Few life events evoke such passion and bitter frustration as when divorcing parents wage custody wars. A couple heated celebrity battles have made the news recently, as case in point. Fear and hurt can easily drive families to anger, but such responses don’t help the situation. Extreme cases can lead to the involvement of a criminal attorney rather than a divorce lawyer – a scary situation for a family.
If you’re in the middle of a custody battle and experiencing deep frustration, just know there’s an alternative to anger. We sought the advice of counseling professionals on the matter. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: What are the top tips you give to your clients about managing anger during a custody battle?
SHELLEE (Registered Nurse and counselor in Tallahassee blogging at Harringtoncreativecounseling.com): Pay attention to what your behavior is doing to your child. This is my #1 piece of advice for parents! It is so easy to get caught up in the heat of battle that parents lose sight of the impact the war is having on their children. This requires you to maintain control of your emotions and act like a responsible adult – and doing that will keep anger from escalating.
Also, during custody disputes it is easy to blow small disagreements over minor childrearing issues into an argument against the other’s fitness to parent at all. Try to maintain some perspective – get help with this from objective sources if necessary.
And don’t forget about self-care. It is vitally important that we take time out to care for ourselves during times of stress. Pay attention to your sleeping and eating patterns. Don’t neglect your friends – and don’t spend all your time with them venting about the battle. Have some healthy fun.
DAVID (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who writes at Counselorsoapbox.com): Forget about what your ex did. Concentrate on what you want for your children. No matter how awful the ex was, your children will probably always wish for a good relationship with that other parent. Let them make up their mind about their other parent for themselves or you’ll come out the bad person. If you become angry with the other parent, they still have you hooked in the relationship. The custody proceedings are all about what is best for the children, not about getting even with the other party. Don’t recite a list of things they did wrong but focus on any concerns you have about their parenting skills and what they need to do for it to be healthy for the children to see them.
Q: What are some basic techniques to dealing with frustration and anxiety?
SHELLEE: My favorite anxiety-busting technique is meditation. Anxiety is triggered by worries over what the future holds. We feel anxious because we can’t control the future. Meditation allows us to be fully present in this moment. It also does great things to the brain – calming and focusing us from the inside out. As little as 15 minutes a day can produce very beneficial results. I teach a basic meditation technique to all my seriously stressed-out clients and provide a few really good tools to get people started.
DAVID: Learn to not “anger yourself” over the actions of others. You can’t change them but you can change your attitude. Books on anger prevention are better than books on anger management. Read books and talk to positive friends who can calm you down – not ones who help wind your anger up. Consider counseling for yourself.
One deep-breathing exercise that can calm you in an instant is this:
Breath in SLOWLY – hold Breath for a second or two – breath out SLOWLY – hold the “out” a second or two. Repeat several times as needed. The pauses between the breaths and a few seconds of holding the breath can drop your stress level dramatically.
Q: In what ways does anger cloud your judgment during a custody battle? How does that affect the child during the hearing?
SHELLEE: Angel damage during these battles. Divorcing couples lose sight of the fact that children are watching. They forget that they will remain “part of” the other parent. Hearing either one of you criticize or insult the other can really impact a child’s perception. In addition, seeing parents upset and out of control can shake a child’s belief that she is safe and protected. Kids take their emotional cues from the adults around them – if mom can’t handle this, it must be truly horrible!
DAVID: Anger creates so much noise in your head you can’t think straight. If the person you are “angering yourself about” is filling up your head, you don’t have room for any other thoughts. When we talk from anger we tend to exaggerate and make-all-or-nothing statements. Don’t come off as the angry or vindictive parent. Stay calm and you’ll do better.
More than half of all communication is non-verbal. Your children will read your anger before you open your mouth. And if you are angry, they are likely to think you are angry with them and that it is their fault. They may say and do things so people will not be angry rather than tell what really happened or how they really feel.
Q: Do you agree or disagree that anger is part of the natural process of healing/dealing with divorce and custody battles? What is your professional opinion on that?
SHELLEE: Anger is a natural and healthy emotion. It is often a justified reaction to external events. It does not, however, provide justification for bad behavior. Anger should be felt, expressed in healthy and appropriate ways, and allowed to pass. It should not override self-control and rational decision-making.
People often need help in finding appropriate outlets for the strong emotions triggered during divorce. It is so easy to lash out at the ex-spouse or to gripe to the children. This can lead to really damaging behavior. The other main danger is in “stuffing” the anger – pretending that it doesn’t exist. People who do this are likely to find that they have increased sleep issues, mood issues, and food and alcohol problems. It can also “pop-up” in unexpected places like having a low tolerance for frustration at work.
DAVID: It’s normal to grieve the loss of something you hoped and planned for. Ending even the worst marriage will cause grief. You’ll need to grieve not for what was, but for all your hopes and aspirations that will not come true now. Some people will need to go through a period of anger to work through that grief.
You may also experience some anger at yourself for picking a partner who disappointed you. If you have anger, try to use it to bring closure to the relationship. The sooner you stop living in that anger the sooner you can move on. Accept what is true now and resolve to build the best life possible for you and your children even if you have to give up the pleasure of staying mad at that former partner.
Acceptance helps in healing
When adults extend forgiveness and acceptance to each other, they are doing more than protecting themselves from painful situations; they are teaching their children how best to handle disagreements. And when they know there’s a better way to manage anger, children are less likely to fall into that trap themselves.
Special thanks to:
Shellee Harrington, RN, MS, NCC – Shellee is Registered Nurse and Certified Mental Health Counselor in Tallahassee, Florida. She blogs at www.harringtoncreativecounseling.com and is dedicated to helping families and children through life adjustments. Her counseling experiences covers everything from addictions to family crises.
David Joel Miller – David is a Licensed Marriage, Child and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor living in Fresno, California, the heart of California’s Central Valley. David has worked extensively in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. David writes a blog at counselorssoapbox.com and is working on a book on mental health topics and how to have a happy life.