Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

            Previously, I discussed Reactive Narcissistic Behavior (RNB).  This phenomenon is often seen when a parent going through a marital or other breakup acts selfishly.   Since they are acutely consumed with anger, they can only see their actions from a very narrow perspective.  This emotional tunnel vision can distort a person’s reality and keep them from seeing the effects of their behavior and decisions on others, especially on the child.  My previous discussion focused more on the expression of anger in front of children, as well as litigating every last detail of parenting time, trying to marginalize the other parent, etc.  But what about parental insecurity?  Where does that come from?  How is it manifested?  Is it destructive?  How does the narcissistic parent use your insecurity against you?  And what can be done to guard against it?

Sources of Parental Insecurity:

            When a couple are working as a parental team, at best, they support each other.  They do not disagree on discipline or rules in front of the child.  They do not tolerate disrespect by the child against the other parent.  They work together and discuss parenting strategies in private, when the children are already asleep.  They do not play good cop-bad cop.  They do not criticize the other parent to the child.  They do not allow the child to manipulatively come between the adults. 

            Conversely, the insecure parent has huge worries, especially in a divorce situation.  The insecure parent may have pre-existing, underlying self esteem and abandonment issues which will feed the insecurity.  The thought process might go somewhat like this:  What if the child gets angry with me and sides with the other parent? What if that happens and the child stops loving me, or becomes closer to the other parent? Then the other parent “wins”.  This can drive the behavior that will ultimately prove self defeating to that parent.  But fear of abandonment and the effort to avoid it is a powerful motivator.

Abandonment issues usually stem from early in a child’s development.  A child perhaps was not properly cared for, was not properly nurtured, or a parent died or left home, or rejected the family and was episodically distant, or was abusive or an alcoholic, etc.   Some adults with this early developmental trauma may experience devastating emotional reactions triggered by a current real or perceived rejection, criticism, argument, etc.  It may feel intolerable, nightmarish and overwhelming, because during early childhood, that is what it was then. A current rejection can bring back all of those childhood emotions in a flood.  The fear of experiencing those (expected) emotions can drive a person’s behavior in a self-defeating or even self destructive direction.  A person with abandonment issues will tend to be overly solicitous and overly indulgent of a child whose rejection is feared.  It can also result in that parent being emotionally or physically abusive to the rejecting child.

            The insecure parent (or any person, for that matter) with generally low self esteem expects rejection and failure.  He or she often works overtime to get the approval of others and is usually super-sensitive to signs of rejection or abandonment from any significant person. That person has what you might call “abandonment radar”. The insecure parent with low self esteem or fear of abandonment will work harder, do more, spend more and basically never say no to their child, because the risks are too great.  The child could become enraged and reject that parent.  That child (spoiled, overindulged, etc.) could potentially refuse to go for parenting time with that parent.  The insecure parent worries that the other parent (who is no longer their friend) will be more attractive or fun than he (or she).   The other parent may conversely be narcissistic and angry.  The reactive narcissistic behavior of the angry parent may motivate that parent to sway that child with things, bribes, incentives, etc.  For example, if I wanted to make my child favor me, I might be more prone to give that child (a 9 year-old) their first cell phone (of course, an iPhone), a Wii, a plasma TV in their bedroom, a trip to Disney, and the list is endless.  A narcissistic, angry and vindictive parent might be motivated to alienate their child from the other parent (because he’s a jerk, or she’s a  shrew [rhymes with witch]) just to “win”.  So the incentives, bribes and inappropriately huge gifts keep coming.  The insecure parent can counter with their own version of parent of the year.  That insecure parent can also go out and buy this 9 year old an iPad (she already has an iPhone), a new bedroom set, a second plasma TV (bigger than the one at the other parent’s house) and a trip to Florida (Disney of course).  Both parents therefore fall into a pattern of competition for the child’s love and attention—all based on things, how many things can be purchased, how many things can be put into the child’s bedroom, how many things they can do on vacations, etc.  Love becomes all about things and money rather than about love and consistent parenting. 

            In short, this combination of parents: one angry and vindictive, and the other insecure and feeling out-spent by the other parent can lead a child into an undesirable dynamic of dysfunctional parent-child interactions.  Children in this scenario become confused, demanding and angry themselves.  Sometimes one parent won’t let their child bring things the other parent purchased for them into the other parent’s house.  So that child learns that it is not ok for them to love the other parent, to receive gifts and love from the other parent.  The angry, narcissistic, vindictive parent does what he/she can to squash the other parent’s relationship with the child by being the big spender, the hero, the one who “provides” everything to the child.  The insecure parent is always playing catch up and may even go into debt, spend money he/she doesn’t have on the child, take lavish vacations that they cannot afford, and generally work too hard to keep the child’s attention and love.  The child becomes aware of that parent’s insecurity and becomes manipulative. The child learns that he/she can control the insecure parent with pouting, threats of going to the other parent, by being demanding and frankly, spoiled.  It does not make that child a better person.  It will, depending on the child’s age, affect that child’s later relationships and with life partners and subsequent children.  It does damage, possibly lifelong.

Interventions and Possible Solutions:

            Unfortunately, divorcing parents are not usually very interested in shoring up the other parent’s status in the eyes of their child.  This is a time of mistrust, of adversarial interactions (overt and covert), and sabotage for many.  It is not good, but it is common. How can a caring parent recognize what is happening and do something about it to
protect their child from being torn apart by the parental competition?

Court Ordered:
            First, some State Courts have requirements that parents who file for divorce also attend a parental education seminar.  This is the case in New Jersey where I practice, and is also available in many other states.  In this two hour seminar, divorcing parents are given information about the effects of divorce on children, sometimes with lectures and video presentations.  These are sobering and educational for parents who have no idea what to expect.  For parents who engage in ongoing battles that surface in the Court, Judges will often order them to attend other programs.  For example, in New Jersey there is a seminar called “Children in the Middle” which is self explanatory.  Sometimes Judges will order a parent or both parents to go for psychotherapy or be evaluated by a mental health professional if the dysfunctional behavior becomes disruptive or is obviously hurting the child.  But these are external bandaid interventions that cannot change a person’s personality.  They are mostly educational and hopefully the attending parent will take the advice to heart and try their best to follow the sound advice they are receiving.  But what can an individual person do in a scenario like this?

Self-Managed Interventions; What a Parent Can Do Now:
            A concerned parent who has a relatively civil relationship with their estranged spouse/partner should try to communicate as to a joint plan to effectively help their child with the impending dissolution process.  At times, both parents will seek out a counselor to assist them, or for the child to receive counseling to provide support during an anticipated difficult time.  An individual parent who is insecure and feeling potentially estranged from their own child should seek out a licensed mental health professional to identify why they feel this way, to identify the reasons for their feelings, and to receive professional interventions or strategies to cope effectively with their feelings and thoughts about their situation. 
            This may be a good time for a divorcing parent to begin psychotherapy to deal with lifelong problems that were swept under the rug, or which the individual has been struggling with for years.  Now that a divorce or relationship breakup is happening, it will acutely exacerbate the pre-existing traumas, insecurities and emotional issues for that parent.  Emotional reactions can become debilitating, such as with severe depression, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, eating disorders and substance abuse appearing (or recurring).  Behavior worsens and it becomes more difficult to rationally parent a child, with judgment clouded by emotional pain and self-indulgent attempts to feel better.  An emotionally healthy person is going to be a better parent.  One cannot effectively parent a child while drowning in personal suffering and behavioral acting out.  Feelings of insecurity during divorce are not unusual, but it is a matter of degree and self-control.  If the feelings persist, however, and adult behavior changes as a result of it, and if the parent’s interactions with the child become driven by an unhealthy need to gain the child’s love, approval and attention, then it is time to seek professional advice.  The other parent, who may (or may not be) reactively narcissistic, angry and vindictive, may not ever have the insight to know to seek professional help. You can’t wait for that to happen. That parent, in stark contrast to the insecure parent, feels indignant, entitled, powerful and self-righteous.  There is a sense of entitlement and he/she makes unilateral decisions for the child which may tend to marginalize you and helping you to  feel distant from your child.  That parent won’t seek help unless the Court orders it.  But you can do something right now, not waiting for things to get worse.  You can begin with self-help and not expend  inappropriately huge efforts to "win over" the child.  Of course, legal interventions are sometimes necessary.  But an unhappy, anxious and insecure person makes for a less effective parent.   That can potentially be changed and improved-upon with counseling.   

            Psychotherapy and counseling is much less expensive than litigation, and your child will not later thank you for all of the legal interventions you initiated.  Finally, it is important, as I have said previously, that the children in a divorce be kept as insulated as possible from the litigation process, from your feelings about their other parent, and from your own feelings about your own life.  Your child should not be made to feel like a therapist or parent to you.  Your child should not be made to feel guilty or responsible for your depression or for your happiness.  It is very important to recognize your own manipulative behavior toward your child, through guilt trips, bribes and diatribes against their other parent, if you are doing that.  These are all things you can work on, possibly with professional assistance if necessary.  At the very least, attend self-help groups or seminars in the community, designed to educate divorcing parents as to the best child-rearing techniques and best approaches to help children adjust to this traumatic time in their lives.  Don't wait for the Court to order you to attend.  And don't wait for your spouse to do this for you to begin.  That time may never come.  You can only control your own actions and your own life.  No one can take that away from you.  And you have to be in control of your life and of your emotions to be an effective parent.

It is important to remember that you already established a bond with your child which is not easily broken by another person’s efforts.  If a parent campaigns against the other with nasty comments about that parent, the offending parent will suffer later when the child lashes out against him/her for saying bad things about their other parent--you--who they also love. It may not happen for another ten years, but it will happen.   Act as if you are confident and calm, even if you are not.  Your emotions will catch up later.  It is important to be consistent, to be the adult with your child, to be the parent, and to set realistic and appropriate limits with the child.  You can and should say “no” to a child when appropriate, and you might have to apply appropriate consequences for misbehavior or defiant behavior.  Your child will be temporarily  unhappy with you, but you still have to say “no”.  The child will get over it if you are being a confident parent, not an abusive raging parent, but a parent.  Being overly permissive, overly punitive, or unsure about setting limits will lead to tantrums, acting out and disrespect.  You may need help with this, but you can get better at it if you try.  Just start by having the insight to know that you need help because you are not feeling in control of your emotions and of your relationship with your child.  Later, if you do the work, you will feel better about yourself and you will ultimately have a better relationship with your child.  Good luck.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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