Feelings are contagious and this includes anxiety passed from the coParent to the child. It is important for parents to learn to calm their own emotions, for the sake of the child.
If a child is too anxious, they may not wish to attend school. Recent research on “school refusal” shows that it is a very similar problem to child alienation. Instead of refusing to go with a parent, the child refuses to go to school – also for vague reasons that don’t fit the situation.
Bridget, age 13, started refusing to go to school because she developed a fear that she would throw up in front of her classmates. Her parents were afraid that her anxiety would harm her, and when it was intense enough they let her stay home from school. They tried to convince her to go. When she went, they would text message with her all day at school to help her stay, and they would pick her up when she felt sick or too anxious.
Finally, after Bridget missed several weeks of school, her parents sought some help from a clinic associated with Brown University in Rhode Island. A psychologist with the program, C. Sloan Alday (2009), explains their approach to school refusal.
Commonly, parents believe that the school refusal is ‘just a phase’ that will pass. They may worry that experiencing extreme anxiety is somehow harmful to their child or fear that forcing their child to experience something unpleasant will permanently damage the parent-child relationship. Finally, parents often believe that anxiety is untreatable and permanent.
Because parents’ anxiety feeds children’s anxiety, an important step in treatment is helping parents manage their own anxiety…. [F]or parents who worry about harming the parent-child relationship by forcing the child to experience something unpleasant (such as attending school), family therapy must supplement any form of intervention. Parents need a safe and supportive place for exploring their concerns and understanding how their worries affect their child.
The clinic took a step by step approach to helping Bridget and her parents, starting with education about school refusal. Then, the parents were taught ways of setting firm limits for school attendance, Bridget was taught relaxation methods to manage her own anxiety, and they had family therapy sessions together.
After learning that anxiety was not dangerous or harmful to her and that anxiety would remit over time, they were more comfortable setting firm limits with her regarding school attendance. Through visualizing school scenarios and learning relaxation techniques, Bridget became more willing to attend school. The family learned cognitive behavioral techniques together, and Bridget’s parents began emphasizing that becoming sick at school was not in itself a catastrophic event.
Family therapy sessions focused on helping members feel secure in their relationships and accept negative feelings states, such as anxiety and anger, as tolerable parts of every family’s experience. Today Bridget attends school regularly with some periods of anxiety that she and her family are able to manage.
Fortunately, Bridget and her parents found professionals who understood this problem. Fortunately, it wasn’t in the context of a divorce and the parents were working together to help their daughter.
This example addresses the exact same issue which often escalates anger and fear in divorce cases – the issue of “forcing” a child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. In high-conflict divorce cases, it’s very common to hear parents, counselors and even judges saying “I won’t ‘force’ the child to spend time with the other parent.” I hear it so often that I have written handouts for parents and professionals about it.
After learning that anxiety was not harmful and would remit over time, they were more comfortable setting firm limits with her.
In one case, a counselor for two daughters who were seeing their father, but very little time each week, told them in their first session that he would “try to persuade the parents not to ‘force’ them to spend more time with their father.” I understand that he was trying to form a “therapeutic alliance” with them by starting where they were “at.” However, even after a year, he had not changed his position – nor had they. Eventually, the older daughter refused any visits with her father.
I suggest that it’s better to use the word “expect,” rather than the word “force.” We expect children to go to school, we expect them to go to the dentist, and we expect them not to take drugs and not to have sex. We find ways to make these things happen or ways to prevent them. Children need adults to look out for their best interests, which sometimes are different from what they “desperately want.”
Excerpt from Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Published by HCI Press