Protect yourself and your clients from the damaging effects of toxic stress by using software, apps, and videos based on neuroscience.
By Dr. Donald Gordon, Clinical Child Psychologist
High-conflict divorces pose significant threats for lawyers who have to work with toxic clients (or their spouses) – and the stress can spill over on to your family and impact other relationships without your awareness. Cognitive neuroscience shows how and why toxic stress can affect you, and what you can do to minimize its impact.
Toxic Stress Leads to Freeze, Fight, or Flight
When your brain senses danger, it becomes dominated by the amygdala and you experience the fight-freeze-or-flight reaction that helps keep you alive. This response is automatic: your brain is wired to respond this way. Unfortunately, when you are in this state of amygdala activation, you cannot access the prefrontal orbital cortex – which is where judgment, wisdom, empathy, and compassion reside.
This is why the high-conflict parents we work with do and say things that an otherwise sensitive, loving parent would not normally do or say. This phenomenon also applies to divorce professionals: you can shut down colleagues and family members when you are stressed. You must reduce the amygdala’s control over the brain before you can access your higher abilities.
Reducing Amygdala Activation
Neuroscience has shown psychologists how to help people access their better nature during stressful times. You can learn to use mindfulness methods to stop, step back, and observe how your brain is reacting to a stimulus. How and what you think can powerfully affect your feelings and behaviors; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is another technique that helps you to transform negative and anxious thoughts, allowing you to feel, think, and function better.
According to functional MRI studies, people can reduce amygdala activation by simply labeling the unpleasant feelings they have due to, for example, conflict with a co-parent or colleague. Suppressing or ignoring those feelings does not reduce stress. Consultation with trained professionals can teach you about the impact of cortisol release in the body from protracted conflict, the damaging effects of this on your physical and mental health, and the damage it does to your primary relationships – with your children and/or your partner.
Unfortunately, research has shown that this information has little staying power when it is delivered verbally or in written form. For divorcing parents, teaching these concepts through videos showing family conflict, along with engaging animation and graphics, makes the material personal, useful, and memorable.
Toxic Stress and Parental Alienation
Cases involving parental alienation, which is common in high-conflict cases, can be particularly vexing. Child psychologists can prevent alienation from progressing: through compelling videos depicting family conflict, parents can learn about the long-term damage to their children’s emotional and physical health – and their own – when they discourage loyalty and love and encourage alienation from their co-parent.
Family lawyers have neither the time nor the expertise to teach their high-conflict clients how to manage stress, make better decisions, and minimize harm to the children, try as they may. Lawyers can feel frustrated when a client damages their own case by dramatically lashing out at their co-parent in anger – and that toxic outburst or action can hurt the children more than it hurts the co-parent.
You can try to help stressed clients by providing referrals to therapists or parent coordinators. Many clients won’t take the time or be willing to spend the funds to see a mental-health professional (assuming there are competent professionals in the community), or they will deflect by saying that their co-parent is the one who needs the help.
High-Conflict Classes or Online Programs
One option is a referral to a high-conflict class, although these classes are available in only a few communities. They are often 10 to 25 hours long and run over the course of a month or two. These classes often require a court order because the time and cost commitments dissuade parents from going on their own. Another option is an online program for high-conflict parents. With an instructional design that encourages retention of the information and teaches communication and emotional regulation skills, an online program can provide as much or more help to parents than a trained professional.
An example of an online program that can teach these concepts and skills is the High Conflict Solutions program, which was developed this year after input from presiding judges in Cook Co., IL (Chicago), Maricopa Co., AZ (Phoenix), and Clark Co., NV (Las Vegas); from mediators and trainers of mediators; parent coordinator trainers; therapists; and a psychiatrist.
The instructional design fosters retention of information – unlike most parent education programs, which are primarily auditory information dumps that parents do not retain. The online program places heavy emphasis on visuals showing personally relevant and emotionally impactful scenes of parental conflict, along with eye-catching graphics and animation that hold the viewer’s attention. Parents learn about brain science and how their judgment is impaired when they are in fight-or-flight mode, and what they can do to engage their higher cortical center.
Change Is Hard – But Worth It
Behavior modification is not usually accomplished by one brief program. The online course supports parents to keep practicing the new behaviors until they become habits by sending them text messages twice weekly for six months. Each message prompts the parent to practice and use one of ten skills taught in the program; a video clip demonstrating the skill is attached to the text. After receiving several texts featuring different skills, parents can select which skills they would like to receive ongoing text prompts for. More than 99% of parents receiving these prompts opt to continue them and rate them highly useful.
Technology to help Relieve Toxic Stress
The Spire Stone is a technological innovation that helps both parents and professionals reduce their stress. You wear it on your belt, waistband, or undergarments, and it measures your breathing via the expansion and contraction of your torso. The Spire app analyzes and categorizes your breathing as calm, tense, or focussed, and it sends you a notification prompting you to take several deep breaths when you are tense. It allows you to become conscious of when your stress levels are rising, and then guides you to immediately reduce the stress. After using Spire, parents report their conversations with their co-parent are more calm and productive.
Both professionals and parents experiencing protracted periods of conflict and stress accumulate a toxic cortisol residue that can impair functioning as well as reduce their quality of life. Self-care that includes learning about how to manage the brain’s reaction to conflict can and should be part of a survival plan for ongoing conflict.
Dr. Don Gordon has a Ph.D. in clinical child psychology. He is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Ohio University, Executive Director of the nonprofit Center for Divorce Education, and CEO of Family Works Inc. He focuses on developing and evaluating family and parenting programs. www.online.divorce-education.com
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