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Caught in the Middle, Children and Divorce

Parental conflict is hard on children at any time, all the more so when their parents are separating or divorcing. And when the former spouses are unable to establish a cooperative, responsible co-parenting relationship with each other following the divorce, the negative impact on their children is compounded.

The good news however, is that separation and divorce need not be a catastrophic experience for children. A majority learn to adjust to the initial disruption of their family without many psychological and social scars and become well-functioning adults. Contributing factors to a child’s positive adjustment to separation and divorce, especially during the first year, are strongly associated with the degree of parental conflict to which a child has been exposed. Many studies have documented a correlation between parental conflict, it’s duration and resolution and a child’s stress levels, as well as post-divorce adjustment. When both the residential and non-residential parents are aware of the potentially harmful impact of exposing their conflicts to their children, they endeavor to shield them from such disputes. In the heat of separation and divorce demands, protecting children from emotional distress and frustrations requires parents to be able to work with their own emotions and those of their children, seek support from family and trusted friends, and/or a qualified therapist or divorce coach while pursuing healthy outlets. Creating a stable home life during this time of upheaval benefits everyone concerned.

When parental conflict becomes intense and frequent, the stress on the children mounts as well. Some parents have difficulty establishing boundaries between themselves and their children, so the children may often overhear or are witness to parental anger and aggression around ongoing conflicts. Especially when the disagreements concern them, emotional and behavioral difficulties in the children are likely to develop. Conversely, when parents model healthy conflict resolution for their children, through negotiation and compromise, it can enhance their social skills.

Not all expressions of conflict are overt however. Parents who model withdrawal or discourage open dialogue with their children around the separation and divorce issues are encouraging unhealthy internalization of their negative feelings. Better to encourage children to feel safe asking their questions and receiving answers that are clear and concise, without blaming or making harsh judgments or snide remarks about the other parent. Denigrating a parent puts a child smack in the middle of a loyalty conflict that children find extremely distressing.

Other examples of being caught in the middle include having to carry messages between parents, feeling disloyal by being pressured to answer questions about the other parent’s behavior, or hearing derogatory comments about the other parent.

Parents who are not able to separate their emotional needs from their childrens needs, cannot protect them from their own hurt and agitation. Rather than focusing on the child’s needs, such parents may confide in their children or turn to a particular child for comfort. This is known as parentification and places a tremendous burden on a child.

Moderate levels of instrumental parentification such as cooking meals, looking after their siblings or doing housework can teach a child responsibility, while moderate levels of emotional parentification such as comforting siblings, can teach a child empathy. High levels of parentification demands are associated with adjustment problems. For girls from high-conflict divorced families both types of parentification are associated with girls’ depressed and anxious behaviors; for boys, high levels of emotional parentification by fathers are associated with sons’ depression. (Heatherington).

There is a strong association between children’s mental health and parental conflict, even when children do not display awareness of the conflict. When a child is alienated from a parent or exposed to contentious child custody litigation or visitation battles or other failed parenting responsibilities, emotional and behavioral problems such as anxiety or depression, aggressiveness, or poor impulse control are likely to surface or increase.

Children often feel responsible for their parents separation and conflict and may try to intervene in the conflict. Ineffective parenting will increase their stress, which may be reflected in signs of guilt, sadness, manipulation, declining academic performance and problems with friends, phobias or compulsive behavior.

Helping parents help their children adjust to divorce includes guiding parents to move beyond their anger, reduce their parental conflicts and triangulation of the children to develop agreement on rules and predictable expectations that minimize stress on their children, develop more effective parenting skills and foster a healthy connection between family members during divorce, and a positive adaptation to the relational changes post-divorce. Such cooperative parenting also encourages healthy self-esteem and effective communication skills not only in their children but in their parents as well.

Possible Stress Reactions in Children* Age: Signs of Stress Birth to 3 Regression, separation anxieties, eating and sleeping problems, tantrums, aggression, possessiveness, withdrawal. Preschool Irritability, “too good behavior,” aggression, need for physical contact, sadness, self-blame, fear of abandonment and loss of parental love. Ages 6 to 12 Sadness, fear of abandonment, guilt, anger, fantasizing reconciliation. Adolescent Open hostility at parents, acting-out behavior, school difficulties, aggression or withdrawal, difficulty with peers, dependency on others. *Adapted from Kersey, k. (1986) Helping your child handle stress. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis. Heatherton, E.M. (1999) (Ed.), Coping with divorce, single parenting and remarriage.

Co-parenting Mindsets





One or both of the parents believe that the other parent does not have the best interests the children at heart as their primary focus. One or both of the parents disrespects and openly denigrates the other person’s parenting style and parenting opinions. One or both of the parents believes that the other parent has fundamental character flaws, parental deficiencies, a personality disorder, or substance abuse issues that interfere with their parenting ability. They believe that the other parent is detrimental to the children.One or both of the parents believe the other parent should not have an active, supportive relationship with the children because it will damage them. One or both of the parents believe that they need the assistance from mental health professionals and court professionals to help them make child sharing decisions. But once the recommendations or orders have been made, one or both of the parents may actively sabotage the court order and badmouth the professionals who worked on the child sharing plans. One or both parents continues to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the children, believing that they have to protect the children from that parent, by taking away time or getting the courts to determine they are unfit.


Both of the parents believe that the other parent has the best interests of the children at heart as their primary focus. Both parents believe that the other parent is valuable, worthwhile and important in the children’s life. Both parents believe that the children need to have a relationship with both parents, and they will actively support that relationship. Although the parents may have disagreements with each other about the issues that need to be resolved, they will both work together, (even if it is difficult) in order to reach some kind of parenting decision. Even if it is “parenting by default.” Once the parents have made the parenting decision, they will actively support the decision and each other in that decision. Both parents will do whatever it takes to support the other parent’s relationship with the children. Both parents believe that the other parent is important in the children’s life and will do whatever they can to support the children’s relationship with the other parent.

About Phobias


​The word anxiety comes from the Latin word anxius, meaning a condition of agitation and distress. The term has been in use since the 1500’s.

Anxiety is not fear, or common every day momentary apprehension, which has an external focus such as being fired, being rejected, failing at something, or being stalked. Rather, anxiety is more intense, does not pass quickly, can persist for a considerable time and can lead to phobias that organize your behavior in self-limiting ways.

The center’s findings suggest it is desirable to identify youngsters who are beginning to have the problem and help them deal with their symptoms while they are in their early teens, rather than later in life, when the problem can become debilitating. A Social Phobia is a common anxiety disorder that centers around a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in social, professional or performance situations where you are (or feel) vulnerable to the negative judgments of others. The most common social phobia is the fear of public speaking, which the fearful speaker seeks to avoid at all costs. While most people have experienced the “butterflies”, increased perspiration and trembling hands or legs, these same symptoms hijack and overwhelm the fearful speaker and consume him with dread and an intense desire to escape. (See Fear of Public Speaking). Treatment can often resolve this fear fairly quickly.

Other social phobias, all of which are treatable and resolvable, include fear of being watched at work, fear of writing or signing documents in front of others, blushing or eating in public or any social or group situation where one may be watched or judged and hence humiliated.

In contrast, a person with a Specific Phobia has a significant fear of a particular object or situation. When confronted with the prospect of facing the feared situation or object, the phobic person may respond with mild anxiety or panic. However, there is no fear of panic attacks as in agoraphobia, or of embarrassment as in a social phobia, but only of the feared situation itself, which s/he believes is a dangerous one. The fear and avoidance are strong enough to intrude upon and constrict his or her normal routines, (depending on the focus of the phobia) impact work and relationships and are quite disturbing to the phobic person. (See Fear of Flying.)

Common specific phobias include animal phobias, acrophobia (fear of heights), elevator, airplane, doctor or dentist phobias and countless others. These specific phobias occur in men and women equally. Animal phobias tend to be more common in women while illness phobias are more common in men. There are many treatments for specific phobias, depending on the phobia and its development, and usually include hypnosis, real-life exposure utilizing EFT and other forms of desensitization.

Agoraphobia refers to a fear of open spaces (literally fear of the marketplace). A fear of panic attacks is the hallmark of this fairly common phobia coupled with a fear of being alone, and leads to avoidance of places associated with the initial and subsequent panic attacks. The agoraphobic greatly fears loss of control and thus embarrassing themselves in public. Without treatment their lives can become more and more restricted in their quest to feel safe and in control.

In Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) a deeply anxious feeling prevails in response to a vague or unspecified danger and can result in a chronic state of tension which can affect major systems of the body. GAD is not usually accompanied by panic attacks, phobias or obsessions. A person with GAD worries to excess about a range of fears including being rejected, failing, losing control or disease, death or dying. I have found EFT and hypnosis to be particularly helpful with GAD.

Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of anxiety is the panic attack, a sudden surge of intense fear or apprehension, or an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Although the onset of the initial and sometimes subsequent episodes of a panic attack seem to come out of the blue, they often follow a prolonged period of intense stress and can include a range of symptoms including heart palpitations, sweating, nausea,, shortness of breath and many more. (See Held in the Grip of Panic.)

Anxiety that affects your entire being. On a physiological level, it may include reactions such as a rapid heartbeat, sweating, muscle tension or dry mouth. On a behavioral level, it can undermine your ability to act, express yourself or deal with certain everyday situations. And on a psychological level, anxiety is a subjective state of apprehension and uneasiness. In its most extreme form, it can cause you to feel detached from yourself and be fearful of dying or going crazy (See Held in the Grip of Panic).

Because Anxiety is so pervasive and potent on all these levels, freedom from an anxiety disorder is accomplished by addressing the need to reduce physiological activity, eliminate avoidance behavior and change catastrophic visualizations, interpretations and beliefs that perpetuate a state of apprehension and worry. Energy techniques can also aid in more rapid resolution of these reactions. (see EFT) along with a range of other techniques.

Changing Lifestyle Coaching

Changing Lifestyles

A significant lifestyle change may be perceived as exhilarating or debilitating, eagerly embraced or deeply resented and resisted. It may come as a welcome overseas posting or as an unwelcome upheaval from family, friends and professional supports to a country on the Travel Advisory list.

A radical career change, a midlife crisis, a medical diagnosis, becoming a step-parent, leaving your partner, post-divorce dilemmas, or simply being ready to take your destiny into your own hands, all pose challenges and opportunities to redesign a life that will be enjoyable, deeply satisfying, and fully in line with your needs and values. Changing Lifestyles coaching is squarely aimed at the self-empowerment taking charge of your life can engender. Its focus is on assisting you to discover how to use the changing circumstances of your life for your own growth and self-enhancement. To define and redesign the kind of life and lifestyle that would give you maximum zest, enthusiasm, and the freedom to pursue what is important to you. In other words, to thrive, “to rise to the occasion of your life circumstances and utilize them to create a more authentic and meaningful life” (Paul Pearsall)

Changing Lifestyles coaching is squarely aimed at the self-empowerment taking charge of your life can engender. Its focus is on assisting you to discover how to use the changing circumstances of your life for your own growth and self-enhancement. To define and redesign the kind of life and lifestyle that would give you maximum zest, enthusiasm, and the freedom to pursue what is important to you. In other words, to thrive, “to rise to the occasion of your life circumstances and utilize them to create a more authentic and meaningful life” (Paul Pearsall)

A personal coach partners with you to sharpen awareness of what is essential for you to thrive, and to take focused and effective action along these lines. Within a context of respect, support, structure and stimulating inquiry you are encouraged to explore and define your needs, fears, concerns, and meet your challenges with unique, solution-based strategies that strengthen you, and create momentum toward sculpting the life of your choice.

Coaching happens when you are oriented around achieving a lifestyle change, personally and/or professionally, that may seem out of your reach, that moves you to the next level of your existing capacity, your existing skills, knowledge or comfort zone. To do that you might need to shift your thinking, expand your expectations, or evolve yourself in order to create what you really desire. A coach acts as your thinking partner and facilitator in this endeavor, planning s t r e t c h goals collaboratively, to enable you to move along the path you choose, to create a richer, more fulfilling present and future.

Whatever the catalyst that provokes you to embrace potent and positive change in your life and lifestyle, partnering with a coach will harness your energies toward creating that which constitutes a zestful life for you, filled with more freedom, choice, order, comfort, time, satisfying relationships, and fun. What would upgrading your life look like?

How is Coaching Different from Good Therapy?

People usually seek therapy to resolve a difficult situation, overcome a fear or addiction, change a self-devaluing behavior, troubled relationship, or overcome a personal or professional obstacle. When the problem is resolved, or the specified therapeutic goals realized, the therapy is considered complete. Coaching, on the other hand, is not problem focused. Nothing has to be ‘wrong’ for coaching to be initiated. Both my therapy and coaching build on your strengths, and tend to be action and present to future-oriented, with coaching being somewhat more action-oriented, providing a context in which to imagine and then to manifest your more fulfilling life, however you define it. In coaching, life is a verb.

Coaching sessions are typically conducted on the phone three times a month for 40-50 minutes, further supported by email and brief phone calls as necessary.

In-person sessions are also available.
Call for a 20 minute complimentary session.

Contact Dr. Melanie Bryan