Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Owning your feelings improves child custody decisions - How Dr Phil got it wrong again

My most recent posting detailed my proposition that focusing responsibility in the domains of actions and attributions on oneself leads to better child custody outcomes. Today I follow that with the domain of feelings, how language affects that, and why one must take responsibility for his or her feelings.

Let me start by saying that there are no wrong feelings. However, there are norms that dictate whether actions taken in response to feelings are appropriate. Likewise, our cognition and processing of feelings are primarily dictated by conditioning through societal standards. Neither of those may be wholly correct nor in the best interest you or your children.

In helping parents cope with divorce and modify their behaviours to position themselves for the best parent-parent and parent-child relationships I ardently espouse the necessity of personal responsibility. Today I am continuing with a recent theme about the nuances of language and the efficacy of mindfulness in the deliberate mental constructions of utterances. Recently I have written about why arguing is important and asking for what you want. Now I continue on this theme by providing the basis for owning your feelings and how society is permeated by a cultural phenomena that embodies assigning our feelings to others.

Before seeking a favourable child custody decision or modification of a custody and parenting time order it is necessary for parents to understand how they contributed to the disposition of the current child custody order. In this cognitive approach, parents, like all people, are able to understand how they got themselves where they are through comprehending the consequences of their past decisions. The consequences that are unforeseen or unintended are the least likely to be attributed to self and, as such, are least likely to be modified without outside intervention. In addition to these impediments there is a cultural phenomenon in the West that prescribes our feelings to the control of outside forces. These unforeseen consequences and subsequent feelings may be assigned to fate, the whims of a mystical omnipotent being wrought with jealousy, or attributed to a confabulated conspiracy between those in opposition to our desires. While child custody battles are often an emotionally charged event they are constrained by rules of law. To absolve oneself from responsibility for personal feelings is to succumb to fate or those other abstractions. Basically, giving up control and leaving the decision to a legalistic crap shoot.

Pop psychologist Dr Phil has often raised my ire in the past with his populist feel-good instant one-size-fits-all proclamations, assessments, and advice. However, the human mind is complex. Our behaviours are a result of genetics, environment and, ultimately, our cognition. We are individuals. Few behavioural solutions can be applied ubiquitously. When I assist clients in creating their goals and developing the strategies for achieving those I do so after seeing the clients in their natural environment and after I have interacted with collateral sources. I do not have any formula capable of being applied universally. Each person and each therapy is unique. It is from this basis that I deplore most self-help books and pop psychology although some books can act as a good primer for individualized coaching. If those domains were universally effective then we who engaged in the practice of individual counseling would not have jobs. After all, is the effort necessary to read or watch and listen to someone speak an insurmountable task?

A basic maxim to accept when seeking to modify behaviour is to accept that feelings are an emotional response to stimuli. Stimuli enters our bodies through the visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, and touch senses. These stimuli are interpreted by the brain and correlated to past experience -- memories. This is how we can smell a ripe banana and simultaneously taste it. Likewise, some of us may smell a Turkey baking and feel anxious while others may feel a sense of warmth and comfort. These opposing emotional reactions could depend upon how, during childhood or recently, you experienced family gatherings and your anticipation of seeing that same family during Thanksgiving.

I hold no special animosity toward Dr Phil but, as he has the number one rated program, I find it more likely that you can recall specific episodes or relate what I am saying to his program. Recently I watched an episode about bullying loosely based upon the movie Mean Girls. Repeatedly Dr Phil probed the girls feelings with queries such as “How did that make you feel?” or “How do you think you made her feel?” Both of these support that Western phenomena I alluded to which absolves the individual of responsibility for his or her feelings. The truth is that we are incapable of making someone produce a feeling just as others are incapable of controlling our feelings -- unless we let them. Touch is not immune to this either. Two people can experience the same physical touch sensation yet one may feel pain while the other feels rapture. I do not feel pain. Instead I am mindful of the sensory input I receive. I feel sensations that may range from distention to flesh tearing which others may simply attribute to the generic ‘pain’.

Allowing your feelings to be influenced or controlled by others is to deny yourself freedom. Taking responsibility for your feelings gives you liberty. It provides greater choices and greater opportunities. Ultimately, by owning your feelings you are more likely to have a happy, fulfilled and emotionally stable life that produces better parent-parent relationships and what is the pinnacle goal -- a better parent-child relationship. This is rarely the approach taken in custody proceedings especially when a practitioner trained in application of evidence to the law and law to the case is steering the case through its course.

Driving evidentiary nails through the skull of a judge is one tactic that may produce a child custody decision that is felt as a win. The judges I have spoken with all appear to echo the same philosophy about their role in arbitrating parent-child relationships. They don’t want the responsibility of managing those relationships. They don’t want to make decisions along strictly statutorily prescribed criteria. The are favourable to parents who demonstrate a willingness to be responsible for their own feelings and actions. The oft missed objective in child custody proceedings is to have parents embracing the opportunity and attending to the responsibility of providing the support, nurturing and guidance that will shape a child into becoming a well-rounded, happy, and productive member of society.

The questions to pose to yourself [or others] instead of “How did that make you feel?” or “How do you think you made her feel?” are “What was my [your] emotional response” or “What do I [you] think her emotional response was?”

In my next posting along this theme I will present the letter of a child who was beaten by his custodial parent. I intend to show how the associated feelings of such an emotional event can sabotage a case as well as provide a theory as to why the caring, supporting, nurturing parent was assigned the non custodial designation.

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Parents who would like to achieve the best outcome for their children in a contested child custody case should visit my website and contact my scheduler to make an appointment to meet with me. Attorneys may request a free consultation to learn how I can maximize their advocacy for their clients.

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©2008, 2015 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.


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