents then model and teach these vital competencies to their children.

Hannah's House offers a full range of therapy and coaching programs through the Transitions Family Program and the Bridges Family Program. Transitions offers comprehensive therapy services specifically developed for parents and children involved in Family Court. Bridges designs home and community based coaching and other support services to meet the needs of all families coping with the challenges of a family break-up.