Have you ever heard a separated or divorced parent use the pronoun “my” when referring to their children in relation to the child’s other parent? If so, how would you describe the nature of their coParenting relationship?

 

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In her book The Reflective Parent: How to Do Less and Relate More with Your Kids, Regina Pally says the following:

“Whenever a person performs an action, there is always a reason why. There is always some intention or purpose underlying the action. As important as it is to know what action a person is doing, it is even more important to know the intention or purpose of that action…. Everything a person does or says is connected to something going on inside their mind.”

 

Now, remember, we are discussing the use of the pronoun “my” by a separated or divorced parent in relation to the other parent when referring to the child(ren) they have in common. In other words, context is key. The word “my” is defined as “belonging to or associated with the speaker.”

 

As Pally explains, it is no accident that the parent refers to the children in such a manner in that context. This is not about grammar or semantics; rather, it’s about mindset. When parents are fighting over the custody of their children in court, it’s not uncommon for judges to correct them when they use the pronoun “my” in such a context. In fact, a parent can anger and bias the judge against them by repeatedly referring to the children in such a manner.

 

If you have time one day for a field trip, consider spending a couple of hours in a family courtroom. Observe how one or both parents refer to the children they have in common. If they are represented by lawyers or were otherwise coached in advance, it’s possible that a parent who would otherwise have referred to the children with the pronoun “my”, will instead use the pronoun “our.” Even so, when referring to the child(ren) and irrespective of the circumstances, does it appear as though the parent feels the children belong more to them than to the other parent? Do you get the sense that they will always view the other parent as a “lesser parent” for one reason or another, assuming they even view them as a parent at all?

 

As has been mentioned in several of my articles published by coParenter, in his book Light on Peacemaking: Mediating Family Law Disputes and Avoiding Adversarial Violence, peacemaker, lawyer and mediator Thomas DiGrazia said the following:

“When unprocessed emotions, which are a form of self-ignorance — fear, anxiety, insecurity, hit the pavement of an adversarial divorce system, legal warfare is the most likely result. The only real limitation on legal warfare is the emotional and financial exhaustion of the parties.”

 

Along those same lines, allow me to share information conveyed by Douglas Noll during an 18-hour training he gave earlier this year in Preventing Bad Settlement Decisions and Impasse at the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law. For frame of reference, Noll is a nationally recognized peacemaker, mediator, trainer and speaker and the Straus Institute is the top rated dispute resolution program according to U.S. News and World Report.

 

In any event, during that training, Noll said the following:

“Our emotions must be processed. We harm ourselves if we deny ourselves the ability to experience our emotions. Emotions motivate behavior. They affect our learning, memory, regulatory variables, goal priorities, and social interactions.”

 

Noll says the following in his book titled De-Escalate: How to Calm an ANGRY Person in 90 Seconds or Less:

“Emotion is a complex set of physical, cognitive, and mental attributes that we give to certain experiences. The physical part of emotion is composed of two parts: affect and feeling.

 

Affect is the word used to describe the physiological changes that occur within our brains in response to a memory or outside event… The other physical aspect of emotion is what we commonly call feeling… To recap, emotion has two physical attributes:

1. Affect: What is happening in the brain

2. Feeling: What is happening in the body

 

If we limit our list of emotions to the nine affects, we will cover 100 percent of all emotional experiences…

 

Positive Affect: Interest-Excitement; and Enjoyment-Joy

Neutral Affect: Surprise-Startle

Negative Affect: Anger, Fear, Anxiety, Disgust, Grief-Shame-Humiliation, and Abandonment/Unloved.

 

Meanwhile, as DiGrazia explains, whether they realize it or not, most “legal warfare”, including custody battles between separated and divorced parents, occur as a result of “unprocessed emotions.” The “unprocessed emotions” driving the “legal warfare” are not positive or neutral; rather they are of the negative variety. Nevertheless, we can’t make other people process their emotions, and, generally speaking, people have the right to harm themselves. Unfortunately, however, when one or both individuals with children in common fail to process their emotions, in addition to harming themselves, they harm the other parent, the child(ren), the parent/child relationships, and the family dynamics as a whole.

 

Even if just one of the parents were to process their previously “unprocessed emotions”, it would change the dynamics between the two of them and between that parent and the child(ren), most likely for the better. Furthermore, it’s well established that high levels of parental conflict can cause childhood trauma. In a marriage, separation or divorce, it is the chronic and/or toxic parental conflicts that are extremely harmful to children – not separation or divorce itself.

 

Parents have a parental responsibility to do their best not to harm or traumatize their children, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. To the extent that “unprocessed emotions” are contributing to parental conflict, parents have a parental responsibility to change that reality. Regardless of the degree to which the other parent may be responsible for the parental conflict, it takes two to tango, as they say.

 

It’s a mistake to believe that the mindset that causes a separated or divorced parent to believe that the child(ren) belong to them and not to the other parent isn’t going to impact the way in which they treat that parent.

 

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About Mark Baer

Mark BaerMark Baer is a lawyer, mediator and conflict resolution consultant. He has decades of experience in family law and has crafted a reputation within the industry for his psychologically-minded and child-centered approach.

Mark is also a well-known writer and columnist for a number of publications on the interplay between psychology and conflict resolution within the field of family law, as well as familial and interpersonal relationships in general. He has had a regular “Psychology and Family Law” column in the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association’s award-winning bimonthly newsletter since 2008. A member of Psychology Today’s expert community, Mark also has a blog column titled “Empathy and Relationships: Fostering Genuine Open-Mindedness.” He is also a HuffPost Blogger and a number of those blog articles have been referenced in books, law review articles, by evidence-based public policy think tanks, and elsewhere. Mark has written extensively for a number of other publications, as well. His material has been used and shared by law school professors, and by some of the highest ranked dispute resolution organizations in the country, such as the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law and the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School.

He has also presented on several occasions at the California Psychological Association Convention, the American Bar Association Section of Family Law CLE Conference, and the Southern California Mediation Association Conference, among other such organizations.