I believe that contagious emotions are far more powerful in children’s lives than anything that a parent or professional could say.
These emotions are passed back and forth between parents and children, and professionals and parents throughout high-conflict family court cases. It is amazing that more children don’t catch these emotions – or maybe they do. But there’s also good news. Positive emotions are also contagious! A smile. A laugh. A friendly hug. This is the stuff that helps give children resilience. The big issue is finding ways to give children more positive emotions about the other parent than negative emotions.
Marriage researchers, John and Julie Gottman, say that even in healthy marriages people say negative things and show negative emotions. But they are far outweighed by positive statements and positive emotions – perhaps 5 to 1. So when a parent, or a professional, or anyone says something intensely negative about a child’s parent, it is very important to balance it with many more positive statements and emotions.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) is a program for parents who have been physically abusive with their children. Their research shows that abusive parents generally don’t say more negative comments to their children. The difference is that they don’t say positive comments and express positive emotions. The program PCIT teaches parents how to say positive comments on a regular basis, which helps the children improve their behavior a lot.
Here’s what some adult children said mattered to them in looking back on their parents’ divorce, in follow-up research by Constance Ahrons (2004):
Get rid of your hostility, or mask it if you can’t. Don’t cut your spouse down. Don’t attack the other parent’s treatment of the children. Also don’t talk poorly about your ex spouse – no matter if it kills you. Your children lose a lot of respect for you if you do that. And, put yourself in your kids’ shoes. For your children’s sake, bite your tongue, don’t say anything bad about the other parent. Keep the problems away from the children.
As a child, I really looked up to both my parents, and when one of them would say something bad about the other, it would put me in the position of agreeing and thinking something bad about the other parent, or disagreeing and putting me in conflict with the parent. That’s hard for parents to do, but I think it’s really important.
It’s all a question of the bricks we are using, since they are all contagious. Are we mostly using the bad “wall” bricks of unmanaged, negative emotions? Or are we balancing out the occasional bad brick with many more positive, managed emotions? It’s up to all of us in the children’s environment. They may absorb it all!
Excerpt from Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Published by HCI Press