Brad's a Bad Parent, Is He?

09/20/2016 11:37 pm ET

The social media is flooded with the news that Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt.

I don’t typically write articles about or comment on celebrity divorces and other family law related matters. Furthermore, I’m no longer contacted by many “journalists” and “reporters” to comment on such things because they almost never tended to use my comments in their articles. “The reason the editors apparently don’t like my commentary is because ‘drama sells’ and I’m not willing to attach my name to irresponsible and extremely harmful ‘reporting’ and ‘journalism.’”

So, let’s discuss the “irresponsible and extremely harmful ‘reporting’ and ‘journalism’” I’ve seen throughout the day with regard to the the dissolution of Angelina and Brad’s marriage. How about the allegation that Brad Pitt is a “bad parent.” Really?

I’ve met plenty of people over the years whose parenting skills could be improved upon. However, at what point does a person’s parenting skills define them as a “good” or “bad” parent?

Rather than expressing our disappointment as it pertains to people’s behavior, we often shame them instead. A great many people wrongly believe that shaming others produces positive results.

As Brene’ Brown, Ph.D. says, “separating self from behavior is the difference between shame and guilt. Shame is very correlated with addiction, depression, suicide, aggression, violence, bullying, and eating disorders. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely correlated with those same outcomes.”

According to Dr. Brown, “our perceived vulnerabilities trigger our shame. Furthermore, when we are experiencing shame, we hide our vulnerabilities out of fear of disconnection. In fact, shame breeds fear, blame and disconnection.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance (connection) and belonging. It is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we aren’t good enough.”

Because of the differences between shame and guilt (who I am versus what I did), people respond to each emotion differently. Guilt, because it emphasizes what someone did wrong, tends to elicit more constructive responses, particularly responses which seek to mend the damage done. Guilt is tied to beliefs about what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. When we violate one of these moral guidelines, it causes us to feel guilty over our actions and seek to fix what we have done. As a result, guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and society as a whole. As such, guilt can often be used as a tool to overcome conflict.

Shame, on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with ourselves. It has a much more inward focus, and as such, leads shameful parties to feel poorly about themselves, rather than simply the actions they have taken. The result is often an inward-turning behavior -- avoiding others, hiding your face, removing yourself from social situations. Therefore, shame can be problematic, as it is often less constructive than guilt. In fact, shame can lead to withdrawal from social situations and a subsequent defensive, aggressive, and retaliatory behavior, which only exacerbates conflict, rather than alleviating it.

Shame can also lead to other types of behavior, many of which serve little or no constructive role....

The nature of shame and the resulting tendencies to withdraw and lash out defensively can lead to escalation of an already tense situation. This can result in a cycle of conflict; as one party lashes out at the other, both sides view themselves less positively, increasing shame all around. This in turn results in continued aggressive behavior.... In a situation of divorce where one or both parties have been shamed for various reasons, the resulting responses can only enhance the negative aspects of what is already an unpleasant experience.”

During the course of her research, Dr. Brown discovered the following twelve categories of shame: (1) appearance & body image; (2) money & work; (3) motherhood/fatherhood; (4) family; (5) parenting; (6) mental & physical health (including addiction); (7) sex; (8) aging; (9) religion; (10) speaking out; (11) surviving trauma; and (12) being stereotyped & labeled.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter I co-authored with Jeremy S. Kossen in the recently published book titled Putting Kids First in Divorce: How to Reduce Conflict, Preserve Relationships and Protect Children During and After Divorce:

“Brené Brown observes:

‘When it comes to parenting, the practice of framing mothers and fathers as good or bad is both rampant and corrosive—it turns parenting into a shame minefield. The real questions for parents should be: Are you engaged? Are you paying attention?’ If so, plan to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions. Imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time…

Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories… Engaged parents can be found on both sides of all of the controversial parenting debates. They come from different values, traditions, and cultures. What they share in common is practicing the values. What they seem to share is a philosophy of ‘I’m not perfect and I’m not always right, but I’m here, open, paying attention, loving you, and fully engaged.’ There is no question that engagement requires sacrifice, but that’s what we signed up for when we decided to become parents.’

Always remember that there are different ways to parent children. Parenting styles are a matter of perception. Who’s to say that yours is better? ‘Better’ is in the eye of the beholder. Unless it’s something that’s endangering your child, it’s not the end of the world.

As Dr. Brown says,

‘You can’t claim to care about the welfare of children if you’re shaming other parents for the choices they’re making. Those are mutually exclusive behaviors and they create a huge values gap… [I]f we really care about the broader welfare of children, our job is to make choices that are aligned with our values and support other parents who are doing the same. When we feel good about the choices we’re making and when we’re engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than scarcity, we feel no need to judge and attack…

[The] fact that someone is making different choices from us doesn’t in itself constitute abuse. If there’s real abuse happening, by all means, call the police. If not, we shouldn’t call it abuse. As a social worker who spent a year interning at Child Protective Services, I have little tolerance for debates that casually use the terms abuse or neglect to scare or belittle parents who are simply doing things that we judge as wrong, different, or bad… The key is remembering that when other parents make different choices than we’re making, it’s not necessarily criticism…

Compassion and connection—the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives—can only be learned if they are experienced… Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives… And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things… The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.

For the benefit of your children, the end goal should be to act in ways that support your children’s needs, not solely your wants. When parents aren’t ready, willing and able to be bigger than their problems for the sake of their children, it begs the question—why exactly did they have kids in the first place?

Parents are continually presented with choices. And, in divorce, one of the biggest choices you can make is whether to choose a combative or cooperative approach to your divorce. Equipped with an understanding of how these two approaches differ and impact your and your children’s lives, you can make an informed decision as to which path makes more sense.”

Referring to Brad Pitt or anyone else as a “bad parent” is not only inherently shaming, but falls within three of the twelve categories of shame - specifically, “motherhood/fatherhood”, “family” and “parenting.”

Earlier this year, I was contacted by the developers of CoParenter to “look at some of the language and flow of the coParenter platform— specifically around the parenting plan module because of my passion for language and ‘editorial.’” I was so glad that they reached out to me because one of the sliding scale tools asked parents where the other parent falls on a scale from a “bad parent” to a “good parent.” After I distinguished shame and guilt to the developers, they changed the sliding scale to focus instead on “parenting skills.”

We have a huge problem with the consequences of a shame-based culture. No good comes from shaming people. Therefore, maybe it’s time we stop shaming people, what do you think?

As if the shaming aspect weren’t bad enough, Angelina Jolie is reportedly requesting sole physical custody of their six children.

The following is an excerpt from an article titled "Shared Physical Custody: Does It Benefit Most Children?" that was published in the "Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers" on October 16, 2015 [with my editorial comments]:

“Those people who believe that shared parenting plans only benefit children when the parents are cooperative coparents may be surprised to learn that the children in shared parenting families had better outcomes than those in sole residence even when there was high conflict or where one of the parents had been ‘forced’ to share…. [Shared parenting (sometimes referred to as ‘shared care’) refers to those families where the children continue to live with each parent at least 35% and typically closer to 50% of the time.] …

Although it is true that 85%-90% of shared parenting plans are ‘agreed to’ without having a custody hearing, this is also true for 85%-90% of sole residence parenting plans….

On standardized measures of the children’s well-being, two kinds of conflict had no impact on the children’s well-being. One was the legal conflict over custody issues. The other was ‘attitudinal’ conflict, which meant feeling angry and hostile and disliking one another’s parenting styles, but not acting out that conflict in front of the children. The third kind of conflict, interpersonal conflict, meant the parents acted on their angry feelings and exposed their children to their arguments. It was only this kind of conflict that had any negative impact on the children….

To complicate matters further, conflict is highest during the time of separation and litigation. And conflict generally declines within the first year or two after the separation….

It is possible that parents who litigate in court have conflicts that last longer or have a worse impact on children than parents who reach an agreement without having to go to court. But no study has addressed this question, so it would be a mistake to make that assumption…. [While making assumptions is inherently risky, since litigation is expensive, exacerbates conflict and breeds paranoia, it is an assumption I am willing to make. According to Joan Kelly, Ph.D., the following three concepts are key: (1) Avoid the depletion of financial resources that were otherwise available for the purposes of sustaining the children. This is the greatest unfortunate reality for many children; (2) Accountability of parents regarding the successful completion of programs they either agreed to attend or that were otherwise ordered; and (3) Decrease conflict!]

For many reasons then, conflict should not be the ‘tail that wags the dog’ in terms of denying children the probable benefits of a shared parenting plan - unless the conflict involves abuse or violence or other serious dysfunctions such as substance abuse that were damaging to the children even when their parents were living together. These children need parenting plans that protect or distance them from their dysfunctional parents. It is estimated that only 10%-15% of parents fall into this latter category….

[There is no] evidence that regular and frequent overnighting undermines infants’ or toddlers’ wellbeing or weakens their bonds to their mothers….

The forty studies included almost a quarter of a million parents with varying socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds and varying levels of conflict (including isolated incidents of physical anger and litigation in court). The 115,157 children ranged from one to twenty-two years of age and ‘sole residence’ families included children who were living with their parent and stepparent. Given this, unless it has been established that a particular family has little to nothing in common with the thousands involved in the forty studies, it would be illogical to assume or to predict that the children cannot benefit from shared parenting. Guided by the results of the forty studies where most children benefited more from actually living at least one-third of the time with each parent, parenting plans can still be individualized to meet a family’s special needs.

In short, it is not in the best interests of children for us to ignore or to dismiss the findings from the forty studies.

What are five of the most important messages for judges and lawyers from the forty studies?

First, shared parenting is linked to better outcomes for children of all ages across a wide range of emotional, behavioral and physical health measures. But these studies should not be misconstrued to mean that children benefit from living with an unfit, unloving, neglectful, or abusive parent – or from a parent who had little or no relationship with the children before the parents separated.

Second, regular and frequent overnights for infants and shared parenting for toddlers and other children under five is not linked to negative outcomes. Specifically it does not weaken the young child’s relationship with or ‘attachment’ to the mother.

Third, even if the parents are in high conflict, most children still benefit from shared parenting if they have loving, meaningful relationship with their parents. In that vein, we should keep in mind that most parents with shared parenting plans do not have an exceptionally friendly, conflict free, collaborative co-parenting relationship.

Fourth, even though most shared parenting couples have higher incomes and less conflict than other separated parents, these two factors alone do not explain the better outcomes for shared parenting.

Finally, even though most children acknowledge that living in two homes is sometimes an inconvenient hassle, they feel the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

One of the most beneficial outcomes linked to shared parenting is children’s maintaining a loving, meaningful relationship with both parents. Given this, we need to keep in mind that this particular benefit may not become apparent until later in the children’s lives. So although children who are living almost exclusively with one parent may appear to be doing ‘just fine’ at present, the relationship with their other parent is more likely to be weakened or to be irreparably damaged as time goes by. And that disadvantage may last a lifetime.

It is worth remembering that many of the forty studies did factor in other variables such as the family’s income and the level of conflict between the parents – and still found better outcomes for the children in the shared parenting families.

Decades of research have established that a number of factors are correlated with negative outcomes for children whether their parents are still living together or not – factors such as the parents’ low incomes, poor parenting, physical abuse, or a parent’s psychological or substance abuse problems. Still, it has become clear that continuing to live with each parent at least one third of the time is one of the most beneficial factors – and, unlike low incomes or poor parenting, it is a factor over which family court professionals have some control or influence. Putting our trust in the current research means putting aside negative predictions about shared parenting that are based on the worst situations seen in court – or based on the assumption that a parent’s weaknesses in parenting will cancel out the benefits of shared parenting.”

For all these reasons and more, parents who seek sole custody of their children are typically not acting in the best interest of their children. However, for good reason, custody battles often ensue when one parent is seeking sole custody of the children. Since it’s generally not in the children’s best interest to deny them the benefits of shared parenting, which parent is generally interested in the best interest of their children - the parent who is attempting to deny them the benefit of shared parenting or the parent who is challenging such an effort?

Like it or not, if there are children of the relationship (regardless of their age), the family still exists after the relationship ends.  The manner in which you end a relationship determines whether your family will be functional or dysfunctional from that day forward.”

Here’s to hoping that both Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will be bigger than their problems for the sake of their children.

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