Compliant Children of Divorce: Unwanted Lessons Learned

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Compliant Children of Divorce: Unwanted Lessons Learned

It is nothing new to remind the reader that children of divorce are learning some very important lessons through the role modeling of their separating parents. Children of divorce probably watch their parents lead by example more closely than the general population of children. Why? Because they simply do not know what to do, what to say, or how to feel. They may have heard the word “divorce”, but may have very limited internal resources with which they can make sense of the concept. They are in the midst of a family breakdown over which they have no control and no idea of how bad the breakdown might ultimately become.

As a mental health professional, I worry  less about the children who “act-out” during their parents’ divorce. These kids get the attention, albeit negatively, and parents are more likely to recognize the cry for help. I worry much more about children who “act-in” and, as a result, the parents mistakenly think are fine.

Here are some very subtle and unwanted lessons compliant children of divorce are at risk to learn:

“I should contain my upset. My mother/father is really upset and I am afraid that my being mad, sad or scared will be the last straw. If I seem to be fine, my parents won’t be more upset and so I won’t be left.” Children who learn the unwanted lesson of holding in their own feelings are at risk for future depression, anxiety and difficulty in making healthy attachments.

“I should act like nothing is wrong and I am okay. If my parents think it is okay to break up our family and divorce each other, I will just divorce myself.” Some children of divorce go beyond repressing their own legitimate anger and sadness and actually “break away” from or deny their own unique family experience. This sets them up to live in a distorted reality that they can perpetuate into adulthood.

“When they ask me if I am okay, I will just say ‘yes’. When they ask me if anything is wrong, I will just say ‘no’. They hardly pay any attention to how I’m truly feeling anyway. I may not be very important to them.” This unwanted lesson teaches the child that he/she is not very lovable. A wounded self-concept can carry forward into the child’s own adult relationships where they are either neglected or treated poorly.

When children of divorce become tentative and resistant to discuss the pain they feel about the shift in their family, they may be struggling with feeling ashamed that their parents are breaking up. The feeling of shame is an overwhelming emotional burden for a young child to face and resolve. As a result, these kids develop a style of communication that is guarded and limited. This wall of defense temporarily protects the compliant child. The challenge is that deferred feelings are just that. They don’t go away just because the child is denying them. Sooner or later these unpleasant feelings will arise and more than likely, come out “sideways” through other problems: drug and alcohol abuse, insomnia; poor academic performance, running with the wrong crowd, bad love relationships, suicidal thinking, criminal behavior…just to name a few.

Please consider seeking the support of a Collaborative Child Specialist who can offer uncoupling parents valuable insight into the compliant child’s experience. Pay attention to the child of divorce who appears to be and acts like he/she is just fine. They may be learning some unwanted lessons which will not serve them well on their journey through life.

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9/11 Still an Issue a Decade Later

Here is a blog I wrote last year. It still rings true and it deserves repeating. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Carol Tosone is an associate professor of social work at NYU. Carol lived and worked through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and has become very interested in Second-Hand Shock. She shared in an interview that she is still “spooked” by the sound of airplanes since that tragic day.

Carol was curious if other social workers and mental health providers who treated 9/11 victims shared her experience of vicarious trauma, so she polled 500 helping professionals who worked in Midtown and Lower Manhattan during the attacks. She found that many of our heroes are still suffering. Her survey is an empirical testimony that many helping professionals share trauma with the people they are treating.

Tosone’s survey is being replicated in New Orleans among clinicians who counseled flood survivors. These clinical studies will help prepare social workers and other helping professionals who work in disasters and other traumatic situations to recognize and treat their own natural trauma responses. “We need to refortify clinicians,” said Tosone, who is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Can you imagine that helping professionals and other caring witnesses are still suffering trauma responses a decade after the 9/11 tragedy? That certainly speaks to how insidious the effects of vicarious trauma can be! It also demonstrates a saddening lack of compassion and absence of resources for our heroes. Probably these heroes have been suffering with all types of unpleasant symptoms and they may have attributed these symptoms to other causes as a result of public apathy to their plight.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma or Second-Hand Shock run parallel with Post Traumatic Stress disorder and include:

  • negative emotions;
  • frequently feeling “on edge”;
  • existential upset that includes a negative world-view;
  • disruption in memory
  • intrusive imagery, including nightmares or recurring visualizations;
  • emotional numbing;
  • inability to tolerate strong emotions or hypersensitivity to emotionally charged content, such as seen in movies or television;
  • feeling anxious or worried for family members;
  • avoidance or “checking out” from the traumatic experience;
  • physical illnesses;
  • isolation and loss of ability to enjoy meaningful activities; and,
  • feelings of incompetence.

It is imperative for our heroes to be given the time and space to debrief and regroup after suffering Second-Hand Shock. The Rapid Advance Process is an effective technique that helps the helper to move out of the flight or fight reaction and back into their higher thinking which promotes a sense of inner peace and well-being.

I find it to be ironic that many helping professionals work so diligently to reduce the stigma around maintaining mental health, yet they may be falling prey to the same faulty thinking when it comes to their own welfare. It is long overdue for us to normalize the concept that helpers are negatively affected by listening to trauma content stories while they control their empathic responses. As we work together to raise public awareness, we build a safe environment for our heroes to seek the relief they so greatly deserve. I thank Carol Tosone for her work and her dedication to the helping professions.

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Suicide and the Client Who Never Was

This week was especially filled with work-related trauma. A potential client left two messages on my voice mail, politely requesting an appointment. I returned both of his calls, but he did not answer his phone and so I left messages.  In his voice mail to me, he did not say he was in crisis; he did not request an immediate appointment; he did not share that he needed to talk to me as soon as possible. He simply identified himself and kindly asked for me to call him back and I did. The second time I returned his call, I intuitively left a message offering him an appointment time; something I rarely do before I have personally connected with a new, perspective client. Later that evening I found out from the referring professional that he had committed suicide.

I do not know this person. I have never met him. I do not know his circumstances. All I know of him is his is simple voice mail and his subsequent suicide. First I went through my own selfish mad ramblings: “I could have saved his life”; “I did not get back to him in enough time”, “It must be my fault that this happened”. After a few minutes of this harsh self-centered talk, I realized I was in the trauma reaction called Miracle-Worker Reverie as a result of this tragic event. But that’s about me and will probably be addressed in another Mad Ramblings Blog.

Right now, I want to speak to the client who never was and everyone he represents. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please remember that suicidal thinking is the result of being in an extreme shame attack. The suffering person is usually grappling with challenging life-issues or events that provide a context of seeing oneself as unlovable and worthless. The suicidal person believes that everyone he/she knows, including themselves, would be better off if they were dead. The struggle with this tidal wave of shame becomes crushing, as it overtakes its victim and ultimately ebbs into a silently-deafening rage turned on oneself. While I know basically nothing about this man, I do know that he lost his struggle to shame.

No one should ever have to feel that bad.

What’s tragic about all this is that shame can be healed. We need to remember that at times “it is darkest right before the dawn”. No matter what level of despair we may feel at certain low points in our lives, we still have options and choices for healing. Sometimes in life we find ourselves in circumstances that bring us to our knees in suffering, so that we may rise to a level of higher thinking and mental health. It is our responsibility to take the time we need to explore and discover that there are many healing paths out of our emotional pain. Please see below for some suicide resources. Please pass them along. Thank you.

Suicide: Read This First

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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Road to Resilience Can Be Rocky

Resilience is coined as the ability to bounce back after experiencing adverse life conditions. Ironically, attending and graduating from the “School of Hard Knocks” plays a key role in how a person learns to become resilient. Studies show that many kids who grew up in adverse living conditions seem to demonstrate a richer depth of resilience in adulthood.

Resilient people tend to have experienced numerous challenges in the course of their development and have come out the other side. Resilient people have traveled the rocky road of life and have managed to either keep their balance or pick themselves up when they have tripped and fallen. This skill set actually works best when it is internalized early in human development.

Ultimately, it seems to me, resilience is best described as an evolved and inwardly dynamic quality.  If an individual has an internal mechanism for accessing their higher thinking, they can connect to dynamics such as faith in themselves, courage and hope for the future. They are able to tap into the resilience that quietly rests in the recesses of the higher mind until needed and then they become proactive during times of difficulty and oppression. The Rapid Advance Process, outlined and practiced in the Just Stop! series of books can provide the pathway to the resilient mind.

Interaction with your “inner critic”  is the launching pad for how resilient you will be in the face of adversity. Always stay conscious of your “inner voice” that is constantly chattering away. One’s ability to overcome difficult circumstances is directly linked to this internal dialogue.  When events become overwhelming, when fight, flight or freeze brain chemicals surge, when things go wrong, resilience can emerge as the capacity to still find the faith, determination and reason to cope, despite all odds and more often than not, help an individual to create ways to get through. Scientifically, this includes driving your neurological firing away from the danger center of your mid-brain to the upper left hemisphere, where positive emotions and rational thinking take place so that hope for improvement and a plan to get there will prevail.

Work on building the following resiliency skills:

1. Clarify your values.
Hard times usually offer an opportunity to clarify one’s values. Resilient people know the difference between a disappointment and a tragedy. Resilient people learn to ask themselves “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” If you really think about it, things are not as important as we give often them the power to be. Did you lose your job?  There are a myriad of emerging job markets. Getting a divorce? Yes, it is painful, but are you doing things that help you find your true power and strength?  Fighting with a friend? That hurts too. But if the relationship is worth anything, the willingness to have a peaceful interaction will usually get you to some type of resolution. Having financial problems in a tough economy? It’s a problem, sure. But it’s a problem that can usually be solved with some planning and diligence.

2. Build and maintain a network of caring people.
Tough times usually help us to recognize who are our true friends. Build upon this network of authentic people. Be present for others who are needing to tap into their resilience and they will be present for you when you could use some help. Resilient people make the effort to stay connected and to be on the giving as well as receiving end of the relationship. They are the kind of people who will offer up a useful referral, who call when they hear about something that is challenging someone, who write quick emails and take a second to check in with a struggling person. They make themselves available for someone who is sick and they are present during someone’s dark days. They are the people who manage to have breakfast now and then with a friend or bring goodies for folks in the office. This isn’t about “kissing up.” This is about rising above the level of a typical fair-weather friend. Good friends help each other through tough times. Who they are becomes truly obvious in the face of adversity. Nurture those relationships.

3. Practice mindfulness.
Resilient people can find their “center” and stay balanced during turbulent times. A resilient person is someone who finds a useful way to understand even the most difficult obstacle or hurt. Dealing with a painful event mindfully can help make us stronger. Suffering can help us develop compassion for others. A set-back may in fact pave the way for something better to happen. Does this sound like a bit much? …Fake it til you make it.

4. Develop your sense of humor.
Resilient people can appreciate the comedy frequently inherent in tragedy. Even dark comedy can make us laugh. When all else fails, resilient people can laugh at themselves.

5. Give other people some slack.
Resilient people set realistic expectations of themselves and others. They understand that people aren’t always their best selves when stressed, or hurt, or dealing with trauma. Their reaction when someone upsets them is more often curiosity than anger. Before cutting someone off or out, they want to know the facts and gather more information. They are patient and excellent listeners to the other person’s perspective And they want to work with the other person to make things right again.

6. Make a plan.
Finally, resilient people aren’t upset by change. In fact, they often use it to spring into action. Change is their impetus to create a plan. Resilient people proactively gather information, brainstorm their options and commit to a combination of possibilities that will help their situation to improve. They are open to thinking outside of the box.

Most of these skills may seem obvious to you. Learn the five steps of the Rapid Advance Process outlined in our Just Stop! series so that you can build and strengthen your resilience. The additional self-confidence that results is invaluable as you continue your journey down the rocky road called life.

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Bin Laden a Has-Been in a Culture of Trauma

I found it very interesting that President Obama opened his speech last evening, announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden, by giving us a detailed recap of the overwhelming terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11/2001. How many of us were vicariously brought right back to that traumatic day that changed our lives forever? Our Second-Hand Shock, re-triggered by the President’s speech, helps us to embrace the death of Bin Laden as necessary justice for the horror we experienced on that fateful day.

We first remember to honor our heroes who worked diligently and risked their lives to bring terrorism to atonement. Their sacrifice to uphold righteousness and integrity is held in the highest regard. We honor them for protecting us and the freedoms we hold so dear.

I am certain there is intrinsic value in remembering the trauma of September 11th and as well,  there is some form of healing closure by virtue of “justice” being done. Unfortunately, within minutes of the announcement, there springs up warnings of a new generation of terrorist leaders rising in Bin Laden’s wake with threats of repercussion and more terror to follow. How sad it is that we, as a culture, are given practically no time at all to heal from the Second-Hand Shock we have been harboring for ten years. The “media-in an-instant” is already onto the next chapter in trauma by focusing on new scary things to come.

Let’s take some time off from the trauma culture in which we live and solemnly respect the losses we have incurred, the pain we have experienced and the heroes who have either risked or sacrificed their lives for us. Have we become desensitized to the internal torment that has become part of our daily experience because of threatening circumstances like terrorism? Let’s lead by setting a global example for peace by focusing for a few minutes in silence, stillness, and introspection.

Justice may have been done and we may have fought the good fight; but according to the news, Bin Laden is already a has-been and we will need to brace ourselves for whatever comes next. It looks like our heroes will have to gear up for the next challenge. In the meantime, let’s all come down from our own Second-Hand Shock and take a few relaxing breaths to calm our minds and protect our inner well-being.